An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn is a combination of literary criticism of Homer’s Odyssey, a family memoir, and a travelogue. This is a unique and fascinating combination that Mendelsohn skillfully weaves together by transitioning seamlessly from one genre to another.
The literary criticism occurs when Daniel Mendelsohn, a Classics professor, conducts a seminar on Homer’s Odyssey. He analyzes the text with his students, providing insights and interpretations that illuminate the text in rewarding ways. The family memoir occurs when Mendelsohn’s octogenarian father sits in on his seminar and contributes to the discussion and analysis. As a result of his father’s reactions to the Odyssey, Mendelsohn interrogates his own relationship with his father, one that had been fraught with tension, misunderstandings, and lack of communication during his formative years. The travelogue occurs when father and son go on a literary cruise that re-traces Odysseus’ return from Troy.
Mendelsohn describes the structure of Homer’s Odyssey as a “ring composition” in which “elaborate circlings in space and time are mirrored” and where
…the narrator will start to tell a story only to pause and loop back to some earlier moment that helps to explain an aspect of the story he’s telling—a bit of personal or family history, say—and afterward might even loop back to some earlier moment, thereafter gradually winding his way back to the present, the moment in the narrative that he left in order to provide all this background.
Mendelsohn replicates this same ring structure in his work, looping backward and forward in time; weaving interpretations, highlighting details, and drawing connections within the poem; translating words from the Greek, providing their definitions, connotations, and context; and applying all of the above to significant events from his life that shed light on his relationship with his father. One of the most intriguing aspects of his discussion of the poem is the manner in which he interrogates Odysseus’ relationship with his son and his father, applying both to father/son relationships in general and to his relationship with his father in specific. This is as much an odyssey of Mendelsohn’s personal discovery of his father’s personality and behaviors as it is anything else.
What emerges from this work is a sensitive portrayal of Mendelsohn’s father, a fascinating critique of Homer’s Odyssey with profound insights on the poem, and a travelogue describing the locations father and son visit as they pursue their own transformative odyssey.
A fascinating and compelling work. Highly recommended for anyone with a pulse.