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'An Odyssey' is a father-son journey with Homer as guide

A classics professor learns much when his father becomes his student.

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An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic
By Daniel Mendelsohn
Knopf
320 pp.

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Daniel Mendelsohn didn’t ask for it – his octogenarian father did – but he got it, and got it good.

Daniel could have said no when his flinty-when-not-curmudgeonly father, Jay, asked to audit the classics class Daniel was teaching at Bard College. Did Daniel not see those storm clouds on the horizon? In that way, he was kind of like Odysseus – the class was in the middle of reading “The Odyssey” at the time – though, as Jay is quick to ask, who would want to be that loser, anyhow?

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Jay “pronounced the word ‘hero’ with slight distaste, turning the long e in the first syllable into an extended [Long Island-born] aih sound...,” Daniel writes. “I don’t know why he’s supposed to be such a haihhro, he was now saying. He cheats on his wife, he sleeps with Calypso. He loses all his men, so he’s a lousy general. He’s depressed, he whines.”

Odysseus is a sissy, a crybaby, Jay informs the class, who are hooting with laughter. Daniel probably wanted to cry, too.

A significant portion of An Odyssey will find Jay cracking wise in his son’s classroom. Jay is no bozo; he is a retired scientist, a mathematician, and computer professional, so what he says about Homer’s epic often has a basic ring of truth – and he serves as a counterpoint to Daniel’s sharp reading of the story and canny teaching style.

Speaking of style, Daniel’s writing is long on it. Modal is a kind of fabric, a great one. Some genius figured out how to make the cloth from a beech tree. Imagine that. It is light, as without specific gravity, and silky to the touch, but with the comfortable cradle of cotton. It holds color fast and lets air circulate all around.

Daniel shapes sentences made of modal, but his neat trick is that, at the same time, they are freighted with knowledge, observation, and feeling.

Daniel’s story wends its way through his class and then – as if a semester were not enough – on a 10-day boat excursion following the path of Odysseus’s homeward journey. With Jay’s enthusiasm for “The Odyssey” now aroused, father and son decide to take the cruise together – a trip that re-creates Homer’s fraught voyage as nearly as possible, offering a day for every year of the Homeric legend.

Both the classroom experience and the cruise offer opportunities. As professor, readers are able to see Daniel as an astute pedagogue. On the cruise, he becomes a perceptive flâneur. But perhaps most significantly, readers come to understand him as a man with long-borne emotions, for his relationship with his father has not been the easiest.

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“His incredulity in the face of my inability to understand something as obvious to him as a math problem that I couldn’t solve would fill me with shame...,” he recalls about his childhood. “My resentment of my father’s hardness, his insistence that difficulty was a hallmark of quality, that pleasure was suspect and toil was worthy, strikes me as ironic now, since I suspect it was those very qualities that attracted me to the study of the classics in the first place.”

As a professor, Daniel is a force, not only because he knows the material inside out and is an encouraging teacher, but his enthusiasm has a wonderfully controlled energy, not giving away answers, but coaxing them from his charges.

We will learn here that dactylic hexameter is not a synonym for root canal, and, in a passage that may reduce us all to tears, Daniel writes: “I understood that beauty and pleasure are at the center of teaching. For the best teacher is the one who wants you to find meaning in the things that have given him pleasure, too, so that the appreciation of their beauty will outlive him.”

It is only after father and son make it through the semester and embark on their cruise that we start to see a side of Jay that we – and Daniel – may not have seen before.

Jay, true to character, is obstreperous at the start. But slowly, he sheds his carapace and gives himself over to the adventure. As Homer reminds his audiences, “Expect the unexpected.”

During one landfall, “My father looked around,” writes Daniel. “Obviously it’s interesting, he said. But ... [h]is voice trailed off and he shook his head. But what? I was curious. He looked at me and then, to my surprise, threw an arm around my shoulders and patted me, smiling crookedly. But the poem feels more real than the ruins, Dan!”

No buddy story, but a hard-fought, hard-won, late-life conciliation.

And there is humbling: “A father makes his son out of his flesh and out of his mind and then shapes him with his ambitions and dreams, with his cruelties and failures, too,” realizes Daniel. “But a son, although he is of his father, cannot know his father totally, because the father precedes him; his father has already lived so much more than his son....”

That’s what I would call pure modal.
Peter Lewis regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.