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
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
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