Encountering real life in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’

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On the surface, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey is a memoir about coming to know his father, Jay, framed through a close reading of Homer’s Odyssey.

I was, I admit, wary of the premise. I just spent a year living down the street from my own father in rural Virginia, where picking weeds between his silence and my 3-year-old son’s chattering prompted countless hours of meditation on fathers and sons. Did I really need more of that? And knowing references to The Odyssey couldn’t help but tilt the book toward the precious, I thought. Or was I being undeservedly possessive? I am something of an ersatz classicist, having attended St. John’s College in Maryland, with its “Great Books” curriculum and required courses in ancient Greek. My tattered Richard Lattimore translation of Homer’s Odyssey is still somewhere on the bookshelf; why not just reread the poem?

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An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epicby Daniel Mendelsohn

Knopf. 320p, $26.95

Lost in Translation

I was happily wrong. This book is much more than the sum of its parts; it is lucid textual analysis and a profound meditation on the inherent unknowability of the men who raise us. More than that, it is a moving portrait of the father Mendelsohn comes to know in the last years of his father’s life.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey is much more than the sum of its parts; it is lucid textual analysis and a profound meditation on the inherent unknowability of the men who raise us.

They have always been somewhat inscrutable to one another. Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, a mathematician, sees the world through an X is X lens. Only science is science. “That was when a song was a song.” He is baffled and discouraged by the fact that his son does not understand even simple math. Mendelsohn, who earned a Ph.D. in classics from Princeton and is now a professor at Bard College, takes refuge from numbers in the delights of ancient language, “each verb with its scarily metastasizing forms.”

This is not to overstate the case. Jay admires that his son has learned ancient Greek because learning Greek is so hard; that must mean it is worth doing. And when Mendelsohn comes out as gay to his parents in the late 1970s, Jay’s tender reaction comes as a shock from this flinty man.

Epic Journeys

An Odyssey comprises three interwoven threads: First, the year during which Jay, then 81 years old, sits in on his son’s undergraduate Odyssey seminar at Bard. (Amusingly, Jay steadfastly refuses to concede Odysseus’ heroism: “He’s not a hero because he cries. He’s not a hero because he cheats on his wife. He’s not a hero because he gets help from the gods!”) Then, that summer, the two embark on a cruise called “Journey of Odysseus: Retracing the Odyssey Through the Ancient Mediterranean.”

The second is Mendelsohn’s unpacking of The Odyssey itself, tackled both through re-creations of feisty conversations with his students and his own lucid and approachable scholarship. If I have any quibble with the book—and it is only a quibble—it is with the classroom scenes, which feel at times as if each student is cast in a role. Only one or two students emerge from the book as well-rounded characters in the same way Jay’s family and friends do. Yet I came away from even these passages with a renewed and deepened sense of the rewards found in a close reading of the poem, as well as a sense of the continuity of that long-running endeavor. When the class chases an interpretive rabbit down a misleading hole, Mendelsohn consults with his own undergraduate professor, now a friend, who resolves the matter decisively by returning to the poem: “The text is the text, it says what it says. The answers are there. You just have to read more closely.”

Lastly, what is certainly the beating heart of the book is Mendelsohn’s Telemachian quest to better understand his stubborn, undemonstrative father. Like Telemachus, Mendelsohn must come to know his father through the stories others tell of him, stories that reveal a side of Jay that Mendelsohn has only glimpsed. His father—so say his students, his father’s friends, the passengers on the cruise—is actually charming. The revelation is not without a touch of bitterness: "Children always imagine that their parents' truest selves are as parents; but why? ‘Who really knows his own begetting?’ Telemachus bitterly asks early in The Odyssey. Who indeed. Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never quite be mysterious to them."

In the Middle of Things

In The Odyssey, Homer uses a storytelling device known as “ring composition” to circle backward and forward in time to give us more and more of Odysseus’ tale, all the while building toward moments of power and drama. Homer uses this device on several levels of scale in the poem: The voyage itself is told out of order; and within each of its episodes, Homer casts back and forth in time.

The Odyssey endures 3,000 years after its composition because it is about life itself: marriage, fidelity, homecoming, fatherhood, sonship, duty, honor, love and, in true Greek style, preparation for death.

So, too, does An Odyssey. In this and in other ways, the book echoes the poem. One of its strengths is how deftly Mendelsohn navigates the waters between the Scylla and Charybdis of overdoing and underusing these echoes. In contrast to the poem, whose episodes are well known to many readers, one of the great pleasures of this book can be found in the slow, deliberate unfolding of Jay’s story. What Mendelsohn thinks he knows about his father—the upbringing in a Jewish enclave of the Bronx, his stint in the U.S. Army after the Second World War, his careers as an aerospace mathematician and later a professor of mathematics—is undone and reassembled (dare I make a joke about Penelope’s loom?), and in the process a richer portrait of his father emerges.

The Odyssey is a part of his story, too, less a frame than a great mirror, for the poem endures 3,000 years after its composition because it is about life itself: marriage, fidelity, homecoming, fatherhood, sonship, duty, honor, love and, in true Greek style, preparation for death.

To encounter the poem, and to read it deeply, is to encounter ourselves. So it comes about that, standing before the ruins of Troy on a windswept hill in Turkey, Jay can smile crookedly at his son and confess: “But the poem feels more real than the ruins, Dan!”

Indeed. I think I will go find that Lattimore.

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