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A different kind of Odyssey

MEMOIR

An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, And An Epic”

By Daniel Mendelsohn

Knopf

306 pages, $26.95

“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. Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, a mathematician with whom Daniel was not close, decides to attend his son’s classics’ class at age 81.

Not so strange, the son learns much from his father, whom he’s misunderstood for most of their lives, as the two are together after long years apart temperamentally. The memoir includes a nostalgic cruise that they take that brings the original Odyssey adventure to life for them.

Remember Homer’s "Odyssey," written an estimated 800 years before the birth of Christ? (Scholars aren’t sure of when it was written, or for that matter, whether it was even written by one person. In any case, it is an intelligent place holder for perhaps shorter poems that were earlier transmitted orally and joined in a longer verse form later.)

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) describes the story simply in his “Poetics,” like this: “The plot of the 'Odyssey' is not long in the telling. A man has been away from home for many years. Poseidon is always on the watch for him; he is all alone. As for the situation at home, his goods are being laid waste by the Suitors, who plot against his son. After a storm-tossed journey, he returns home, where he reveals himself, destroys his enemies, and is saved.”

The "Odyssey" is one of the two major ancient Greek poems attributed to Homer. It is a sequel to the "Iliad," his other work. Scholars think that the poem was composed in Iona, the Greek region of Anatolia. Anatolia is often considered to be synonymous with Asian Turkey, which comprises almost the entire country.

This may seem too much historical background for you, as Mendelsohn, a gay man, is such a warm story teller. But 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.

For this reason, he gives us a "more than we want to know" explanation as a Latin scholar about the word "odyssey," that has brought them back together, father and son.

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.  In fact, “The epic begins with the story of Odysseus’ son, a young man in search of his long-lost father, the hero of this poem.”

There is a pervasive anxiety that haunts the opening of the "Odyssey"… its hero, Odysseus, assumed by this point to have died at sea, has not been buried. “If he’d gone down with comrades off in Troy," Telemachus complains in Book I, “all the Greeks together would have raised a grave mound to him … But the tempests have ripped him away, no fame for him!”

About all this, Homer employs a significant modifier in the "Odyssey," a peculiar Greek word, polytropos, meaning “of many turns.”  It’s in the first line of the 12,000-word poem about a journey home.” In this respect it’s figurative, and it signifies one who travels in circles, sometimes inadvertently, leaving a place only to return to it, and finally to Ithaca. This approach, Mendelsohn tells us, is called "ring composition" in Greek literature.

This "ring composition" is used in this elegiac work about a father, a son, and an epic of sorts.  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 result of a stroke.

The "Odyssey" comes back to life in this 21st century story. The ancient story’s "many turns" - the leaving and coming back to shared memories – is also a strength of a son's tribute to his father.

Michael D. Langan reviews books for The Buffalo News.

 

 

 

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