On one level, An Odyssey elegantly retells the story of that course, complete with all the gags, competition, and good cheer of an intragenerational bromance ... Chapter by chapter, An Odyssey dives deeper and excavates a complex and moving portrait of Mendelsohn’s special student. Drawing on the concepts within Homer’s book, from the proem — the short prelude, or synopsis, to the poem — to the many-layered meaning of some translations, Mendelsohn uses Homer’s guidance for how to tell Jay’s story ... a remarkable feat of narration that such a forbiddingly erudite writer can show us how necessary this education is, how provisional, how frightening, how comforting.
The book shows us how his desire to become a classicist was shaped in part by the desire to please his difficult father (who regretted abandoning his high school study of Latin), and how he shares some of his father’s need to be always right. Most powerfully, Mendelsohn contrasts his account of Homer with his father’s more critical response ... The book also explores how stories and shared memories help people to form deep connections with one another across time. It gives a vivid picture of Mendelsohn’s anger, anxieties and embarrassments about his father – a man wary of hugs, reluctant to praise and stubbornly set in his ways ... Memoirs about reading are an interesting hybrid, located somewhere between criticism and personal recollection. An Odyssey is a stellar contribution to the genre – literary analysis and the personal stories are woven together in a way that feels both artful and natural ... An Odyssey is a thoughtful book from which non-classicists will learn a great deal about Homer. At its core, it is a funny, loving portrait of a difficult but loving parent: a 'much-turning man.'
These sentences — well made, revealing and funny — are typical of Mendelsohn’s book. What catches you off guard about this memoir is how moving it is. It has many complicated things to say not only about Homer’s epic poem but about fathers and sons. If you have not read the Odyssey, or have not read it since you were 30 pounds lighter and regularly wore sandals, this is a rich introduction or reintroduction. Mendelsohn makes Homer’s epic shine in your mind ... Homer composed the Odyssey in dactylic hexameter, the six-beat meter that gives the poem its elevated oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah cadence. Mendelsohn’s cadences in An Odyssey are softer and fonder, but there’s a brisk undercurrent. You feel you’re reading the literary equivalent of a Rodgers and Hart song ... he’s written a book that’s accessible to nearly any curious reader. In her memoir Slow Days, Fast Company, Eve Babitz remarks that 'early in life I discovered that the way to approach anything was to be introduced by the right person.' For Homer, that person is Daniel Mendelsohn, and this blood-warm book.
An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic, a surprising piece of art itself, begins with these three words for moving through space and time, the travels of a suffering hero (from trepalium, an instrument of torture), his hard journey (from dies, a day), the distance of his voyage (from via, the road) ... Jay Mendelsohn is a retired engineer and mathematician, seeking certainty, unafraid to challenge his son, admiring heroism but unsure whether Homer’s Odysseus, 'a man of pain' in Greek, is a hero at all ...Homeric questions about fidelity and force majeure, heroism and survival, are elevated from the motions of the junior seminar by the wary, warming relationship between the two men ...a moving book, as full of twists and turns as its subject, often beautiful too.
...by turns cerebral, lively and poignant. Along with fascinating commentary on The Odyssey, Mendelsohn offers a host of revealing family details and classroom encounters ... we are made to see parallels between Homer’s epic and the Mendelsohn family story. The Odyssey’s initial focus is on Telemachus, now 20, searching for the father he has never known. Likewise, Daniel discovers that the classroom becomes a way to better understand his cantankerous father. In lesser hands, this sort of parallelism would seem gimmicky, but not here ... Every step of the way, An Odyssey charts a remarkable journey made indelible by Mendelsohn’s elegant prose.
Just as Homer’s poem contains multiple timeframes, its narrative continually looping back to earlier events in its characters’ lives, so Daniel’s memoir regularly slips from the present as it delves into his father’s past. This, we soon gather, is the book’s special 'trick': a memoir largely concerned with The Odyssey, it is itself a deeply Odyssean work. And not just structurally, but thematically too: as Daniel takes us through Homer’s epic, almost line by line, he reveals how its themes – the passing of time, identity and recognition, the bonds between fathers and sons, husbands and wives – resonate across his and his father’s lives. The book thus enacts a truth that has long been central to Mendelsohn’s writing and teaching, which is that the great works of antiquity remain relevant today. All this may make An Odyssey sound rather convoluted, even unapproachable. Yet, remarkably, it isn’t. More than anything, this is down to the litheness of Mendelsohn’s prose, which flits seamlessly across intervals and registers, switching from erudite exposition one minute to emotion-filled reminiscence the next. There are some flaws. Minor characters, such as the students in Daniel’s seminar, are little more than props. Some obvious opportunities for comedy are missed. And Daniel’s portrait of Jay, while affecting, lacks the fierce tenderness of, say, Philip Roth’s writing about his dad. Still, this is an accomplished, brave book that testifies to what is perhaps The Odyssey’s most abiding message: that intelligence has little value if it isn’t allied to love.
We hear Jay rather than see him — Mendelsohn artfully avoids excessive visual details, allowing Jay to define himself through bluster and unexpected moments of tenderness. He’s a marvelous character, anchoring the class discussion and nudging his son to different perspectives, not only about the Greek poem but also their family’s history ... After the class ends, father and son take an Aegean cruise that traces the path of Odysseus. Unfortunately, these scenes feel dashed off, failing to deliver on dramatic expectations. And Mendelsohn’s prose, while beautiful and precise, sporadically lapses into self-conscious flourishes ... Quibbles aside, An Odyssey is a candid, majestic book on the art of teaching and the push-pull relationship between professor and student, especially if the student is one’s father ... With this graceful and searching memoir, we all drink from the cup of knowledge proffered by one of our leading philosopher-writers.
Mendelsohn examines the text of The Odyssey with depth and classical acumen; he explores the historical importance of Homer’s ancient poem with the comfortable clarity of someone who has spent decades immersed in Greek literature; he details his own relationship with Odysseus’ tale, from childhood to college to teaching the work himself; and, finally, he culls from the narrative many insights into his own familial bonds, specifically with his father ... The trouble with Mendelsohn’s multifaceted style is that deep scrutiny, personal narrative, literary history and classics-derived life lessons don’t all possess wide appeal. Readers may find they have more interest in one of the five braided techniques (most likely the narrative with Mendelsohn and Jay), which will mean they’ll have to plod through the other parts in order to get to the stuff they like. But for those with broad curiosity and a tolerance for intellectual hopscotching, An Odyssey is a journey worth taking.
...An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic, does more than reference classics. Here, the act of reading Homer tests a father-son relationship, and the larger meaning of classics for modern lives ... The narrative isn’t quite so straightforward. The book is split into three main sections: The first concerns Daniel’s childhood, the second the cruise, and the third a reflection on the end of Jay’s life ... The decidedly non-chronological structure isn’t always successful — some shifts, especially within the same sentence, leave one feeling a bit nauseated, like driving on a switchback road ... Mendelsohn reflecting on his teachers after he himself has become one, one who struggles with the gap between his love of a work and that of those around him. Many other jewel-like moments and meditations arise in a similar manner. Mendelsohn does not so much transmit the importance of Homer as the importance of loving something.
...[a] subtle and profoundly moving book ... the book might sound dense and impossible, overladen with structural elements, but Mendelsohn’s skill as a verbal architect and manager of scenes means that this complexity is a route to revelation. Nothing is plodding here ... Homer calls Odysseus the man of 'twists and turns,' but he is also the man who knows “the minds of many men.” The two qualities are one: Indirection is the route to understanding and the shimmering, beautiful, dapple-skilled intelligence of this book, fueled by the belief that what you feel is intimate with what you know, is all the evidence of that you will ever need.
There are many moments to cherish in this tangled and passionate investigation. The discussion of the Odyssey, if narrow in some respects, sparkles, and the seminar was lucky in its students ... best of all are the various small recognitions that combine to build the late-blossoming intimacy between Jay and his son. Of these the most intensely moving for me was the moment on the cruise at which Daniel, who suffers from intense claustrophobia, hysterically refuses to go into an Italian cave (allegedly that of the seductress Calypso). Jay takes him gently by the hand and not only walks him through what he most fears ('You did good, Dan') but afterward tactfully explains to other travelers that his son was helping him manage the steep stairs ... We should all be so lucky as to have had a father like that; and now we can enjoy his son’s honest, and loving, account of the improbable odyssey that gave them this one last deeply satisfying adventure together.
“A memorable mixture of literature and life ... One of the students in Mendelsohn's spring undergraduate seminar on Homer's Odyssey was quite different from the others: Mendelsohn's own father. Classroom discussions of Odysseus’ long, wandering journey home to Ithaca led father and son to undertake a real-life Mediterranean cruise retracing the Greek warrior’s travels. Mendelsohn begins to see his father in a new light even while the older man challenges the basic tenets of Homer’s epic ... [It is] a journey of understanding they undertake together. Interesting and instructive.”
An Odyssey is, by turns, a family memoir, a brilliant piece of literary criticism, a pedagogue’s diary and an addition to the recent genre of books that show how reading can change your life ... At the conclusion of Homer’s epic, Odysseus restores order in Ithaca; civic and domestic harmony prevail. Mr. Mendelsohn’s book closes on notes of sadness and triumph. We sometimes experience happy endings, in life and art, with both smiles and tears ... But the heart of the book is fathers and sons: sons looking for fathers, doubting them and then understanding them; fathers challenging, and also rooting for, their sons. This is no stereotypical Freudian-Oedipal model of battle and destruction. Affection exists at every turn ... Like Homer, Mr. Mendelsohn makes us grateful for journeys, and the companions—especially our families—who accompany us along our individual and collective paths.
...argues in his new book, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, Homer’s classic may be, more than anything else, a family saga ... This is not a book with a set destination, or a scene of definitive recognition. It is, instead, an adventure in criticism and in familial reckoning, showing us a writer who searches for but never entirely finds his father ...tells the story of how he and his father get to know each other in the last year of his father’s life, between 2011 and 2012, when Daddy decides to audit his son’s undergraduate seminar on The Odyssey ...takes us through The Odyssey alongside his class, explicating the poem book by book, quoting his students, his father, and his own constantly evolving thoughts and observations. Meanwhile, he flashes back to his childhood and youth, drawing rich comparisons between his and his father’s journeys and those of Odysseus and Telemachus.
His lovely new book, An Odyssey, draws on all Mendelsohn’s talents as he braids critical exegeses into intimate reminiscences to illuminate them both ... An Odyssey is very much a book about the power and purpose of education. Some of its most affecting pages pay warm tribute to the high school teachers who mentored Mendelsohn when he was a lonely gay teenager, and to the classics professors who invited him to join 'this vast lineage of scholarship' that stretches 'in a more or less unbroken line all the way back to ancient times.'”
It's not at all unusual for fathers and sons to disagree, even if they love each other. But when you have two big intellects going at one another, as you do in An Odyssey, then the disagreements can be quite enlightening … The memoir brings delight, in part, because it entwines themes of Homer's Greek classic with themes of the author's family: deception and recognition, marriage and children, the pleasures of travel and the meaning of home … Mendelsohn uses some of the techniques of Homer in his memoir, making it all the more enjoyable. Specifically, he relies on ‘elaborate circlings,’ as he calls them, to tell the story of his relationship with his father, just as Homer uses these circlings, or ring composition, in The Odyssey.
An Odyssey is, all at once, a beautiful personal narrative and literary interpretation by Daniel Mendelsohn, a classicist at Bard College. It has a retrospective father-son theme, using the literary device of Homer’s Odyssey as its mirror image ...he is at pains to iterate how close he’s become to his father, and how much more he understands him now, than as a 'bothered by life' teenager ... The structure of the poem, Mendelsohn insists, underscores the importance of the father and now-grown son setting out in search of his lost parent; it is a story of fathers and sons ... The story 'twists and turns' rendering episodes and recollections used beautifully by Mendelsohn the younger. By turns he becomes closer to his father as the two men take a journey of late-life friendship until Jay dies... The Odyssey comes back to life in this 21st century story.
Daniel is an artful storyteller whose skills are equal to the task of weaving Homer’s poem into his own life. Most impressive are his transitions from scholarly consideration of The Odyssey to intimate stories of his family life, as when the class discussion of Odysseus’ reunion with his wife, Penelope, at the end of his 10-year voyage home from Troy flows effortlessly into a magical moment, witnessing Jay as he offers a heartbreakingly beautiful tribute to his wife of more than six decades. Daniel writes, 'You never do know, really, where education will lead; who will be listening and, in certain cases, who will be doing the teaching.' That’s only one of the many wise lessons to be gleaned from this lovely book.
...a small gem of seminar-room slapstick as the author struggles to impart a scholarly gloss to his students’ struggles with the text and his dad’s crotchety outbursts ... Gradually, Mendelsohn unwraps layers of timeless meaning in the ancient Greek poem: the muted battles seething inside the epic’s many troubled marriages (which parallel the battles waged by his own parents); the reunion of Odysseus with the grown son who doesn’t know him, their stilted unfamiliarity a template for the awkwardness lingering between the Mendelsohn father and son; and the longing to strike out for unknown parts coupled with the fear that holds men back. Mendelsohn weaves family history and trenchant literary analysis into a luminous whole.
There have been plenty of gimmicky books about returning to the classics and unearthing the contemporary implications and timeless wisdom therein. This sharply intelligent and deeply felt work operates on an entirely different level—several of them, in fact ... The author uses a close reading of the epic to illuminate the mysteries of the human condition, and he skillfully and subtly interweaves the classroom textual analysis and the lessons of the life outside it.