Sunday, September 24, 2017

An Odyssey: Homer and Homecoming

I have been reading a lot recently, perhaps in an effort to lose myself in other people's stories and escape from the real world. As much as I love film and television (and am currently very busy keeping up with all the new fall TV and Oscar contenders), literature has always been my primary comfort. Books taught me about the world, about the past, the present, multiple visions of the future. They taught me about people and places, both real and imaginary, and when I was in school, nothing gave me more joy than opening up a crisp new textbook and getting a glimpse of what new things I was going to learn that year. Which brings me to An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn. It's a memoir, but it is also like attending a Classics seminar, and I devoured this book hungrily, marveling at this strange and wondrous manner of storytelling that gave me everything I had been craving since I left college.

Daniel Mendelsohn is a Classics professor at Bard College and this is the story of how his 81-year-old father, Jay, enrolled in his undergraduate seminar on Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey. The narrative unfolds as part textbook, part father-son memoir, and it is uplifting and heartbreaking all at once. As Daniel cobbles together the story of his father's past (a challenging task as he appears to have told each of his children different versions of every childhood story), he also grapples with his emotions as his father speaks up during his seminar, sometimes contentiously disagreeing with the idea that Odysseus was a hero, and then capitulating on other points as the bemused teenage students watch father and son interact.

Like any parent-child relationship, this one is fraught with challenges, but it is cleverly woven into the tale of The Odyssey, with the education of Odysseus and Telemachus paralleling the education of Daniel and Jay Mendelsohn as they come to understand each other over their shared study of this ancient text. It is also illuminating to read about the banter between the professor and the students and experience the "a-ha" moment when a student comes to a realization that the professor had been patiently nudging her towards for the entire semester. I felt like I was back in my Classical Mythology course as Mendelsohn painstakingly walked through this rich and complex text with a Classics professor's detailed love of language and an indescribable ability to find a sense of humanity in every situation that spans across the millenia and resonates with modern readers. The book also provided interesting insight into the angst and problem-solving racing through a professor's mind when faced with an uncooperative classroom. I've always known teaching was hard work, but for the first time, I truly understood how a professor is tasked with so much more than merely teaching what's on the syllabus.

I know this book cannot possibly be for everyone and will mostly appeal to people like me with a deep love of Classical Mythology and heartfelt memoirs. There are digressions about the Greek derivations of words that brought a smile to my face, and despite having no cultural similarity to the Mendelsohn family, almost anyone can empathize with the challenge of having a parent who is very different from you and trying to reconcile your love and frustration with them as you grow older.

Mendelsohn constantly references ring composition - the structure of The Odyssey with multiple flashbacks and flashforwards that move the narrative in oftentimes meandering circles that still manage to move us on to our destination. The structure of this entire book is a glorious ode to ring composition, flitting back and forth across his father's past and future, from their time in the seminar to the cruise they took afterwards to trace Odysseus' journey across Italy and Greece. An Odyssey is both a scholarly work of genius and an affecting and moving memoir, a storytelling tour de force the likes of which I have never experienced before. I loved every page of this book and it serves as a reminder of why great stories endure for thousands of years.

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