An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic - Daniel Mendelsohn
In the spring of 2011, Daniel Mendelsohn, a professor of classics at Bard College, taught one of his most challenging students: his father, eighty-one-year-old Jay Mendelsohn, a retired mathematician. Mendelsohn père, a man always bothered by things left half-done, joined the class to continue his long-interrupted study of the classics. He proved to be an uncompromising student, always ready to speak up, and also always ready to listen. He charmed his fellow students, making it a lively, indeed, unforgettable semester. His son’s engaging memoir, An Odyssey (Knopf, $26.95), includes many of the discussions from Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer, along with background on the epic, etymologies of key words, profiles of the characters, and an appreciation of Homer’s narrative strategies, including his use of ring composition, a series of stories that seem to wander but in fact know exactly where they are going. Mendelsohn himself employs such loops, intercutting the course’s linear progress through Homer’s poem with a series of memories, family stories, the “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise he and his father took, and reflections on his father’s final months. An Odyssey is an illuminating work of literary criticism that makes Homer’s masterpiece not just admirable but truly urgent and exciting. Mendelsohn draws on Homer’s timeless insight into fathers and sons for his evolving understanding of his own father, a man who had always stumped him, and who, with Homer’s help, teaches Mendelsohn more than he expected.