A classic of world literature, Homer’s The Odyssey was written about 25 centuries ago, allegedly by one man, although many scholars believe the epic poem was assembled, revised and polished by generations of Greek bards hidden behind the mask of singular authorship.
Understanding the book’s tremendous importance, I read The Odyssey some 40 years ago, in the summer before my third year of university, even though it wasn’t on any of my reading lists (I majored in English literature). I was glad I did the day my brilliant “stylistics” prof, presuming that all his students would be familiar with the Greek classics, offhandedly asked me the name of Odysseus’s wife and son, and I was able to answer knowledgeably, Penelope and Telemachus. (The main topic of discussion was Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, whose plot involves a kidnap-and-chase theme that mirrors The Odyssey’s companion piece, The Iliad.)
Reading these lengthy works is not for everyone in an age when people’s attention spans are measured by the 140-character tweet. In some 12,110 lines of dactylic hexamic, The Odyssey spins a cinema-worthy adventure about the return journey of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, to his homeland after an absence of a decade during which he captures the city of Troy. (The earlier Trojan saga is the subject of The Iliad).
During their return travels, Odysseus and his men are beset by all manner of trickery, obstacle, setback, digression and distraction involving the full pantheon of Greek gods from Athena to Zeus; they meet temptresses like Circe and Calypso, and monsters like the infamous Cyclops. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, the kingdom is going to the dogs as faithful Penelope tries desperately to ward off a pack of conniving suitors and Telemachus valiantly prepares for a journey in search of his missing father. The story uses flashbacks, flash-forwards, clever plot diversions and episodic twists as readily as modern cinematic offerings such as Star Wars, Jurassic Park, or Game of Thrones, all of which are indebted to Homer in one way or another.
Being a classics scholar, American writer Daniel Mendelsohn is supremely well versed in Greek and the timeless literature of the ancients. As he puts it in his recent memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, he is privy to a vast body of scholarship about the poems, passed down the generations from scholar to scholar. “Not all genealogies . . . are genetic,” he observes as he sets out to illuminate Homer’s age-old story which, we learn, touches upon the intricacies of marriage and intimacy as well as upon the relationship between father and son.
Besides offering an intelligent retelling and analysis of Odysseus’s adventures, Mendelsohn explores his relationship with his own father, Jay Mendelsohn, an 81-year-old mathematician and war veteran who opts to sit in on the course that Daniel teaches on the Odyssey at Bard College. Later the two take a Mediterranean cruise that retraces Odysseus’s decade-long, mythical journey back to Ithaca. Through it all, the author discovers many new aspects to his father and develops a sense of closeness that had eluded them all their lives.
Mendelsohn skilfully weaves all these strands into a sturdy cloth that, hoisted into a sail, keeps the narrative moving along at a satisfying clip. He draws many parallels between the feelings and actions of Telemachus, Odysseus and Penelope and those of himself, his father and mother. The juxtaposition of the various stories seems natural, not forced; and the reader feels grateful for being introduced or re-introduced to a work of such monumental importance. In this fast-paced, post-literate age, few are those with the inclination to read this classic of western literature, but even fewer are those who actually take the time to do so.
Mendelsohn is a great stylist with Proustian proclivities that become apparent when he piles up adjectival and subordinate clauses so deeply as to seem like rolling waves upon the sea. The narrative journey is filled with many twists and turns, as when Mendelsohn, in what is supposedly a momentary aside about his father’s circuitous way of telling stories, detours into a series of anecdotes and associations.
“On the first night of the ‘Retracing the Odyssey’ cruise, as we were dressing for the captain’s cocktail party, he started to button himself into a shiny brown shirt, and I said, Daddy, we’re on a Mediterranean cruise, you can’t wear brown polyester, and I took the shirt and walked to the balcony and threw it into the sea. Whaaat!?! he cried, that was an expensive shirt! He strode across the stateroom to the balcony and looked forlornly down as the shirt, which on contact with the water had taken on a dense animal gleam, like the skin of a seal, briefly bobbed along until it finally sank under its own weight.”
Always well written, Mendelsohn’s prose reflects his erudite knowledge of Greek language, ideas and literature; for example, when he explains the penchant of the ancient Greeks for “ring composition,” in which the storyteller loops the story back to some earlier episode, or ahead to some future event, to explain the current action.
Structured like Homer’s epic poem, An Odyssey begins with the Proem, a Greek word that means “before the story,” and continues through sections named Telemachy (education), Apologoi (adventures), Nostos (homecoming), Anagnorisis (recognition), and Sema (the sign). Mendelsohn also frequently uses words like “polytropic” and “homophrosyne,” but always in such a way as to educate, rather than alienate, the reader. Caveat: pay attention because when these terms recur, Mendelsohn, like the college professor that he is, expects you to know them.
“Few sons are the equals of their fathers; most fall short, all too few surpass them,” Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, observes in The Odyssey, a theme that becomes a central tenet in Mendelsohn’s own voyage of discovery. I was surprised to realize that Homer’s epic poems also explore more delicate, Austenesque themes of domestic relations and human intimacy, as if to remind us that the ancients, despite their rugged lives, were no less human or domesticated than we.
Mendelsohn is the author of several books including The Lost, an epic-sized investigation into six of his relatives who perished in the Holocaust; and The Elusive Embrace, a memoir about his life as a son, father and gay man. An Odyssey is every bit as compelling as these previous books, but without the excess ballast that weighed down The Lost and made me abandon it long before it reached its destination.