Daniel Men­del­sohn’s Fam­ily Odyssey

Daniel Men­del­sohn and his dad em­bark on a Homeric odyssey through mythol­ogy and his­tory.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Ju­lia M. Klein

AN ODYSSEY: A FA­THER, A SON, AND AN EPIC By Daniel Men­del­sohn Al­fred A. Knopf, 304 pages $26.95

When Daniel Men­del­sohn’s 81-yearold fa­ther asked if he might au­dit his son’s Bard Col­lege sem­i­nar on Homer’s “Odyssey,” the clas­si­cist feared that em­bar­rass­ment might en­sue.

He wasn’t wrong. But his dis­com­fort wasn’t the half of it. The se­nior Men­del­sohn, vi­o­lat­ing his prom­ise not to talk in class, sparked lively dis­cus­sions by ques­tion­ing Odysseus’s hero­ism. After all, hadn’t this sup­posed leader lost all his men on the long jour­ney home? Hadn’t he fre­quently cried, lied and cheated on his faith­ful wife, Pene­lope? And didn’t he de­pend on the as­sis­tance

of the gods to es­cape his or­deals and re­turn, fi­nally, to Ithaca?

But while his fa­ther’s in­ter­jec­tions some­times cha­grined Men­del­sohn, the Bard stu­dents came to ad­mire the oc­to­ge­nar­ian’s in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity and vigor. The ex­pe­ri­ence in­spired Men­del­sohn to take his fa­ther, Jay, on one last trip, a 10-day “Re­trac­ing the ‘Odyssey’” cruise that ex­plored lo­cales from the epic poem. On the cruise, a softer side of Men­del­sohn’s nor­mally stern, emo­tion­ally con­trolled fa­ther emerged, and a life­long chasm be­tween the two nar­rowed.

None of this is ter­ri­bly sur­pris­ing. Fam­ily mem­oirs are of­ten chron­i­cles of es­trange­ment and rap­proche­ment. They typ­i­cally seek to wring re­demp­tive mean­ing from the post­hu­mous haze of grief and re­gret.

In this quest, Men­del­sohn, au­thor of the clas­sic Holo­caust mem­oir, “The Lost: A Search for Six Mil­lion,” bows to the de­mands of the genre. But with his cus­tom­ary blend of lin­guis­tic el­e­gance and nar­ra­tive panache, he also tran­scends them, dar­ing read­ers to en­gage with the com­plex­i­ties of the epic poem and ap­ply its lessons to their own lives.

A se­ri­ous scholar who sup­plies his own Latin and Greek trans­la­tions, Men­del­sohn skill­fully in­ter­weaves a crit­i­cal dis­sec­tion of the “Odyssey” with ac­counts of class dis­cus­sions, the cruise, and his own fam­ily his­tory. He sees the poem, in part, as a story about the “end­less tug-of-war-be­tween fa­thers and sons, suc­cesses and fail­ures….” After all, sev­eral of its early books fo­cus not on Odysseus’s leg­endary trav­els, but on Telemachus’s search for in­for­ma­tion about his miss­ing fa­ther. In the end, both fa­ther and son re­ceive an ed­u­ca­tion of sorts — a process repli­cated, in the course of the mem­oir, by the Men­del­sohns.

The poem’s fa­mous “ring com­po­si­tion,” in which the nar­ra­tor pe­ri­od­i­cally cir­cles back to past events — or an­tic­i­pates fu­ture ones — be­fore re­turn­ing to the present, sup­plies a struc­tural tem­plate for Men­del­sohn’s own nar­ra­tive.

The idea of cir­cling dou­bles as a metaphor for the in­abil­ity of fa­ther and son to ap­proach each other. So Men­del­sohn seems to sug­gest in de­scrib­ing a child­hood trip dur­ing which bad weather kept their plane cir­cling for hours, while fa­ther and son, not talk­ing, re­mained im­mersed in their re­spec­tive books.

The trip was part of “a long quiet be­tween us,” he writes, fu­eled by the fa­ther’s “ex­act­ing stan­dards” and “habit of si­lence.” (Men­del­sohn’s mother, by con­trast, is an ex­u­ber­ant and lov­ing pres­ence.)

“An Odyssey” be­gins sim­ply, with the gruff, re­tired re­search sci­en­tist ask­ing if he might sit in on his son’s course. At­ten­dance would re­quire an ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­fort: a roughly three-hour-long trip each way from the Long Is­land sub­urbs to the Hud­son Val­ley by ei­ther car or train. Nor is the fa­ther the only trav­eler in the fam­ily. Men­del­sohn splits his time among a house near Bard, a New York City apart­ment, and the New Jersey home where his two sons and their mother (his “par­ent­ing part­ner”) re­side.

In the mem­oir’s first chap­ter, as in the “proem” of an epic poem, Men­del­sohn briefly sum­ma­rizes the events that will fol­low. And he sets out another of the poem’s (and mem­oir’s) themes: the is­sue of iden­tity. Odysseus is, of course, a mas­ter of dis­guise. But Men­del­sohn’s fa­ther, too, seems dif­fer­ent to dif­fer­ent peo­ple — as we all do — and Men­del­sohn can’t help won­der­ing which self is the most gen­uine.

A math­e­ma­ti­cian who never com­pleted his doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion, Jay Men­del­sohn worked at a de­fense plant and later be­came a pro­fes­sor of com­puter sci­ence. Yet he seemed at times to have stepped back from in­tel­lec­tual chal­lenge and achieve­ment — a ten­dency ex­em­pli­fied by the fact that he halted his Latin stud­ies be­fore read­ing Vir­gil’s “Aeneid.” His son would pick up the ba­ton by be­com­ing a clas­si­cist. “Now you’ll read it for me,” his fa­ther tells him, with un­cus­tom­ary sweet­ness.

The early pages of “An Odyssey” are dense with et­y­mol­ogy — of words de­not­ing travel, of Odysseus’s name. Men­del­sohn can­not re­sist his most ar­cane schol­arly in­cli­na­tions, and the reader will in­evitably be schooled in the in­tri­ca­cies of Homeric in­ter­pre­ta­tion. He or she will be­come a sem­i­nar stu­dent.

But, as the mem­oir un­spools, Men­del­sohn’s nar­ra­tive grip tight­ens, and the son’s search for his fa­ther be­comes poignant and pow­er­ful.

On their cruise, Jay Men­del­sohn fi­nally tells Daniel a story he never knew: that his long­time nick­name “Loopy” was given to him by a Dutch boy who had been in love with him in his youth. Men­del­sohn, touched by the dis­cov­ery, won­ders why his fa­ther has never be­fore shared this mem­ory. “Some sto­ries,” his fa­ther says, “just take longer to tell.”

“We all need nar­ra­tive to make sense of our lives,” Men­del­sohn re­minds us at one point. But he is also at pains to point out that any such story will likely be im­per­fect and in­com­plete — es­pe­cially one about fa­thers and sons.

“A fa­ther makes his son out of his flesh and out of his mind and then shapes him with his am­bi­tions and dreams, with his cru­el­ties and fail­ures, too,” he writes in the spirit of un­der­stand­ing and for­give­ness. “But a son…can­not know his fa­ther to­tally be­cause the fa­ther pre­cedes him; his fa­ther has al­ways al­ready lived so much more than the son has, so that the son can never catch up, can never know ev­ery­thing.”



EPIC AM­BI­TION: Daniel Men­del­sohn’s lat­est project be­gan with the sem­i­nar on Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ that he teaches at Bard Col­lege.

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