Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Daniel Mendelsohn chairs the Humanities department at Bard College, where he was previously a Classics professor. He is the author of seven earlier books, ranging from literary criticism and translations of Cavafy to essay collections. With An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction (formerly known as the Samuel Johnson Prize), he takes a more personal turn, focusing on the semester when his elderly father attended his seminar on Homer’s Odyssey and the subsequent “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise they went on together.
In a classical epic, Mendelsohn notes, the “proem” serves as the prologue that tells you everything that will happen and how the story will end, and that is just what the first eight pages of his book do.
[W]e need the proem because it reassures us, at the very moment we set out upon what might look like a vast ocean of words, that this expanse is not a ‘formless void’ … but a route, a path that will take us someplace worth going. … A proem, therefore, can not only summarize its own action, look into its own future, and forecast, in miniature, what is to come, but can nod gratefully backward in time at the earlier epics, the archetypes, to which it is indebted.
Again and again, epics like the Odyssey lend not just their structure but also their themes to Mendelsohn’s family story. Thus, for instance, the way that his narrative travels in circles is not just a necessary means of inserting backstory but also a deliberate nod to Greek “ring composition,” while notions of heroism and masculinity are interrogated throughout.
In the spring term of 2011, 81-year-old Jay Mendelsohn, a retired mathematician and research scientist, decided to sit in on his son’s Bard College undergraduate seminar on Homer’s Odyssey. As a student Jay failed to pursue Classics, though he’d enjoyed learning Latin from his German refugee teacher. His son, however, had taken joy in learning Greek ever since his early days at the University of Virginia. Mendelsohn’s enthusiasm comes through in the inventive metaphors he applies to grammar in this passage:
What thrilled me above all were the fantastically metastasizing verb tenses, the shifts in time signalled by prefixes that agglomerated like crystals, by endings that pooled at the ends of the words like honey that has dripped off a spoon onto a saucer.
That particular semester’s cohort was a bit of a dud in Mendelsohn’s view – apart that is, from his father, who was an outspoken and opinionated participant. Jay didn’t think too much of this Odysseus character: was he really such a hero when he abandoned his men, cried, and relied on the gods to get him out of scrapes? As if he’d reverted to a teenager overnight, the author was embarrassed by his dad’s outbursts. Still, the class and the follow-up cruise (where, ironically, “the poem feels more real than the ruins, Dan!”) were landmarks in their sometimes difficult relationship. It was a chance for Mendelsohn to ponder what it means to be a husband and a father and to imagine what might be done as the underworld draws nearer.
The lack of speech marks is a bit disorienting in this book, and – not least because of the frequent passages from the Odyssey itself – I suspect it will appeal more to classics buffs than to general readers. However, the quest, with its manifold aspects – to understand Homer’s epic in its historical context, to rediscover its incidents in situ, and to reclaim a relationship before it’s too late – is affecting. Can one ever really know the whole of one’s parents’ story, Mendelsohn asks himself, given how much of a head start they’ve had on life? In this family memoir that plays around with classical literary forms and tropes, that’s the question that lingers.
An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the U.S. and U.K., and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic (William Collins: London, 2017). 978-0007545124, 304 pp., hardback.
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