One of the central stories woven into life and literature across the millennia is the father-son relationship, an enduring thread that runs through sagas both classic and popular, sacred and secular, true and fictional, author Daniel Mendelsohn proves the point in his compelling memoir, “An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, And an Epic,” in which he tries to untangle the unanswered questions about his relationship with his own father even as he elucidates the meanings of Homer’s epic poem, also about fathers and sons, “The Odyssey.” The result is a memorable journey through worlds both ancient and contemporary.
Mendelsohn’s multi-layered tale opens in January 2011 with a request from his then-81-year-old father Jay: Could he, the father, sit in on the undergraduate class being given that spring by his son, Dan, the teller of this tale and a distinguished classics scholar and professor at Bard College, on Homer’s “Odyssey”? In equal parts bemused and touched, Dan says yes. He knows that his mathematician father, who had relished his high school Latin classes, had always regretted not having the opportunity to continue his own study of classical literature. He is also aware that perhaps the greater opportunity is the one his father is giving him — the chance to prove his worth, on his own ground, to the adored parent whom he had always feared he had disappointed.
And so they embark on their study of “The Odyssey” — and on their adventure of getting to know each other in a new way, with traditional roles reversed, with the son as the professor and the father sitting among students who are perhaps one-quarter his age. There’s plenty of opportunity for humor here, as Jay repeatedly challenges his expert son with differing views of the character of the cunning Odysseus, the hero of “The Odyssey.” Jay bursts out at the very first meeting of the class, for instance: “Hero? I don’t think he’s a hero at all.” Dan is nonplussed — especially when other members of the class begin to agree with Jay about the less attractive traits Odysseus displays, such as losing all the men on his ship by the end of the voyage, and his affairs with other women while his wife Penelope awaits him patiently at home.
But what did he expect, Dan muses: this is the argumentative father he knew so well from growing up. And in keeping with that, what’s a son to do, except revert to his old childhood stance, defiantly standing by his own point of view? As Dan writes, “I felt like I was eleven years old again, and Odysseus was a naughty schoolmate whom I’d decided I was going to stand by even if it meant being punished along with him.”
As amusing as such exchanges are, they also go beyond humor, as Dan is struck with the like-father-like-son recognition that he, too, wants to call the shots; that in his own way, he is as controlling as his father, overly insistent that his students accept his interpretation. Jay is also capable of surprising his son with the mentor-like friendships he develops, independent of his son, with his younger classmates. When did his Dad become so friendly? Only later does he learn about another facet of his father’s life that he had only glimpsed — the mentoring friendships his father had developed with his mathematical colleagues years before. Still, it really is an astonishment when the usually laconic, emotionally unexpressive Jay explains to the class the importance of appreciating the enduring beauty of a beloved spouse — he is really talking about his wife, Dan’s mother — no matter the age, or how long-standing the marriage.
And that is only the first part of the Dan and Jay father-son epic. A few months later, they take a Mediterranean cruise together, with an itinerary that retraces the mythic-laden stops made by Odysseus as he wended his way home from Troy to Ithaca. It is during this trip that Dan is surprised to discover facets of his father’s personality that he had never glimpsed before: rather than the dour presence he recalled from childhood, here he was an engaging conversationalist, happily making friends with other passengers. Rather than holding back praise, his father is openly proud of his son when Dan gives an impromptu lecture on board about Greek poetry. And when Dan falls prey to a bout of claustrophobia while visiting a series of narrow caves, Jay tenderly and unobtrusively takes his hand to lead his son safely through.
In the same way that Homer’s epic does not follow a straight plotline from beginning to end, neither does Mendelsohn’s narrative. Throughout, he relates stories from his growing up, including his coming out as gay to his parents; about his father’s childhood, spent mostly alone; and ultimately about his father’s death, a little more than a year after the Mediterranean cruise. This structure is also reminiscent of Mendelsohn’s best-known work, “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million.” In that book, he undertook a different odyssey, as he and his siblings sought to trace the lives, and the deaths, of family members killed in the Holocaust.
Unlike that book, “An Odyssey” contains few overtly Jewish themes, beyond the fact that Mendelsohn grew up in a nominally Jewish Long Island home and that his grandparents spoke Yiddish. Yet as I read his wonderfully precise textual analysis of Homer, I couldn’t help but think how similar his interpretative method is to the ways in which biblical scholars parse the Torah, word by word and phrase by phrase, for deeper understanding. This led me to think about the many journey stories that occur throughout the Bible, as well as the monumental yearly journey which takes us from the first verses of Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy, and then right back to the start all over again. And with each reading, there is also more to glean. So, too, does Dan gain more insight into his father, and thus himself, at every step along the way. Which is why Daniel Mendelsohn’s “An Odyssey” is a lesson in learning through the journey of life. ✦