An Odyssey follows Mendelsohn’s father Jay, who in his eighties decides to complete the classical education he abandoned as a teenagerby Sameer Rahim / October 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
It is a truism that literary criticism doesn’t sell without a healthy dose of memoir to entice the reader. Hence the proliferation of formulaic books with titles like, “How Proust Solved my Depression,” or “Shakespeare Helped me get Over my Breakdown.” But in the hands of Daniel Mendelsohn, a talented critic and sensitive memoirist, the genre gets a shot in the arm.
An Odyssey follows Mendelsohn’s father Jay, who in his eighties decides to complete the classical education he abandoned as a teenager by attending the class his son taught on the Odyssey at Bard College. At first his fellow students don’t know what to make of crotchety Jay, whose scientific mind isn’t comfortable with there being no one right answer to the questions they tackle, and who can’t see why Odysseus should be regarded as a hero—the gods do it all for him! Daniel is exasperated and sometimes embarrassed; but he knows that this class is an opportunity to get to know an emotionally distant man too old fashioned to say he loves him.
The beauty of this book is in the structure, loosely based on the poem. So we begin with a proem that summarises its argument; and as new characters are introduced we spool back to a telling anecdote, in imitation of the Greek poet’s “ring-composition” technique. Central motifs echo through real life and the poem—the homemade bed Jay made for his son is a counterpoint to the bed of Odysseus and Penelope. It is a measure of the author’s skill that the comparisons rarely feel forced.
An excursion on an Odyssey-themed cruise to the real Troy promises more than it delivers. But for the most part this is a moving love letter to Mendelsohn’s father and to Homer, both of whom have done so much to shape the writer’s mind and character.
An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic is by Daniel Mendelsohn (William Collins, £18.99)