This unusual memoir takes place on three levels, each one enriching the others. The first concerns the class on The Odyssey that Mendelsohn teaches at Bard College. Second is Mendelsohn’s fraught but loving relationship with his often cantankerous elderly father. The third is the cruise they both take tracing the voyage of Odysseus. And, really, there’s a fourth overarching level, which is Mendelsohn’s love of the classics and the life it has given him. You don’t have to re-read The Odyssey to enjoy this memoir; Mendelsohn provides what you need to know along the way. But beware, you may want to turn to The Odyssey after the last page.
The memoir starts off with the elder Mendelsohn’s request to sit in on his son’s Odyssey seminar at Bard. It’s a long trip each week by car or train but he doesn’t miss a class. He promises to remain an observer, but soon interjects his own comments and questions, which reflect his life experience. A classics student might scoff at some of his ideas, for example that Odysseus wasn’t a hero because he betrayed his wife on his long journey home, but doesn’t a great story invite us to reflect on our own lives and values? The students–sophomores not scholars–often find Daddy’s opinions chime with their own and some great discussions ensue. We also get a glimpse into the way that Mendelsohn fils teaches, how he encourages his students to understand the traditional critical interpretations of the story but allows them to bring their own sensibilities to it.
Mendelsohn’s relationship to his father is the second level There’s family history here, not always comforting for the son, who often felt intimidated by his father while growing up. I was impressed by his forbearance when his father was cranky and his pleasure when his father was charming. The Odyssey, of course, is all about fathers and sons. The first four books are about Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, who goes in search of his father. It’s an educational trip, so to speak, as is the time Daniel Mendelsohn spends with his father in this memoir. Lots of lessons to be learned, and epiphanies to be experienced.
The cruise around the Aegean sea is the next level, tracing Odysseus’ voyage as closely as possible. It starts at Troy, now identified as modern-day Canakkale in Turkey. Daddy finds the site unimpressive, no tower and fortifications remain to give it grandeur. But the cruise is a success, the sites interesting and lovely.
The fourth level is how Mendelsohn’s love of the classics holds the story together and holds the reader enthralled. He writes about the pleasures of handling the texts he used in college. (I took courses in college in Greek and Roman history, literature, and art and I’m always a little jealous of anyone who continued on that academic path. I also refuse to part with those college texts.) Mendelsohn’s use of Homer’s tropes and symbols in the memoir are delightful if you know the poem. The structure, too, recalls the epic. These are lightly worn aspects of the memoir and it can be appreciated in many ways, whether you remember much from The Odyssey or not.
N.B. There are many editions and translations of The Odyssey. Years ago I read the older Robert Fagles translation. You might want to try the recent translation by Emily Wilson.