An Odyssey; A Father, A Son, and An Epic

Daniel Mendelsohn 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Mendelsohn is a College teacher and in the book he is about to begin teaching an undergraduate seminar on The Odyssey when he decides to invite his father to audit the course as an attempt to connect with him. Mendelsohn has come out as a homosexual and hopes to reach through the wall that separates him from his father. 

An Odyssey, the book, unfolds parallel to Odysseus’ journey, as Mendelsohn seeks to find a connection with his father while teaching through the thirteen books of The Odyssey. I had read The Odyssey many years ago and wanted a refresher myself, having just returned from a month in Greece and a particularly fascinating visit to Mycenae, the home of King Agamemnon, the other hero of the battle with Troy. 

The stories in the book intertwine and turn in the same circular structure that Homer uses in his ancient tale. You are never sure if you are reading the story about teaching or if you are being taught about the story of the epic journey of Homer. Mendelsohn gives his students a persona by giving each a character name. A tall boy with a big Adam’s apple becomes Don Quixote Tom. The teaching story uses these personae to contrast with the stuffiness of the father persona being developed. Gradually, in the story, the father begins to contribute to the seminars. The ‘know it all’ of the father and the seeking to understand of the students keeps the story moving.

The author loves to delve into word meanings and pull together the modern English usages with the ancient Greek roots. He tells us about Friedrich August Woolf, the eighteenth century inventor of philology, the literary science, or “love of language” approach to literary theory. I experienced my own philological moment while reading about Telemachus, Odysseus’ son’s visit to Nestor, a fellow Greek warrior king who returned home from the Trojan War while Odysseus didn’t. Nestor’s narrative tales, recounted in this visit are called nostos narratives. While visiting Thessalonika in northern Greece, my wife and I had enjoyed several meals at a restaurant called Nostos and I had asked the server what the name meant. “It’s like the English word nostalgia” she had said, “but more”. I learned from this book that it can also imply homecoming and that the Odyssey itself is a nostos narrative. The other part of the English word nostalgia derives from the Greek word for pain, algos. Hence, the bittersweet feeling of longing for home. I love this stuff!

Another, lengthy discourse breaks down the origins and meanings of the word education. The point of these asides, if I can call them that, is layered in the teaching story and the retelling story and the personal life story with the author’s father. The teacher in me responds to the wonderful development of an idea or insight, as in the explication of the word paideuô, to educate. But the point of this in the book is to illustrate how to read something as complex as The Odyssey, teasing meaning out of the words. The titles of each section of this book are Greek words, for example, 1. PAIDEUSIS, with an English subtitle (Fathers and Sons);  2. HOMOPHROSYNÊ (Husbands and Wives); APOLOGOI (Adventures); NOSTOS (Homecoming); ANAGNORISIS (Recognition). Each titled section is accompanied by a quote, for example ANAGNORISIS has this, from Aristotle “A ‘recognition’ as the term itself implies, is a change from ignorance to knowledge … recognition is most effective when it coincides with a reversal of fortune.”

The relationship between son and father is the most important part of the story and it reminds me of another similar relationship story, on Netflix. The series is entitled Travels With My Father and features Jack Whitehall and his father, Michael. It’s hilarious and you will see the connection if you read the book.

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