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

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic – 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 profoundly emotional as it is intellectual.

For Jay, a retired research scientist who sees the world through a mathematician’s unforgiving eyes, this return to the classroom is his “one last chance” to learn the great literature he’d neglected in his youth–and, even more, a final opportunity to more fully understand his son, a writer and classicist.

But through the sometimes uncomfortable months that the two men explore Homer’s great work together–first in the classroom, where Jay persistently challenges his son’s interpretations, and then during a surprise-filled Mediterranean journey retracing Odysseus’s famous voyages–it becomes clear that Daniel has much to learn, too: Jay’s responses to both the text and the travels gradually uncover long-buried secrets that allow the son to understand his difficult father at last.

As this intricately woven memoir builds to its wrenching climax, Mendelsohn’s narrative comes to echo the Odyssey itself, with its timeless themes of deception and recognition, marriage and children, the pleasures of travel and the meaning of home. Rich with literary and emotional insight, An Odyssey is a renowned author-scholar’s most triumphant entwining yet of personal narrative and literary exploration.

Editorial Reviews

“Subtle, profoundly moving . . . an intricately constructed, multidimensional journey of a father and son and their travails through life and love. Mendelsohn weaves his basket with many wands; the complexity seems natural, an account of the quality of life itself, a route to revelation. Mendelsohn explicates the Odyssey with exemplary and generous clarity. A book of shimmering, beautiful, dapple-skilled intelligence.” —Adam Nicolson, The New York Times Book Review

“Rich, vivid, a blood-warm book . . . a deeply moving tale of a father and son’s transformative journey in reading—and reliving—the Odyssey. Mendelsohn wears his learning lightly yet superbly. What catches you off guard about this memoir is how moving it is: it has many things to say not only about Homer’s epic poem, but about fathers and sons. Mendelsohn has written a book that’s accessible to nearly any curious reader. The book partakes of at least four genres: classroom drama; travel writing; biographical memoir; literary criticism. Revealing and funny . . . Mendelsohn makes Homer’s epic shine in your mind.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“My favorite classicist once again combines meticulous literary investigation with warm and wrenching human emotion—books like these are why I love reading.” —Lee Child

“Poignant, tender, affecting. . . . Mendelsohn is one of the finest critics writing today; he’s also an elegant and moving memoirist. One of the pleasures of reading him in any genre is being in expert hands. Mendelsohn’s new book draws on all his talents as he braids critical exegeses into intimate reminiscences, to illuminate them both. In An Odyssey, a seminar at Bard College becomes a voyage of discovery, not just for his students but also for Mendelsohn. He is alert to ambiguities, aware that the path to any truth is a winding one; his defining skill is his ability to trace those paths in rich detail and intricate layers of revelations that build to a deeper understanding—of art, of life—that is humanly and artistically satisfying. Mendelsohn’s use of the classical Greek technique of ring composition perfectly captures the stop-and-start rhythms of his progress . . . Brilliant.” —Wendy Smith, The Washington Post

“When Daniel Mendelsohn’s mathematician father lands in his son’s Homer seminar at Bard, the older man sets in motion an odyssey both hilarious and heartfelt. Father and son start in the pages of an epic, board a ship to follow the hero’s path through the Mediterranean, and finally end where all our stories do. An Odyssey melds genius-level lit crit with gut-level moving memoir. Beautiful and wise.” —Mary Karr

“A happy homecoming of another kind. Dread of the alien thrums through [Homer’s] Odyssey; for Mendelsohn, the ancient tale becomes an occasion not only to explore his relationship with his father, but to transform it. He recounts the progress of the seminar he teaches, in which his father is a lively (often obstreperous) presence. The students are invigorated. In acknowledging the power of the Homeric poem to bring depth to human relations, Mendelsohn’s father is acknowledging the value of his son’s world and expertise. The recognition leaves Mendelsohn free to see through his father’s hardness—his ‘exacting standards for everything’—to the vulnerable fighter within: a scrappy, strategizing Odysseus from the Bronx. What solace or despair resides in the unexpected relevance of this ancient poem, its encounters with Otherness thrown into high relief by the xenophobia of our time? Three millennia later, we have yet to habitually turn to the bedraggled stranger and take note of his tears. . . . Poignant.” —Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, The Atlantic

“Tender . . . complex and moving: a book that has much to say about fathers and sons. On one level, An Odyssey elegantly retells the story of Mendelsohn’s Odyssey course, complete with all the gags, competition, and good cheer of an intergenerational bromance. [But] it dives deeper, excavating a portrait of Mendelsohn’s special student, his father: his lonely childhood, his early brilliance, his forfeiture of Latin for a life of numbers. Why a man so warm could be so cold. As Mendelsohn unpeels the layers of his father’s life and education, he dramatizes the beauty—and tedium—of the classroom. The reality of instruction is messy; Mendelsohn happily shows us how difficult the transference of passion can be. In this way, the students become supporting characters to the book’s hero, Mendelsohn’s father, who lurks in the corner like a hero in disguise. There is but one ending to the book; within a year, Jay would die, and so Mendelsohn’s journey—indeed like Homer’s—would be undertaken after the fact, when something remained to be learned. It is 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.” —John Freeman, The Boston Globe

“By turns family memoir, brilliant literary criticism, and a narrative of education. Most of all, An Odyssey is a love story. Mendelsohn makes his way through the text of the Odyssey, but also tells a larger, personal story—of his family. Both odysseys focus on quests, recognitions, homecomings. The book asks: How can you really know anyone else? A truth everywhere acknowledged in Mendelsohn’s odyssey is that everyone has a story, just as every hero has a flaw, and that everyone needs stories to get through life. Mendelsohn is the professor every college kid dreams about: learned, sympathetic, encouraging and challenging in equal measure. Like Homer, Mendelsohn makes us grateful for journeys, and the companions—especially our families—who accompany us along our individual and collective paths. . . . In An Odyssey, he reels us in with a storyteller’s strongest gifts: passion, clarity, and timing.” —Willard Spiegelman, Wall Street Journal

“Fascinating. . . intensely moving. There are many moments to cherish in this tangled and passionate investigation. Mendelsohn’s exploration is [both] a personal family memoir and a critical report on Homer’s epic, and the two facets illuminate each other. Mendelsohn is an imaginative teacher, and the discussion of the Odyssey sparkles. The Mediterranean cruise that father and son take pays off in surprising ways; we get a haunting glimpse of the fear that the end of your journey means finis, the hope residual in permanent postponement. Best of all are the various small recognitions that combine to build the late-blossoming intimacy between father and son. This is an honest, and loving, account of the improbable odyssey that gave them this one last deeply satisfying adventure together.” —Peter Green, The New York Review of Books

About the Author

DANIEL MENDELSOHN is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. His books include the international best seller The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and many other honors; a memoir, The Elusive Embrace, a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year; a translation, with commentary, of the complete poems of C. P. Cavafy; and two collections of essays, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken and Waiting for the Barbarians. He teaches literature at Bard College.

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