LJ Talks to Daniel Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Author and critic Daniel Mendelsohn’s literary memoir An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic (see the starred review, LJ 9/1/17, p.118 ) tells at least two stories. At 81, Mendelsohn’s father, a retired research scientist, decided to sit in on his literature professor son’s Odyssey seminar at Bard College. After that, the father-son duo retraced Odysseus’s route on a Mediterranean sea cruise. LJ Memoir columnist Derek Sanderson emailed some questions to Mendelsohn; he answers below.

So, why the Odyssey? What led you to choose to write about it?
The Odyssey has always been in my life, for one reason or another—a kind of intellectual leitmotif; so it was only a matter of time before I confronted it head-on. When I first became interested in Greek myth, as a child, I had a wonderful teacher who insisted that I read the whole thing; so that was the beginning. Then, when I was in college, my undergraduate mentor, Jenny Strauss Clay, was a great authority on the Odyssey, and so that pushed me toward it again; and in grad school I took an unforgettable seminar on the epic with Froma Zeitlin, who later became my dissertation adviser—that was one of the greatest intellectual experiences I’ve ever had. So I feel that somehow I kept falling into the Odyssey—that it was fated for me to write about it, eventually. And of course the poem itself revolves around themes that I’ve been consumed by from the beginning in my own writing, both autobiographical and critical: the nature of identity, family relationships, the tension between the yearning for stability and the craving for adventure. My first book, The Elusive Embrace, approached the meaning of family and parenting through the prism of Greek and Latin myths and literature; and my second memoir, The Lost, a family Holocaust story, was without doubt a kind of Odyssey—indeed, you could say a descent into the Underworld: a search-for-the-dead narrative wrapped around a family narrative. So you could say I’ve been thinking in an “odyssean” way for many, many years.

What translation of the Odyssey did you have students read for your class? Are there any other translations you particularly recommend? Any plans to translate it yourself?
When I teach the Odyssey I almost always use Robert Fitzgerald’s translation—it’s the wittiest, the most playful, the one that captures the sly humor of the original best, I think. This is not to diss the other translations! Homer’s Greek famously has many aspects—it’s archaic but also moves swiftly, it has nobility of tone but isn’t stiff, it is highly stylized and formal but never seems artificial—and a great truth of Homer translations is that each translation tends to get one or two—but rarely all—of those facets. Bob Fagles’s is the most fluent of the modern translations—he gets the “swiftness,” which is why I always use his Iliad, because students can move through that complex text more easily than through other translations. Richmond Lattimore’s translations of Homer capture the craggy archaic quality of the original. And I’m a huge admirer of Stanley Lombardo’s translations, too. I have done a poetry translation and the subject of translation is one of great interest for me, about which I have often written; but no, I don’t plan to do a new Odyssey translation—at least, not at this point! That said, I did have an incredible amount of fun doing the translations for my book—it just seemed easiest to do my own for An Odyssey, rather than to seem publicly to endorse one of the existing translations over any of the others, and I had a blast doing them.

Early on in your book you discuss the literary technique called ring composition as it relates to the Odyssey, and you remind readers of this technique throughout your book. It seems to me you quite deliberately used this technique yourself. Can you tell us how the ring composition technique relates to the narrative you constructed?
I’ve been obsessed by ring composition—the technique of interrupting a narrative at length in order to work through one or more apparent “digressions”  that ultimately circle back to the original moment in the narrative when you interrupted the story—for a long, long time. I actually always use it, and always find ways to indicate to my readers that I’m using it—in The Lost, for instance, I actually digress from the Holocaust narrative to talk about Homer’s use of ring composition as a way of alerting readers to the way that this Holocaust narrative is being written. Because as a critic I’m interested in narrative, and because as a family memoirist I’m interested in the way the past impinges on the present, ring composition has always seemed to me the ideal technique for my own work—an expansive, looping narrative style that allows the present to be interrupted by flashbacks to the past in a way that encloses past and present in one giant circle. I love it.

Throughout the book you reflect on how different your father was with others—friends, colleagues, even strangers—than he was with you, your siblings, and your mother. Have you reconciled this “different father” with the one you knew and grew up with? Did writing this book lead you to a better understanding of your father and your relationship with him?
Certainly writing the book allowed me to think about and, I hope, understand my father better—in precisely the way that writing about anything allows me to work through a subject. Whenever people ask me, “ Who do you write for?” I always say the same thing: I write for myself, I write because only by writing about something can I really understand it, whatever the subject is. And so in that sense, yes—although I should say that we were actually very close already and I think I knew him pretty well. But inevitably there were things about him that were revealed over the course of our Odyssean adventures together, first when he took my course and then when we traveled together on the Odyssey cruise. I learned so much about him from his responses to the text of the Odyssey—not least, from his intense dislike of Odysseus (!) which I never understood until it eventually occurred to me, as the semester progressed, that Odysseus reminded him of his father-in-law, my mother’s father, who was a great raconteur and trickster, and with whom my dad didn’t get along that well. So I finally saw that his dislike of the literary character was a funny projection of this personal prejudice, which I thought was both funny and rather touching.

Your father expressed some very strong, and contrary, opinions about the Odyssey.Did his reaction to the poem change the way you think about it?
From day one—literally from the first class session—my dad was the contrarian in the classroom. He didn’t like Odysseus, he hated the fact that the gods play such a strong role in the narrative, he thought Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, was a weak character—the list goes on and on. At first it was kind of amusing—I think the students loved the fact that here was this cantankerous octogenarian challenging me all the time! But over time I must say that it made me grow as a teacher, even as a thinker about the Odyssey. As teachers of literature, we can get rather complacent about our little theories of the texts we teach, we can get into a groove about how we teach. And so it was actually great to be forced, week after week, to account for and justify my own approach to the text because of my father’s challenges. So yes, I ended up learning so much from him.

Can you tell us about any librarians who have particularly marked your creative and/or research life? Any great library stories?
We were a library family! The public library in the Long Island suburb where I grew up was the site of weekly family pilgrimages. Every weekend we’d all pile into the car and take out our books for the week. My father was an obsessive lifelong reader, a habit he passed on to us, thank God; and that’s where we learned it. It seemed totally natural, an unquestioned fact of life, that every week you’d need to replenish the pile of books you were going to tackle that week. This is part of the reason I still feel that libraries are a kind of haven—I always feel safe, at home, in libraries. I grew up in a fairly small house with six other people and I suppose that the quiet and calm and spaciousness of libraries were a balm to me. Even in school, all throughout high school, I’d always spend recess in the library. To this day, whenever I walk into a library I have that, “Aha, I’m home” feeling.

What are you working on next?
My next book is going to be a big, fun, “how to read the classics” book—a series of readings in, and engagements with, the greatest hits of Greek literature. Nothing abstruse, nothing recherché—the big texts, the one about which people always ask me, “Why read them? What can they tell us today?”….In a way, all of my books wrestle with those questions, but this will be the first to address them head-on. I can’t wait!—Derek Sanderson, Mount Saint Mary Coll. Lib., Newburgh, NY




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Derek Sanderson About Derek Sanderson

Derek Sanderson is currently Assistant Librarian for Instruction Services at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY. When not reviewing books or at the library he enjoys spending time with his son, reading, listening to the Grateful Dead, making mix tapes, and watching whichever sports are in season.

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