Review: Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey is bewildering and beguiling

Title
An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic
Writer
Daniel Mendelsohn
Publisher
Signal/McClelland amp; Stewart
Pages
306
Cost
$34.95

Homer’s The Odyssey — that might or might not have been spoken rather than written, possibly by someone or persons named or not named Homer, sometime in the eighth century BC or possibly 250 years before — is one of the foundations of Western literature, and a must read. On the other hand, honestly: Do you really need to read it?

It isn’t a light undertaking, particularly for the distracted. The plot of this epic poem (12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter) concerns the decade-long return of Odysseus, the king of Ithaka, to his homeland (after having spent the last decade capturing the city of Troy, the topic of The Iliad, the former epic of “Homer”), and the numerous obstacles, experiences, setbacks, disguises, digressions and distractions that he encounters along the way.

Interlaced (an epic understatement) with that storyline are at least three others: the life story of Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, who kicks off the action with a series of voyages of his own to learn what happened to the famous father he never knew; the tale of Odysseus’s faithful wife, Penelope, who spends her time knitting and unknitting her husband’s funeral shroud and being depressed while she wards off the unwanted attention of a gang of free-loading twerps (the Suitors) who wish to seduce her and thus replace her husband as king of Ithaka; and an account of the bi-polarities of various gods and goddesses and/or Laertes, Odysseus’s father, who has exiled himself into the nation, so distraught is he from the disappearance of his son and the moral decay of his former kingdom. Did I mention that the poem was written in ancient Greek? This complicates matters of interpretation considerably.

However, if studying The Odyssey is complex, writing a book about reading it borders on frightening. This is the job Daniel Mendelsohn, global bestseller, memoirist, translator and essayist for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, has taken on in An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic.

“One January day a couple of years back,” Mendelsohn writes in the book’s opening paragraph, “just before the start of the spring term where I was going to be teaching an undergraduate seminar on The Odyssey, my dad, a retired research scientist who was then aged 81, requested me, for reasons I thought I knew at the moment, if he would sit on the program, and I said Yes.” The result is a sometimes bewildering but finally beguiling novel about fathers and sons and how they can and can’t discuss what the poet Robert Hayden formerly called “the austere and lonely offices” of fatherhood.

The book wanders — not least because Mendelsohn’s publication covers the non-linear form Homer uses in his. (They do not call it The Odyssey for nothing.) Mendelsohn keeps four tales aloft at once: a continuous overview of The Odyssey itself (just in case the reader has not read it); his accounts of this course he teaches, Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer, at Bard College in the Hudson Valley, 140 kilometres north of New York, during which Mendelsohn tries valiantly to instruct a group of millennials to dismiss their own opinions in favour of the hard proof of this text; the story of his connection with his dad, both in the past and as they make their way through The Odyssey; and an account of his own and his father’s life.

Then, when Classics 125 is finished, but before the publication is, father and son take an “Odyssey cruise,” on which they drink martinis and sing show tunes and hit the identical blossom stop-offs Odysseus did on his way home to recover Penelope and his kingdom.

Of all of the connections Daniel Mendelsohn has in the book, it is his own, with his “Daddy,” that is most fraught. In his 80s, delicate and eventually retired, Jay Mendelsohn begins the course as the cranky dad he has always been unspeaking, anxious, perfectionistic, a rabid reader who raised himself in a mostly absent working-class family to be a research mathematician and, afterwards, a professor of computer science. He’s never once uttered the words “I love you” to his lively wife and kids, at least in Daniel’s hearing. He is a classically repressed, Depression-raised, postwar dad.

Jay does not mind that his son, Daniel, is homosexual — a fact Mendelsohn recognized as a teenager and copped to in college — but he does mind the boy is equally hopeless at mathematics and vulnerable to leaving himself vulnerable to random chance. As Odysseus means “a man of pain” in Greek, Jay Mendelsohn, to his son, is a “hard” man, dedicated to difficulty: The more gruelling a job is, the more rewarding he deems it. “I simply believed that everything about me was mushy and imprecise. … And so I concealed — from several things, but above all from him, who understood so clearly what was what.”

The frostiness begins to thaw in Daniel’s late 20s, when he starts graduate work in the classics — a notoriously difficult and demanding field. Classicists are to literature what Roger Federer is to tennis — the very top of the cultural scholar heap, heirs to an intellectual heritage which may be traced, at its most august degrees, all of the way back to Aristarchus, who conducted the library in Alexandria and was a specialist on Homer. (Classicists are also, like Federer, famous for their haughtiness, their marginally too fastidious disdain for anything but traditional fare.)

Mendelsohn’s father abandoned Latin before his senior year in high school, before he had an opportunity to read Virgil’s Aeneid from the original Latin, and his sorrow fuels his late-life interest. “Now you will read it for me,” he tells his son. But will the son take action to his dad’s exacting satisfaction? As Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, points out in The Odyssey, “few sons are the equals of their fathers; most fall short, all too few transcend them” That historical tension is still simmering when dad Jay takes his corner chair in boy Daniel’s Odyssey class.

Jay has promised to not speak in class, but instantly breaks his vow. He does not like Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, since the gods do everything for him and “that is not the way life really is.” He does not think much of Odysseus either, since he is a risk-taker whose bragging only gets him into deeper trouble with the likes of the Cyclops and Poseidon. There are complex reasons why Jay abhors outside aid as well as the whiff of failure reasons that come to light only later in the book, to his son’s surprise. (The writer has two sons of his own with a girl to whom he’s not married, at a really non-classical arrangement.)

Unlike Daniel’s expectations, his old man is a massive hit with his young pupils. Jay brings the humbling wisdom of a lifetime to their evaluation of The Odyssey. When, at the Underworld, the ghost of Achilles asserts he would renounce all glory for another opportunity to live, even as a servant, not one of the young ‘uns — amorous millennials they’re — know what to make of the climb-down. But Jay does: “It shows you could spend your entire life believing in something, then you get to a point when you realize you’re wrong about the entire thing.” It is not clear if he’s speaking of himself or his judgmental son, who has strict criteria of what a father should do and be.

By the time the semester’s over, and father and son are going to depart their Odyssey cruise, the father has started to emerge from his defensive shell. In the last course of this seminar, discussing the affection Odysseus and Penelope feel for one another, despite not having seen one another for 20 years, Jay Mendelsohn eventually talks of his wife, with whom he’s still bickering. “She was so beautiful,” he murmurs — yet another declaration his son Daniel hasn’t heard before. Her beauty has faded, but the connection is held together with something stickier: homophrosyne — “like-mindedness,” Homer calls it, or “that old black magic,” as the Sinatra-educated Jay chooses. (‘Cause you’re the lover I have waited for/The mate that fate had me created for…)

The more they see, the more Mendelsohn sees his dad as he really is, in his less guarded but more complex country, the more the son could fall his own armour of independence and self-creation. Perhaps you don’t need to conquer Troy and be the king of Ithaka to be a fantastic father; maybe all you’ve got to do, as the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott famously stated, is live long enough to start your kids on their way. “What might a heroism of survival look like?” Mendelsohn asks, and the answer is obvious: It seems like his dad’s life, and is not as noble for that actuality.

“Unlike me,” Mendelsohn writes, and he’s ashamed the revelation was so long coming, “my dad did not have a dad who pushed him to complete, who desired him to attain more than he had, who had been prepared to have his son beat the Homeric chances and be more than his father was.” But then, as Mendelsohn finds, a son never gets the opportunity to know his father in addition to a father can understand his son. That’s how longing works.

Annually later sitting in a classroom to debate the merits of revenge, Mendelsohn’s dad trips in a supermarket parking lot, develops a blood clot in his leg and is prescribed blood thinners. Two weeks later, he’s got a large stroke. This is An Odyssey‘s equivalent of The Odyssey‘s famous last-minute revenge scene, when Odysseus returns to Ithaka and kills Penelope’s loutish suitors. Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, nearly blows it by not locking away the Suitors’ weapons; in real life, Daniel almost agrees to get his dad euthanized, minutes before the old man sits up from a coma and asks for a cup of water. Can he live on? Fantastic question. An Odyssey stops as suddenly and mysteriously as The Odyssey. That’s most likely the point: It depends what you mean by reside on, in your definition of immortality.

The neat thing about An Odyssey, however, is that it is also a repudiation of the cultism of the classics. In grad school, Mendelsohn tells Jenny Strauss Clay, a renowned scholar of the classics (and daughter of political philosopher Leo Strauss) that he expects to write an essay about Book 4 of the epic. Clay answers, as only a classics scholar can, “You can not start to write anything until you’ve read everything.” How, then, did Homer, who might have been illiterate, compose The Odyssey? This is the way classics scholars gained a reputation as dusty elitists, and a large reason the classics have repelled as many subscribers as they’ve attracted.

“If you’re a classicist,” Mendelsohn writes, “only to start a replica of The Iliad or The Odyssey” — rather the ferociously intense, pale blue fabric Oxford Classical Texts, containing the Latin and Greek texts, with no translation, comment or (God forbid!) Examples — “is to be reminded of the huge lineage of scholarship, of this immense hive-like labour that gradually adds drops of knowledge over the course of 25 centuries to our comprehension of what the poems are and what they say.”

Yes, you can read The Odyssey, the terrific book, like this. Or you may read it together with your failing old man, and keep each other company in the parallel epic called life. That memory will last more than anything on your phone.

Ian Brown is a Globe and Mail feature author.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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