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Talking Greek Food, ‘The Odyssey’, and Dads with Daniel Mendelsohn

The idea is to go home, but that's not always possible.

The other day I had lunch with Daniel Mendelsohn, the most famous and accomplished classicist of the modern era, a man who has built a career on closely reading Homer, Euripides, Herodotus, and Horace. I was excited about the lunch because I like Greek food and because Daniel wrote many of my favorite books, including Waiting for the Barbarians, a book of criticism that spans everything from Rimbaud to The Wire. Also, his latest book,  The Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic, warrants discussion. The book, which has gotten rave reviews from everyone everywhere, is partially a study of Homer’s The Odyssey, but ultimately about Daniel’s relationship with his father, Jay Mendelsohn, who sat in on his son’s seminar on the epic at Bard not long before his death.

What’s interested me about the book is that Mendelsohn, who has spent his entire life reading texts, has created what is essentially a seminar on reading a human being. That human being is his father and so his erudition is ennobled, and electrified, with true very human love.

“This is my favorite type of restaurant in New York because they don’t have anything to prove,” Mendelsohn said looking around at the near-empty dining room, ‘They’ve settled into middle age.” He too has settled into a sort of triumphant repose. He’s bald with high cheekbones and inquisitive eyes. His features rest on the precipice of a smile and his eyebrows seem perpetually raised. He splits his time between a home near the Bard campus in Upstate New York and his family home, where his two sons live with their mother, Lily, in New Jersey.

The book, I tell him, keenly aware that I’m fanboying too much, has this quality that is both manufactured and, in some way beyond its own ken, unconsciously real. I don’t know how to put it. It’s like that song “Break Away” on Art Garfunkel’s second solo album, a song about his breakup with Paul Simon and how Art felt like he wasn’t up to the task of a life alone, which turned out to be the best song of his solo career and also completely true. It’s both real and manufactured and natural, itself a document of what it’s trying to say.

“I wasn’t that close with my father as a child and an adolescent,” explains Mendelsohn through a mouthful of Gigandes skordalia garlicky enough to keep the flu at bay.  “I didn’t really appreciate my father until I was in my late twenties.”

Jay Mendelsohn, as portrayed by his son Daniel, was a stubborn self-taught man, who valued struggle, and gave few hugs. The son of uneducated working class parents growing up in the Bronx, he bore a chip on his shoulder about education. He was impecunious with praise but not unkind.  When Daniel got his first story in the New York Times Review of Books, his father told him that it was good, but that he should shoot for the cover. “That was my father,” sighed Mendelsohn, “Nothing was enough.”

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Since he first burst onto the public discourse — well, in the erudite pages of the New York Times Review of Books, so onto a public discourse might be more appropriate — Mendelsohn has been that plangent voice connecting the ancients with us.  But the connectivity not just between his times and the epic epochs before never hit home as hard until he undertook The Odyssey with his dad in the classroom.  The tale, he realized, is not just or even primarily about Odysseus, the husband, returning to Penelope, his wife. It’s about Telemachus, the son, searching for his father just as his father yearns for his son. It was a lens of interpretation Mendelsohn had hitherto given short shrift. But suddenly, as he was reading The Odyssey and writing An Odyssey, he began to think of it primarily as a book about fathers and sons. So the book is an ouroboros of fathers and son and sons and fathers, swirling back through time. “I wanted to make sense of my Dad,” says Mendelsohn.” Who is this guy? I think all men struggle to understand their fathers for better or for worse.”

The book is an ouroboros of fathers and son and sons and fathers, swirling back through time.

An Odyssey is part odyssey, part memoir, part lit-crit and part classroom drama. Mendelsohn the Professor is confronted with the specter of Mendelsohn the Father, who is, when you get down to it, the Ur-Professor. “Having my father there was kind of a boot thrown into the works,” he recalls, “he was quite contentious and kept contesting me all the time.” But the man offered real-world experience to a room full of teenagers. “What my Dad didn’t know about classics, he did know about life,” says his son. “For instance, one day, when we were discussing the reunion of Penelope and Odysseus at the end of the Odyssey — which is one of the great recognition scenes in world literature —  my father, out of nowhere, started piping up and he said, ‘Well, you know, I can tell you what it’s like to be married to someone for so long that even though they don’t look like the person you married anymore, you have these secret things between you.’” The kids, gently, wigged out since here was a grayhair, sitting in on their combo and dropping real hard knowledge you can’t get, as my grandfather said, from books. And for Mendelsohn fils, bouncing the Odyssey off his dad helped him find his father’s nucleus. His dad, for instance, didn’t like Odysseus at all, thought he was a trickster and if there was one thing Jay Mendelsohn did not like it was tricksters.  “My father was a real straight shooter,” explains his son. “he truly did not understand the appeal of Odysseus, who was a liar and a trickster and a cheater and a bullshitter.” All of a sudden Daniel understood his father’s dislike for his father-in-law. “My mother’s father was very much like that, charming and tricky, playing with fact and figures. Once when he was talking in class this lightbulb went on in my head and I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s why he doesn’t like Grandpa.'”

“I think any piece of art or literature that’s really worthwhile is ultimately analyzable,” says Mendelsohn.“It all adds up, even if the artist is not aware of what they’re doing. If you’re the critic, you have to analyze how it actually works.”  In a sense, An Odyssey treats Daniel’s interactions with Jay Mendelsohn as a work of art. The seminar he attended and the Odyssey-themed cruise they undertook represented a significant moment of bonding for father and son. When his father died, of complications from a stroke, Mendelsohn began writing. Ultimately, he says, the book is an attempt to understand who my father was.  “Every person potentially is a great text,” he says.

Suddenly, I wasn’t sitting across from a scholar but a grieving son. It occurred to me, just as a hammer sees everything as a nail, so too does a classicist see everything through the lens of his study. Mendelsohn, the critic, is essentially an optimist, holding the work before him to scrutiny based on the assumption that underneath it there is a coherent conceptual skeleton. Often he’s disappointed but he, like Odysseus, is not deterred.  So when it came to him to study his father finally, he close-read the man too. Had Mendelsohn been, instead, a scholar of, say, the history of cheeseburgers, he might have read his father’s life in terms of patties and buns. He would have, no doubt, been less edified. But he had chosen a classic worth the study, and the study had rewarded him. He had devoted his life to The Odyssey and could not help but see life and death of his father in heroic terms.

The book, I find, is a vindication of Mendelsohn’s theory that every man is a great text and the nobility of close reading. Sometimes theories obscure the truth; sometimes they stress-test its weakness, but sometimes, when the text is great and the man is your father, close-reading gives life back to the lines and the space between them.