The Odyssey Couple

An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic William Collins. Hardcover. .

We tend to think of The Odyssey as the adventure story of Odysseus’s troubled, decade-long journey home from the Trojan War, his path impeded by all manner of men and monsters and gods. And indeed it is full of action and adventure—Odysseus’s wily escape from the Cyclops, his seduction by (or of) the witch Circe, and his interviews with ghosts at the gates to the land of the dead are just a few examples. But as Daniel Mendelsohn, perhaps the most accessible contemporary ambassador of the classics, argues in his new book, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, Homer’s classic may be, more than anything else, a family saga. Odysseus has one unwavering goal throughout his journey back to his homeland of Ithaca—to return to his wife, Penelope, who is beset by suitors who assume Odysseus is long dead and are savagely eager to pillage his fortune. Meanwhile, Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, who was an infant when his father set sail for Troy, is now a grown man in search of his lost father, wondering if he will be able to close the gap between them and hoping that his father, if he ever reappears, will help him better understand himself.

In An Odyssey, Mendelsohn places himself in the Telemachus role in order to ponder his relationship to his own father, who, like many fathers, seems to have at some point drifted away. This is not a book with a set destination, or a scene of definitive recognition. It is, instead, an adventure in criticism and in familial reckoning, showing us a writer who searches for but never entirely finds his father. As Mendelsohn notes near the end of the book:

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. But a son, although he is of his father, 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.

In four books of hybrid nonfiction, Mendelsohn has honed a method of mixing memoir and criticism to reflect on the problems of contemporary life through the lens of the Greek classics. In his new book, his father, Jay Mendelsohn, whom he and his siblings called “Daddy,” is a curmudgeonly midcentury Jew, a mathematician who valued—for himself and for his children—education and intellect above all else, a self-made man who believed “There’s nothing you can’t learn to do yourself, if you have a book!” Daddy’s idea of education is practical: A scientist, he is prone to what Mendelsohn characterizes as “X is X” formulations—“A crime is a crime,” “Your father is your father”—in which “there is a deep and inscrutable essence to things, an irreducible hardness that he had intuited but which many if not most other people had failed to discern.”

Mendelsohn contrasts this with his own, far less logical coming-of-age. As a gay youth discovering his sexuality and his predilection for the humanities over the sciences, he seeks out other father figures—teachers and mentors, often gay men—who love art and music and ultimately point him toward his own study of the classics. (He went on to get his Ph.D. and now teaches at Bard College.)

An Odyssey, the closest Mendelsohn has come to a traditional memoir, tells the story of how he and his father get to know each other in the last year of his father’s life, between 2011 and 2012, when Daddy decides to audit his son’s undergraduate seminar on The Odyssey. He sits in the back of the room, interjects as Mendelsohn and his students discuss two of The Odyssey’s twenty-four books each week, and stubbornly refuses to see Odysseus as a real hero: “Without the gods, he’s helpless,” Daddy says as the class discusses one of the divine interventions that helps Odysseus along his wayward path.

Mendelsohn’s method here is surprising and seamless. He takes us through The Odyssey alongside his class, explicating the poem book by book, quoting his students, his father, and his own constantly evolving thoughts and observations. Meanwhile, he flashes back to his childhood and youth, drawing rich comparisons between his and his father’s journeys and those of Odysseus and Telemachus. After the class concludes, Mendelsohn describes a cruise he and his father take that purports to follow the real-life course of the poem. Throughout, Mendelsohn’s book cleverly alludes to Homer’s: It winds down with the author interviewing his father’s brother and friends, much as Telemachus interviewed Odysseus’s war buddies in the early books of The Odyssey.

The book is as much a tribute to the magic that can occur in the classroom as an unlikely tale of a father and son’s spiritual reunion. The students offer up a steady stream of critical insight (“Brendan said, If you never knew your father to begin with, there’s actually nothing to recognize”). If Mendelsohn suffers from a certain amount of sentimentality, we forgive him—his father is his father after all. And what’s most remarkable is the extent to which The Odyssey truly does help him, and us, understand our lives. Mendelsohn makes his most convincing case to date for the vital necessity of the classics.

Among the lessons Mendelsohn shares from his own study of the Greek language is its use of the “‘middle’ voice, a mode in which the subject is also the object, a strange folding over or doubling, the way a person could be a father but also a son.” Ultimately, this is a book about that particular kind of simultaneity, a continuous conversation between the past and the present, between a great book and its readers across time. We never finish reading a book like The Odyssey, never quite understand it or settle on a final, definitive interpretation. Certainly, the same could be said of a father.

Craig Morgan Teicher is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection The Trembling Answers (BOA Editions, 2017).