AN ODYSSEY: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, by Daniel Mendelsohn. Alfred A. Knopf, 306 pp., $26.95.
Daniel Mendelsohn has achieved an enviable renown as essayist, literary critic and author of autobiographical explorations undergirded by insights from classic texts. “The Elusive Embrace” employed Greek tragedy as a template for understanding family dynamics and homosexuality. “The Lost,” with the Hebrew Bible providing the ballast, pieced together the stories of relatives who died in the Holocaust.
Mendelsohn, a professor of humanities at Bard College, teaches courses on Greek and Latin literature to undergraduates. When his 81-year-old father, Jay, learned that Daniel would be teaching a course on Homer’s Odyssey, he decided to drive from his home in Old Bethpage to the Hudson Valley to audit the course. Jay Mendelsohn, a mathematician retired from Grumman and Hofstra University, would mingle with 18- and 19-year olds.
Since Jay was a demanding father, opinionated grump, and sharp-tongued skeptic, Daniel was amused and then worried. What would come of this perilous experiment?
What eventually came of it is “An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic,” a book by turns cerebral, lively and poignant. Along with fascinating commentary on The Odyssey, Mendelsohn offers a host of revealing family details and classroom encounters. It’s clear that his Socratic method of teaching (via dialogue rather than lecture) forced everyone in the room, including himself, to see things with fresh eyes.
Initially, Jay had promised that he wouldn’t speak up in class. But soon he’s dishing like an internet troll. Don’t tell me Odysseus is such a great a hero! he cries. He depends on the gods to get him out of every jam. He loses too many of his soldiers to misfortune. It’s a wonder he ever manages to return to Ithaca to his wife Penelope and son Telemachus after 10 years in the Trojan War and 10 more years of fleeing from one island peril after another. What a loser!
To guide his students through the poem, Daniel the professor requires close readings of the text. So readers must be willing to follow these occasional deep dives. But Daniel the author makes things easier for us by breaking up the narrative in a way similar to Homer himself, with so-called “ring composition” that circles back and forth over time and allows for plentiful asides.
Thus we are made to see parallels between Homer’s epic and the Mendelsohn family story. The Odyssey’s initial focus is on Telemachus, now 20, searching for the father he has never known. Likewise, Daniel discovers that the classroom becomes a way to better understand his cantankerous father. In lesser hands, this sort of parallelism would seem gimmicky, but not here.
So we double back to learn that Jay is a man who refrains from hugging and has never told his five children that he loves them. No wonder the teenage Daniel flinched when he had to ask for help with math, and, worse, feared coming out as gay. Yet the eventual revelations of Jay’s unexpected shortcomings — a failure of nerve resulting in an unfinished Ph.D. and other roads not taken — enlarge and humanize his portrait.
In the year after completion of the course, father and son join a Mediterranean cruise following the legendary route of Odysseus. Here, Jay shows off oodles of charm beneath that crusty exterior, as a bon vivant and raconteur among strangers. Most touchingly, when Daniel is afraid to enter a cave, Jay gently leads him inside by the hand. Afterward, he explains to fellow passengers that Daniel was propping up his frail father.
Every step of the way, “An Odyssey” charts a remarkable journey made indelible by Mendelsohn’s elegant prose.