There’s an intelligent and exquisite beauty to Daniel Mendelsohn’s writing. He’s clearly an educator, a deep thinker, a keen critic, and a writer in tune with an effective mode of conversation. I was taken with AN ODYSSEY from the start—once I had gotten used to his writing style, which emulates ring composition with miniature strokes that are amusing as the read goes on.
I was moved to tears by the end of the work, despite knowing the inevitable outcome. It’s part memoir, part self-exploration, part lesson in all things Homer (if you’ve never read Homer, what the *heck* are you waiting for?), but its strength lies with the gentle hand he uses to show how similar we are to the ancients. If you appreciate Homer’s “Odyssey,” you will certainly enjoy this read, and I’d wager take away a trove of antique treasures.
I’ve taught the epic to college students, and found many parallels to my own journey. It requires a certain amount of stamina and patience to lead students to discover the epic’s textual tapestry on their own. Despite how well one may know a text, there are always new things to uncover. Teaching a text seems to teach us this if anything.
But there’s so much to be learned here from Mendelsohn’s curated brilliance. He teaches us about recognition, and the patterns in our own relationships, the ways we do not see those in front of us, the ways others see them better, if less honestly. We are strangers to those who know us best—or should know us best. And yet recognition may come in the most simplest of moments, when memory and forgetfulness collide. We take people for granted. We think we know and yet we are strangers on a ship, passing each other in the ink of our cosmos. How does a son not know his father? How does a father not know his son? Are we tricked by the gods, disguised in plain sight for some higher purpose, some bigger plan? These are notions we grapple with in the epic, but also in our very un-heroic and un-epic daily lives. To live estranged seems far more reasonable than to share the deepest parts of ourselves.
Mendelsohn’s memoir, as with great literature such as Homer’s, has one thinking deeply about the text. At one point he discusses how his father harped on Odysseus’s lack of heroism during the seminar at Bard, especially when we finally meet our hero, shedding tears over his captivity, his life frittering away as he longs for his absentee wife and homeland. It made me wonder: isn’t Homer’s hero crying for the pain to come, the truth he will discover if he returns home? Is this not the pinnacle of bravery? To mourn openly and fearlessly for the things we have lost, and search for them without knowledge of their still being as they were? Odysseus must return to a life he left behind, and a wife—the one with whom he shares the most perfect like-mindedness—to discover whether it and she still exist. His tears are outward expressions of an inner conflict, a shadowed bravery with which he must dance to face the unknown. He lives with a goddess who has promised him eternal life if he stays, and yet he sheds tears for his wife. Homer humanizes his war hero, relieving him of his armor, his callousness on the battlefield, his trickster reputation. He is a man stripped bare at the beginning of the epic so that he may put on the accoutrements of the hero in the end. How fitting for us, for our lives. We are all heroes heading home in the end to face the unknown. A few tears are only fitting, no?
AN ODYSSEY gets you thinking about Homer, and about life, but also reminds you of the ties and threads that keep us bound despite circumstance. It’s a great read. I highly recommend it.
Book Title: An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic
Author: Daniel Mendelsohn
Publisher: Random House