An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic

From award-winning memoirist and critic, and bestselling author of The Lost: a deeply moving tale of a father and son's transformative journey in reading--and reliving--Homer's epic masterpiece.When eighty-one-year-old Jay Mendelsohn decides to enroll in the undergraduate Odyssey seminar his son teaches at Bard College, the two find themselves on an adventure as profoundl...

Title:An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic
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An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic Reviews

  • Melora

    Well, now I'm ready for a reread of

    ! Mendelsohn's book, which successfully combines the genres of family memoir and literary criticism, is wonderfully engaging. Mendelsohn, a writer and professor of Classics at Bard College in New York, uses the story of how his father sat in on his “Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer” seminar as a launching point for exploring family relationships, particularly the bonds between fathers and sons, with all their mysteries and complexities, both in hi

    Well, now I'm ready for a reread of

    ! Mendelsohn's book, which successfully combines the genres of family memoir and literary criticism, is wonderfully engaging. Mendelsohn, a writer and professor of Classics at Bard College in New York, uses the story of how his father sat in on his “Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer” seminar as a launching point for exploring family relationships, particularly the bonds between fathers and sons, with all their mysteries and complexities, both in his own life and in the classic epic they study together over the course of a semester.

    Early in his book Mendelsohn brings up the topic of “ring composition,” a literary device where an author uses flashbacks and flashforwards but always circles back to “present” events in the tale, and this device, introduced in reference to The Odyssey, allows him to examine with deepening understanding the life and motivations of the father he loves but has long regarded as cold and tough. Mendelsohn and his father follow up the spring course with a summer “literary cruise” around the sites made famous by Homer's epic, and that experience too offers him new perspectives on his father.

    Like I said, this made me want to reread the Odyssey, and that's saying something, as I've always agreed with Mendelsohn's dad in finding Odysseus is a hard guy to admire. He fails to bring his men home, he cheats on his wife, he's a braggart, etc. Mendelsohn's a skillful teacher, though, and he helped me see details, parallels, and connections in the work that I'd previously missed or not fully appreciated. While I still don't

    Odysseus, Mendelsohn showed me that the poem is more concerned with the bonds between family members and profound in its insights in these matters than I'd previously appreciated.

  • Jill Meyer

    Daniel Mendelsohn, a Classics professor at Bard College, has written "An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic", a book, a memoir, almost a dissertation on what seem to be two of his favorite subjects, family and classical literature. An earlier book, "The Lost: The Search for Six of the Six Million", covered the same subjects, but with a different orientation.

    Mendelsohn writes about a year in which he both taught a class at Bard College on "The Odyssey" and took a Greek island cruise which tra

    Daniel Mendelsohn, a Classics professor at Bard College, has written "An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic", a book, a memoir, almost a dissertation on what seem to be two of his favorite subjects, family and classical literature. An earlier book, "The Lost: The Search for Six of the Six Million", covered the same subjects, but with a different orientation.

    Mendelsohn writes about a year in which he both taught a class at Bard College on "The Odyssey" and took a Greek island cruise which traces Odysseus's 20 year journey. Although his seminar at Bard was for college students, he asked his early 80's father, Jay, to attend the seminar and to take the cruise with him. Daniel had been at odds with his father for years; Jay was famously a brilliant and taciturn man, married to his wife for over 60 years and was the father of five children. Daniel had long tried to understand his father and felt that Jay, with a long interest in the classics and Greek, might benefit from studying that father-son (and grandfather) epic, "The Odyssey" together.

    Many people have written memoirs about their parents. Most never quite make that final leap to understanding their father's actions, their mother's thoughts. As children we might know what our parents have done, but we usually don't know what they feel. Daniel Mendelsohn intersperses what happened in the family's past with passages from "The Odyssey". How Odysseus felt after not seeing his home, his wife, his father, and his son for twenty years can't exactly be paired with a man's life two thousand years later, but just the working through the passages of the epic with his father helped bring the two closer and helps Daniel understand - a bit - about his father.

    I am not a classicist. I've never read any of the epic poems Daniel Mendelsohn writes about in "An Odyssey". I enjoyed his previous book, "The Six" better, but then I am an armchair historian and have read a lot about the Holocaust. So, I was a bit in uncharted waters when I began reading "An Odyssey". But I had enjoyed Mendelsohn's references to classical studies in "The Six" - yes, he managed to combine personal history and the classics in that book, as well - and so I looked forward to reading his new book. I'd say I understood most of it but thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • James Miller

    I came to this book from Mendelsohn’s translation of Cavafy (which is outstanding and my favourite book) and his The Lost, which like this book has a strongly auto-biographical and family history element. Both showcase his erudite excitement about the past and language, but this one I found the more compelling.

    Homer’s The Odyssey serves both as a vehicle for an exploration of his evolving relationship with his father to be mapped onto, and as the subject of exploration in its own right; I enjoye

    I came to this book from Mendelsohn’s translation of Cavafy (which is outstanding and my favourite book) and his The Lost, which like this book has a strongly auto-biographical and family history element. Both showcase his erudite excitement about the past and language, but this one I found the more compelling.

    Homer’s The Odyssey serves both as a vehicle for an exploration of his evolving relationship with his father to be mapped onto, and as the subject of exploration in its own right; I enjoyed both of these strands in very distinct ways. I have always enjoyed picking out literary allusions in texts and thinking about how the source text is being reworked and whether it be Proustian madeleine type references with perfume bottles, or buried quotes from the Odyssey (alongside many signposted ones), this book is awash with them. I have perhaps more of a taste than some other readers will have for some extended passages on ancient etymologies and the role of the Greek moods, but I learned much about Homer from him and that is a huge positive for me (much will go, reworked, into my teaching of The Odyssey) and I’m going to buy this for a friend who is coming to Homer.

    The explorations of his relationship with the father and his family are less universal – though the relations are of course ubiquitous – and so perhaps have drawn me more for the way they are used to understand Homer and his commentary on identity and the human condition than for themselves, but as one would expect from the author of The Lost, Mendelsohn descriptions emotional impact and pathos in descriptions of death and in realisations about his father leading to reversals in his thinking (the mapping to Greek tragedy is not I think accidental) .

    I read most of this book in one day and I will be recommending it to others; buying it for some (as I have the Cavafy) and returning to it in time (and not just to pillage his Homeric insights).

    Strangely one of the most important reasons I have engaged with the text is the degree to which I find his reading (at least within this narrow insight into his thinking) of Odysseus too positive: the slaughter of the suitors in his house as they feast echoes Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon, Heracles and Iphitus, and indeed the Cyclops and Odysseus, yet his father’s and students’ antipathy to the figure is given apparently short-shrift (perhaps unfairly I could see why his students might have said in the book that they felt he had a position he wanted adopted). On this and some other issues the book seems to call you into debate and I loved this.

  • Don

    (FROM MY BLOG)

    --C. P. Cavafy

    The second of Homer's two great epics is, of course, the

    -- the story of how the hero Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) struggles to return to his island of Ithaca after the conclusion of the Trojan Wa

    (FROM MY BLOG)

    --C. P. Cavafy

    The second of Homer's two great epics is, of course, the

    -- the story of how the hero Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) struggles to return to his island of Ithaca after the conclusion of the Trojan War.

    Because Odysseus gets on the bad side of Poseidon, it takes him ten years to return, losing all of his warriors during the process. His son Telemachus, an infant when Odysseus left for battle, is now an adult seeking to learn if his father is still alive, or dead. "Suitors" have descended on Ithaca, seeking the hand of Penelope -- Odysseus's wife -- and essentially being terrible guests. Telemachus -- Odysseus's heir -- doesn't know how to handle the insult the Suitors pose to Penelope, to Odysseus, and to Ithaca.

    One theme of the

    is (or may be) the relationship between father and son -- a son who feels inadequate and inexperienced compared with his heroic father, a father he never had a chance to know. The son seeks his father, and the father looks forward to seeing the son he last saw as an infant.

    Daniel Mendelsohn is a professor of humanities at Bard College in New York, where he specializes in Greek studies. He has written a memoir of his experiences teaching a one-term seminar on the

    , meeting with a small group of freshman students once a week for two hours around a seminar table. His book,

    is a week by week, chapter by chapter, study of the Odyssey by an expert in classical Greek and of Greek literature.

    But because the author's own 81-year-old father asked to audit the seminar -- and ended up participating at length and with strong opinions in class discussions -- it is also a memoir of a father's relationship to his son -- an often fraught relationship in this case, between a stern, impatient parent and a son who had always felt inadequate and unloved.

    The two themes mesh amazingly well in Mendelsohn's book -- Telemachus's search for his father, their eventual meeting, their learning to appreciate each other, and an analogous development in the relationship between Mendelsohn and his own father.

    The

    is full of stories, many of which are known by many children -- the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, etc. -- but the epic itself is complex in its development. As Mendelsohn points out, it is written as story-tellers often tell stories -- with long digressions to other periods of time to explain the event that was originally being described. Mendelsohn adopts an identical "circular" approach to his own memoir -- a mention of something his father has said, for example, may lead to a long digressive recounting of events decades earlier that explain the father's comment.

    These digressions are neither frustrating nor unpleasant. They seem very natural, as did the digressions in Homer's epic to his own listeners. After all, we have a full book to discuss the 24 "books" of the

    . There's no rush to hurry to the end, anymore than ancient Greeks were in any hurry to "get to the end" of an epic. We can wander leisurely through the

    , through Mendelsohn's recounting of how he taught the semester seminar and of his discussions with his students, and through the gradual revelation of the history of tensions between the Mendelsohns, father and son.

    This is a wonderful book, and a painless way not only to learn the "plot" of the

    , but to experience a classical expert's analysis and interpretation of the many themes in the epic that might well pass over the head of the casual reader.

    Mendelsohn also, obviously, loves the Greek language, and he repeatedly explains how a Greek term was used in the Greek original of the epic, and how English words have derived from the original Greek. In the very first chapter he identifies the term

    -- the "beginning of bad things" -- as describing how Helen of Troy's abduction initiated the entire Trojan tragedy. We should know the words, he suggests -- from

    , we get the "arche-" words like archetype; from

    , we get cacophony.

    If etymology isn't your idea of cool (it is mine!), that's ok. The etymological passages are frequent, but brief. Feel free to read right past them!

    The book ends, after the seminar concludes and after the author and his father go on an "Odyssey Cruise" in the Mediterranean, with the death shortly thereafter of Mendelsohn Senior. The son's account of his last days with his father, and of the increased understanding and appreciation they had developed for each other's very different characters, is intensely moving, one of the most moving descriptions of a father's death I've ever read.

    Estimated reading time is six hours. This book is well worth the investment of six hours.

  • Mike

    As the subtitle suggests, this book is firstly about a particular father and son, Daniel Mendelsohn himself, and his 81-year-old ‘Daddy’, Jay. But it’s also about other father/son relationships including the fathers and sons at the heart of the

    . That extraordinary book has survived at least two and a half millennia, and continues to speak strongly into people’s lives.

    Odysseus – whom Jay doesn’t consider a ‘hero’ - is both a son and a father: son to Laertes, and father of Telemachus, the

    As the subtitle suggests, this book is firstly about a particular father and son, Daniel Mendelsohn himself, and his 81-year-old ‘Daddy’, Jay. But it’s also about other father/son relationships including the fathers and sons at the heart of the

    . That extraordinary book has survived at least two and a half millennia, and continues to speak strongly into people’s lives.

    Odysseus – whom Jay doesn’t consider a ‘hero’ - is both a son and a father: son to Laertes, and father of Telemachus, the boy he left behind as an infant. Twenty years later the two confront each other for the first time as adults. Telemachus is now a young man struggling to stand in his absentee father’s footsteps.

    The

    is the subject of a course Daniel teaches at his University. Jay, a man who delights in learning, asks if he can sit in on the course. He intends only to observe, not participate. But observing quickly becomes involvement. As we follow through this course and see the book’s effect on the students and the two men, we’re not only given an understanding of the book, with its various interpretations and challenging viewpoints, but also of the relationship between the two Mendelsohns.

    Early on, Daniel tells us that the

    uses a technique where, during the course of its telling, we’re given backstories that explain the narrative, and stories that explain the backstories. Flashbacks within flashbacks, as it were. The

    is full of such stories, many of which reflect and comment on other stories within the overall frame. Some of the stories may be ‘true’; some plainly are not. Odysseus is a trickster and a fabricator of tall tales: when is he speaking plainly and when is he embellishing events?

    The two Mendelsohns experience at least two Odysseys. Firstly, working through the book together brings to light the fact that the stories Daniel ‘knows’ about his father aren’t necessarily ‘true.’ Other family members remember them differently. Some of Jay’s own versions of his history aren’t ‘true’ in the sense that Daniel wants truth. For the first time, perhaps, Daniel learns things of deep significance about his father, a man whom he’s often felt was unemotional and remote.

    After the course is finished a friend suggests the two go on a cruise that focuses on the places where the Odyssey is supposed to have taken place. This is their second Odyssey, and one that brings them closer than before.

    Daniel also learns that even though he’s the teacher, and has worked with the

    for many years, he has to accept that other people’s interpretations may have validity, even those of some of his students. And some the students’ observations are deep enough to bring change to Daniel’s views about his father.

    This is a fascinating book. Daniel, being a teacher, tends to repeat things, perhaps to make sure we’ve heard and understood them. It’s a more helpful technique than it first appears: we encounter the Odyssey more effectively than we realise. The insights about father/son relationships are applicable to our own lives. And with Mendelsohn’s need to change his views – sometimes to his embarrassment – we see that his book is as much about his - and our – ability to change, as it is about the extraordinary book, the

    .

  • Andrew Marshall

    Interesting combination of a literary criticism and a memoir. Mendelsohn is an American lecturer in the classics and his eighty-one year old father asked to sit in on his series of classes on Odyssey – which at it’s heart has a son, Telemachus (who in the first part of the Odyssey sets off to learn about his father who has been away at the Trojan wars for twenty years and feared dead), his father who is, of course, Odysseus, and Odysseus’ father, Laertes, who is still alive and therefore Odysseu

    Interesting combination of a literary criticism and a memoir. Mendelsohn is an American lecturer in the classics and his eighty-one year old father asked to sit in on his series of classes on Odyssey – which at it’s heart has a son, Telemachus (who in the first part of the Odyssey sets off to learn about his father who has been away at the Trojan wars for twenty years and feared dead), his father who is, of course, Odysseus, and Odysseus’ father, Laertes, who is still alive and therefore Odysseus is still a son too.

    Although Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, promises to sit at the back of the class and keep quiet, he is soon putting forward alternative readings of the text – much to the amusement of his son’s students who often agree more with father than son. From Jay’s response to the story and a Mediterranean cruise which Daniel and Jay undertake together, retracing Odysseus’ legendary voyages, Daniel begins to uncover long-buried secrets which helps him to understand his difficult father better.

    I found the story touching - OK I cried - illuminating about my relationship with my father and I think every man will find something rewarding. Although I was not as interested in the commentary of the Odyssey at the start, I found myself becoming more and more engrossed. So the book works on both levels. A real find.

  • Jon Stout

    As a Classics professor, Daniel Mendelsohn taught a course on Homer’s Odyssey, and he invited his aging father to sit in on the course.  In his book, he took the opportunity to examine his own relationship with his father at the same time as he was discussing his students’ reaction to the epic poem.  I was struck by this because I too, years ago, had taught the Odyssey as part of a Literature of Western Civilization course, and I too had a special place in my heart for the father-and-son reunion

    As a Classics professor, Daniel Mendelsohn taught a course on Homer’s Odyssey, and he invited his aging father to sit in on the course.  In his book, he took the opportunity to examine his own relationship with his father at the same time as he was discussing his students’ reaction to the epic poem.  I was struck by this because I too, years ago, had taught the Odyssey as part of a Literature of Western Civilization course, and I too had a special place in my heart for the father-and-son reunion of Odysseus and his son Telemachus.

    Mendelsohn is a wonderful teacher, and I have to say that many of the insights that he conveyed were beyond what I was able to teach.  Nevertheless, I learned in my own teaching that I never learned a topic so well as when I had to prepare to teach it.  Mendelsohn had the students reacting to the first four chapters of the Odyssey, in which Odysseus’ son Telemachus tried to figure out what to do in the face of his father’s ten-year absence, and a crew of unruly suitors wooing his mother Penelope and trying to take over the realm.

    Mendelsohn also devoted considerable attention to Odysseus’ character, that of a bold trickster who was courageous yet canny, and who told fabulous stories with various degrees of connection to reality.  The students empathized well with Telemachus’ plight, and they had various degrees of skepticism with regard to Odysseus’ character.  Mendelsohn’s father, sitting in on the course, had a different reaction, questioning Telemachus’ inaction and indecision, and criticizing Odysseus’ lying and cheating.

    In this setting, Mendelsohn wove back and forth between discussing Telemachus’ situation and examining his own relationship with a sometimes demanding and opinionated father, whom he loved but did not completely understand.  In examining the epic with his students, Mendelsohn posed questions such as:  How do you recognize a father that you don’t know?  What are the signs of intimacy that identify someone who has evolved and changed?

    I found the father-son topic particularly moving, both on literary and on personal levels.  Mendelsohn did not completely understand his father, just as Telemachus knew Odysseus only by reputation.  There were ways in which the son was inspired by his father and at the same time frustrated by his father.  In coming to know the father, the son (both Telemachus and Mendelsohn) came to know something of what formed the father, as well as what caused the deficits in the relationship.  And the son also learned the signs of his father’s love.

    The book continued after the course was over, with Mendelsohn’s traveling, along with his father, on a cruise which retraced the locations in the Odyssey.  They developed new connections and rapport as they experienced the trip together.  The account proceeded to the bitter end, a year later, when his father died.  The end was particularly poignant, when his father’s last spoken word was a symbol of intimacy that tied together their life together as well the themes of the Odyssey.  I had tears in my eyes.

  • Jennifer Louden

    This is a brilliant, moving, cleverly - impeccably really - structured memoir. Please read this book.

  • Tuck

    My favorite literary reviewer , that is Berger and john Leonard are dead and James wood is too cold blooded , so Mendelsohn it is.

    This memoir of author and his old father in their last times together, Daniel teaching class on odyssey, dad taking class, then dad and son going on an educational odyssey cruise, then dad suddenly dying. And the overarching story of homer and what it means to be a human and how we tells ourselves we are so.

  • Paul

    Mendelsohn has been passionate about the classics, so much so that it is he teaches it at Bard College. One year his eighty-one-year-old father, Jay, decides that he will sign up and join the young people learning about this epic tale for the first time. Jay is a retired research scientist who was a maths expert but realises that this is his one last chance to discover about the great literature of the world, something that he didn’t do when he was being educated. So, begins an emotional adventu

    Mendelsohn has been passionate about the classics, so much so that it is he teaches it at Bard College. One year his eighty-one-year-old father, Jay, decides that he will sign up and join the young people learning about this epic tale for the first time. Jay is a retired research scientist who was a maths expert but realises that this is his one last chance to discover about the great literature of the world, something that he didn’t do when he was being educated. So, begins an emotional adventure that they both undertake, as they teach the students and learn about each others perception of the tale and Mendelsohn peers through the chinks in the armour to see the secrets that his dad has not spoken about all his life. This journey into the book inspires them to take a cruise around the Mediterranean where they visit the places mentioned in the book, and it gave Mendelsohn a collection of memories that he will treasure forever.

    It is a touching memoir of Jay Mendelsohn and Daniel Mendelsohn and their relationship that was straightforward and complex at the same time. As he works his way through the Odyssey, he draws parallels between that and his own life journey with his parents and his father in particular. He is open with his relationship that he has had with his father and takes time to be open and explain details as the discovery of things that were to clarify what made his father the way he was. One challenging part of the book was was that I have never read the Odyssey, so this book was a voyage of discovery in certain ways for me. It is a book that has never crossed my radar before but might give it a go one day. Worth reading for those that was a different take on a family memoir.

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