An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic
by Daniel Mendelsohn (2017)
The premise for Daniel Mendelsohn’s new book about the great epic poem had me hooked from the start. In January 2011, Mendelsohn started teaching a course at Bard College dedicated solely to the Odyssey. This time, though, his 81-year-old father, Jay, was signed up as well and would take the trip up from Long Island twice weekly over the course of the semester. By the end, the two have decided to take a cruise retracing Odysseus’s journey.
Obviously, this is a memorable, special event in their lives, all the more so since theirs has often been a tough, if still loving, relationship. It’s clear early on that Jay is not in class simply to learn from his accomplished son; he need not accept his son’s authority on this subject and will push back whenever he sees fit, particularly when it comes to whether Odysseus is truly a hero. Honestly, even had the book been simply about this semester and cruise together, it would have been interesting and worthwhile. However, Mendelsohn combines this memoir with a superb and invigorating literary analysis of the Odyssey itself, exploring its themes, its structure, and how all of its complexity relates to his reckoning with his own up-and-down relationship with his father from childhood to his father’s last year. Each aspect illuminates the other, and Mendelsohn takes us on a dramatic and ultimately beautiful voyage.
The book is divided into six sections that align with the six categories scholars use to arrange the pieces of the epic: Proem (invocation), Telemachy (education), Apologoi (adventures), Nostos (homecoming), Anagnorisis (recognition), and Sêma (the sign). Much like the Odyssey, An Odyssey goes back and forth in time, using the “ring composition” narrative method Mendelsohn teaches to his students, a technique, he says, “that weaves the present and past together, that allows the account of a specific episode of a character’s life to expand and encompass his entire life.” Consequently, Mendelsohn paints a full picture of the broad narrative from the start, the book’s focus remaining on the details — be they exciting, humorous, or sad — rather than the broad chronological plot. If there is a tightening of plot here, it is in the theme of “who is my father?” rather than an a to b to c.
From the start, we see that Mendelsohn is trying to understand his father, the man who raised him, loved him, but also was the source of genuine pain and shame. As the Odyssey begins with the Telemachy, focusing on Odysseus’ son Telemachus rather than on Odysseus himself, Mendelsohn focuses on his own attempts to understand how he measures up to his father, if not in reality at least from his father’s perspective, and we get this interesting tie to the poem:
But there is still another reason, one that strikes me forcefully when I reread the poem now. By emphasizing the inadequacies of the son, the poet makes us, too, long for the appearance of the father, whose authority and competence are beyond dispute. In this way, the Odyssey enacts the truth of one of its most famous and troubling lines, which the poet puts in Athena’s mouth at the end of the assembly scene: “few sons are the equals of their fathers; most fall short, all to few surpass them.”
As Mendelsohn continues to deal with his father’s uncomfortable presence in class, with his pushing back on Odysseus as a hero (Heroes don’t cry!), he reflects on his impression of who his father is:
So yes, I said, Odysseus cries. But crying wasn’t an embarrassment for Homer’s Bronze Age characters. Tears flow freely in both the Iliad and the Odyssey.
I paused and said, and no one thinks the characters any less manly for crying.
I turned and gave him a look.
I never saw my father cry. Certainly throughout my youth I went to great extremes myself to avoid outward displays of emotion. My father hated signs of weakness — even of illness, for which he displayed a kind of contempt, as if being sick were an ethical rather than a physical failing.
However, this also leads Mendelsohn to see his father in a new light. Here Jay is, still a father, but also a student, and a student among student, one who is socializing (sometimes) with these other “peers.” Through his observations and conversations with others about his father, Mendelsohn learns a bit more about his father. But, perhaps more importantly, he learns to see his father as a complex person who is not just a father:
Children always imagine that their parents’ truest selves are as parents; but why? “Who really knows his own begetting?” Telemachus bitterly asks early in the Odyssey. Who indeed. Our parents are mysterious to us, in ways that we can never quite be mysterious to them.
An Odyssey, then, is many things, and I think readers can get a lot out of its many aspects. For example, there’s a lovely section that explores a fascinating aspect of their cruise: the final stop was to be, as for Odysseus, Ithaca, the home, the destination. And they never made it. Because of some strikes, the ship was unable to make that final stop. The goal of the Odyssey is to reach Ithaca, and here is this group failing to make it in the end. But Mendelsohn uses this as a moment to reflect on the greater metaphorical meaning, using the poems by Greek poet C.P. Cavafy (that Mendelsohn himself translated) and Tennyson to explore not arriving, to explore a continuous journey.
There are many other great moments. But returning to the idea of identity and recognition, one of my most pleasing personal explorations was on identity. How do we know people who continue to transform due to time and circumstances? How do we recognize them at all? An Odyssey continues its lovely literary criticism of the Odyssey by looking at the test Penelope lays to make sure the man who claims to be Odysseus, whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years, is really her husband:
So here again, I said to the class that day, the great question of identity is raised. Exactly how are these two going to prove to each other who they are? After all, so much time has passed, twenty years, difficult years of hardship and shame and tribulation. The magical transformations effected by the gods, I suggested, are merely supernatural parallels to the force that really does transform our faces and bodies, withering us, making us bald and wrinkled, which is Time. When the exterior, the face and body, have changed beyond recognition, what remains? Is there an inner “I” that survives time?
Ah, this is a wonderful book, one I will definitely be highlighting on my “best of 2017” list at the end o the year. I am sure between now and then I will continue to sift through its pages, gleaning more and more.