An Odyssey: a Father, a Son, and an Epic, by Daniel Mendelsohn, is arguably the best book I’ve read in months. Mendelsohn, a Classics professor at Bard College and a translator of Greek poetry, takes the approach of telling his and his father’s story in conjunction with teaching a class on Homer’s The Odyssey.
As with many sons and fathers (or daughters and fathers) theirs has been a troubled relationship. His father was a mathematician and computer scientist, who, for various reasons, never completed his PhD. Daniel Mendelsohn, while co-parenting children with a woman, is gay and has known he’s gay since a teenager. But as with many, he wasn’t able to come out to his parents when young.
The father, Jay Mendelsohn, now retired, asks if he can sit in on a class Daniel is teaching on Homer’s The Odyssey, and reluctantly, the son agrees. The Odyssey as well as An Odyssey is the story of a father and a son’s relationship.
Jay Mendelsohn’s first comment on the first day of class, as he sits against the wall in the classroom rather than around the big oval discussion table of students, was that he didn’t think Odysseus much of a hero because he lies, cheated on his wife, gets his men killed, and is always rescued by the gods.
Daniel Mendelsohn must somehow maintain his role of “teacher” with the students. And as the class progresses, Daniel goes to family elders and asks them to tell him stories about his father, just as Telemachus goes to elders who had returned from Troy to ask for stories of his father.
The epic poems are all ring cycles, cycling back to the past and forward again.
I studied both The Iliad and The Odyssey in graduate school at St. John’s College, and so, pulled out my much annotated and underlined copy of The Odyssey to read as I read Mendelsohn’s. Reading two copies of Odyssey’s journey at the same time was an interesting excursion.
In addition, I pulled out my copy of the Freshman Greek Manuel from St. John’s. One of my professors has given a summer course for the Graduate Institute students on the Greek language.
Most of us know the story, or at least the outline of the story: the Trojan Wars, Odysseus, Achilles, and Hector, so I won’t go into those many details, but I do want to note Mendelsohn’s remarkable writing.
The book is written in much the same style of Homer’s in that there’s a lot of dialogue and story telling, and what was also remarkable, and which I didn’t notice when I began reading, and in truth, didn’t notice for several chapters, was that Mendelsohn had omitted quotation marks for dialogue in the same way Homer’s epic is written.
True, it’s likely the formal quotation marks for spoken lines came about far after Homer, but what made it remarkable, especially reading the two copies side by side, was that I wasn’t bother by the omission and in fact hadn’t even noticed.
Mendelsohn weaves a tale of adventure, battles, backstory, life and death, in much the same way Homer does. However, Mendelsohn is much easier to read than Homer.
As I read, I had flashes of memory, sitting around a big oval table at St. John’s in Santa Fe, a tutor at one end, fourteen or fifteen of us, reading lines and discussing. I’d taken one semester of Greek (the Freshman Greek Manual and pages of practice in Greek lettering), but I wasn’t a Freshman, I was a Graduate Student, trying to cram several thousand years of language development into a short four months.
Another interesting piece I learned about my own writing is that I also tend to use ring cycles. Nothing, or very little about me, is straight forward. My writing picks up threads from the past and weaves them into present. One only need look back to the previous essay On Fire and Family to see how that plays out.
Whether or not you’ve ever read Homer’s The Odyssey, you probably know the story. Read Mendelsohn. You’ll find a modern odyssey, an odyssey that many of us take in our lives.