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

The au­thor’s dad em­bar­rasses him when he en­rols in his son’s Homer class – a rich mo­ment in a bril­liant fam­ily mem­oir

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Emily Wil­son’s trans­la­tion of Homer’s The Odyssey will be pub­lished by WW Norton in Novem­ber.

AEmily Wil­son

s ev­ery­one knows, The Odyssey is a poem about a “tra­di­tional” fam­ily. A wife waits anx­iously at home for her ab­sent hus­band; a man­child son, still liv­ing at home, dreams of his fa­ther and snaps ir­ri­ta­bly at his mother. The hus­band and fa­ther him­self spends 10 years away at war, and an­other 10 mak­ing his me­an­der­ing way back home. The in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage seems to lie at the heart of the poem, along with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing set of dou­ble stan­dards about gen­der. Odysseus spends seven years on the is­land of Ogy­gia, and in the bed of the beau­ti­ful, de­voted god­dess Ca­lypso, plus an­other year with the sexy witch Circe. He suf­fers no neg­a­tive reper­cus­sions, while “faith­ful Pene­lope” has to ward off all her suit­ors as long as she pos­si­bly can; do­ing noth­ing and no­body is the only way for a mor­tal woman to avoid the bad rep­u­ta­tion of the oft-men­tioned adul­ter­ers He­len and Clytemnes­tra.

So far, so pre­dictably an­dro­cen­tric and het­eronor­ma­tive. It’s easy enough to as­sume that the an­cient and ar­chaic Greeks, since they lived a long time ago, must have es­poused val­ues that we re­gard as “tra­di­tional” be­cause they were the norms of Vic­to­rian or Ed­war­dian Eng­land. But The Odyssey is sur­pris­ingly com­plex in its ac­count of the ideals and re­al­i­ties of fam­ily life, iden­tity and home. As Daniel Men­del­sohn shows in his bril­liant new mem­oir/lit-crit es­say, the trio of hus­band, wife and son is com­pli­cated by a vast ar­ray of other fa­mil­ial or quasi-fa­mil­ial re­la­tion­ships. Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, is taught about mas­culin­ity and the elite norms of mar­riage by al­ter­na­tive fa­ther fig­ures, Nestor and Menelaus, and by a pair of mar­vel­lously in­tel­li­gent and se­duc­tive al­ter­na­tive mother fig­ures, Athena and He­len. Mean­while, Pene­lope searches for es­cape in her weav­ing and her dreams, and Odysseus seems to find a se­ries of al­ter­na­tive, al­beit tem­po­rary homes with Ca­lypso and Circe and the nu­bile Nau­si­caa. I would note, although Men­del­sohn does not say this, that the pro­tag­o­nist has his most in­ti­mate and long­est-run­ning re­la­tion­ship not with Pene­lope but with the god­dess Athena.

An­cient Greek has no term ex­actly cor­re­spond­ing to our “fam­ily”: the word genos sug­gests lin­eage, while oikos means “house” or “house­hold”, in­clud­ing all the peo­ple in the house – whether or not they are re­lated. The oikos to which Odysseus re­turns in­cludes not only his bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther and son, but also the many other mem­bers of his house­hold: his de­crepit old dog, his res­i­dent poet and his mul­ti­tude of slaves (in­clud­ing the pig keeper and other farm work­ers, the old wet nurse and the many min­ions kept to bathe and feed their own­ers). Men­del­sohn sets an ac­count of the Homeric Odyssey along­side a nu­anced por­trait of his own com­pli­cated fa­mil­ial and quasi-fa­mil­ial re­la­tion­ships, with his non-bi­o­log­i­cal sons and their mother (who is nei­ther a sex­ual nor a ro­man­tic part­ner), with his stu­dents, and with the many sub­sti­tute par­ents (un­cles, aunts, pro­fes­sors, teach­ers and friends) who have taught, men­tored or in­spired him dur­ing his life.

Men­del­sohn is a per­cep­tive lit­er­ary critic and a self-con­sciously el­e­gant writer. His pre­vi­ous mem­oir, The Elu­sive Em­brace, ex­plored the bi­na­ries of his dou­ble life, cruis­ing the cor­ners of Man­hat­tan for pretty boys, and tak­ing care of his son in the sub­urbs of New Jer­sey. But his well-honed, au­thor­i­ta­tive sen­tences in that book seemed to come from a quite dif­fer­ent third per­son: a master nar­ra­tor, who is cer­tain of the “truth” about Greek myth and male sex­ual de­sire. The new mem­oir, which is a richer, deeper work, sheds keen light on this third iden­tity: Men­del­sohn the writer, the pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual and pro­fes­sor. The book shows us how his de­sire to be­come a clas­si­cist was shaped in part by the de­sire to please his dif­fi­cult fa­ther (who re­gret­ted aban­don­ing his high school study of Latin), and how he shares some of his fa­ther’s need to be al­ways right. Most pow­er­fully, Men­del­sohn con­trasts his ac­count of Homer with his fa­ther’s more crit­i­cal re­sponse.

The book tells how the 81-year-old Jay Men­del­sohn, who had been a pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics, en­rols in his son’s class on The Odyssey (taught in trans­la­tion). Later, the two men take a Mediter­ranean cruise, re­trac­ing the myth­i­cal jour­neys of Odysseus. As they travel, Daniel is sur­prised to see a so­cia­ble, per­son­able side of his fa­ther, which had been barely vis­i­ble in the aloof man who lived in the fam­ily home. Jay is, like Odysseus and per­haps all of us, poly­tro­pos: “many-sided” or “much-turn­ing”.

Not all teach­ers would be ea­ger to let a par­ent sit in on a class, let alone write about it af­ter­wards. Daniel’s courage is all the more ad­mirable be­cause Jay is a dis­rup­tive pres­ence, though he turns out to be a source of comic drama in the book. Hav­ing promised to sit at the back and say noth­ing, Jay be­comes ex­tremely vo­cal, ex­press­ing opin­ions about the poem that are op­posed to those of his son. Daniel claims that Odysseus is pre­sented as fully ad­mirable and heroic, a claim he backs up by re­sort­ing to des­per­ate his­tori­cis­ing (“Re­mem­ber, this book rep­re­sents the prod­uct of a dif­fer­ent cul­ture”). Sim­i­larly, he makes the con­ven­tional but de­bat­able claim that the mar­riage of Pene­lope and Odysseus is “good” or “ideal”; it is, he says, an ex­am­ple of “like-mind­ed­ness” ( ho­mophrosyne – a term that Odysseus brings up in a self-in­ter­ested at­tempt to chat up the help­ful for­eign princess Nau­si­caa).

Jay, how­ever, re­peat­edly points out that there are many ways in which the ly­ing, adul­ter­ous, boast­ful, vi­o­lent, weepy and self-pity­ing Odysseus does not seem like much of a role model. To Daniel’s great credit, he ac­knowl­edges that the stu­dents of­ten seem to learn more from Jay’s in­ter­pre­ta­tions than from his own, and the meet­ing of the two per­spec­tives leads to a far richer read­ing of the poem. The fault-lines mapped in the dis­agree­ments of fa­ther and son cor­re­spond to some of the most fas­ci­nat­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tive ques­tions of The Odyssey it­self, such as whether peo­ple ever can or should be self-suf­fi­cient, whether you have a sin­gle “true” iden­tity and whether you can ever re­ally know an­other per­son. The book also ex­plores how sto­ries and shared mem­o­ries help peo­ple to form deep con­nec­tions with one an­other across time.

It gives a vivid picture of Men­del­sohn’s anger, anx­i­eties and em­bar­rass­ments about his fa­ther – a man wary of hugs, re­luc­tant to praise and stub­bornly set in his ways. The dap­per, ur­bane, New York in­tel­lec­tual son is ashamed of Jay’s brown polyester shirts, and frus­trated by what seems like a lim­it­ing view of the world. But this is also a re­la­tion­ship of enor­mous af­fec­tion. The book ends with the fa­ther’s death, and it can be read as a kind of Kad­dish: an act of mourn­ing that in­volves mak­ing peace with the dead.

There is a touch­ing scene in which Daniel, who suf­fers from claus­tro­pho­bia, has a panic at­tack while vis­it­ing the cave of Ca­lypso on the cruise; Jay, who usu­ally avoids all phys­i­cal con­tact, takes his son’s hand to com­fort him in this mo­ment of in­tense fear, as if he were still a lit­tle boy. Later, when the hand-hold­ing comes up in con­ver­sa­tion with the other trav­ellers on the cruise, Jay saves his son from em­bar­rass­ment by claim­ing to have clutched at Daniel for sta­bil­ity on the steep climb. The se­quence is sur­pris­ing, not least be­cause Jay is de­scribed as an ob­ses­sive ad­her­ent to the lit­eral truth. His re­sis­tance to any kind of false­hood lies at the heart of his hos­til­ity to Odysseus and his scep­ti­cism about lit­er­ary study in gen­eral. Jay’s white lie is a beau­ti­ful mo­ment, which speaks vol­umes about the flu­id­ity of hu­man iden­tity, and the fluid re­la­tion­ship of par­ent and child, where each takes turns in car­ing for the other.

Mem­oirs about read­ing are an in­ter­est­ing hy­brid, lo­cated some­where be­tween crit­i­cism and per­sonal rec­ol­lec­tion. An Odyssey is a stel­lar con­tri­bu­tion to the genre – lit­er­ary anal­y­sis and the per­sonal sto­ries are wo­ven to­gether in a way that feels both art­ful and nat­u­ral. The meld­ing of craft with na­ture is rep­re­sented, in the orig­i­nal Odyssey , by one of its most fa­mous scenes: the recog­ni­tion of Odysseus by Pene­lope, when she pushes him into telling the story of how he built their mar­riage bed out of the olive tree that was grow­ing through their house. Men­del­sohn’s book is framed by the story of an­other bed, made from an old door by Jay for his son as a child, which Daniel uses as a spare bed in his cam­pus home. Jay men­tions the door-bed when he sits in on the Odyssey sem­i­nar, and speaks of it for the last time on his deathbed, as a fi­nal way to forge a link with his son.

The olive tree con­nects the house and bed, by its roots, to a par­tic­u­lar place in the Itha­can earth. A door, by con­trast, is made to open, hint­ing at Men­del­sohn’s grow­ing aware­ness, traced in the mem­oir, that his re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther can change. The bed also sug­gests the fa­ther’s care for his son, forged from what­ever un­promis­ing ma­te­ri­als were to hand. An Odyssey is a thought­ful book from which non­clas­si­cists will learn a great deal about Homer. At its core, it is a funny, lov­ing por­trait of a dif­fi­cult but lov­ing par­ent: a “much-turn­ing man”.

Jay and Daniel on a cruise around the Mediter­ranean re­trac­ing Odysseus’s jour­ney

304pp, Wil­liam Collins, £18.99

To or­der An Odyssey for £16.14 go to book­shop.the­guardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, on­line or­ders only. Phone or­ders min p&p of £1.99.

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