Books

book review

A mathematician father and classicist son’s ‘Odyssey’

For a book about a man who missed a lot of his son’s life, “The Odyssey” has much to say about fathers and sons. Homer’s epic begins and ends with a son in search of his father, after all, and Odysseus’s infamous island tests aside — besides the sirens! — the book’s innermost ring concerns how fathering is for many men the ultimate measure of time.

There are many reasons why Daniel Mendelsohn understands this better than most. As a translator from the Greek, roving critic, and professor at Bard, Mendelsohn has lived and breathed many of the book’s lessons for decades now. He employed them to devastating effect in his 2006 National Book Critics Circle winning memoir, “The Lost,” which searched out the stories of his relatives lost in the Holocaust.

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In “An Odyssey,” his tender new memoir, though, he reveals how much more he had to learn by reading Homer’s great epic through his own father’s eyes.

The set up of “An Odyssey” is an Alan Alda movie waiting to happen. In January of 2011, Mendelsohn’s 81-year-old father, Jay, asked whether he could sit in on his son’s course on “The Odyssey.’’ That notion was in keeping with what Mendelsohn understood of his father, a retiredcomputer-science professor and mathematician, raised in the Bronx, used to doing things on his own.

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It also hints at a tension between the two: As a student the older man had an interest in classics generally and Latin in particular — his talents in his son’s area of expertise outstripping those of the son’s in math. Over the years the father “would occasionally make a stab at recouping what he’d lost all those years back’’ on his own, with little success. This class would represent a last chance to read the great works.

On one level, “An Odyssey” elegantly retells the story of that course, complete with all the gags, competition, and good cheer of an intragenerational bromance. The son takes care to try to steady his aging father only to find the elder man robustly stubborn and unimpressed by Homer’s lying, cheating hero. Students used to reviewing their teacher online watch agog as Mendelsohn’s pedagogy is reviewed live by his mathematician father.

Chapter by chapter, “An Odyssey” dives deeper and excavates a complex and moving portrait of Mendelsohn’s special student. Drawing on the concepts within Homer’s book, from the proem — the short prelude, or synopsis, to the poem — to the many-layered meaning of some translations, Mendelsohn uses Homer’s guidance for how to tell Jay’s story. He lingers on his lonely childhood, his early brilliance, his forfeiture of Latin for a life of numbers. Why a man so warm could be so cold.

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One of the book’s most lacerating threads explores Mendelsohn’s hunger for a mentor, a word that traces its roots to “The Odyssey.’’ Mentor, the writer reminds, was the old man Odysseus relied upon for guidance and in whose hands he placed the fate of his son, Telemachus. When the goddess Athena comes to Ithaca to encourage the boy to search out the fate of his missing father, she arrives in the guise of Mentor.

As a gay teen obsessed with antiquity, growing up in the suburbs, Mendelsohn learned to cultivate mentors at a young age. One of the shadow journeys of “An Odyssey” traces Mendelsohn’s zigzagging education from these surrogates, from early music teachers to Jenny Strauss Clay, his first classics professor at University of Virginia, a “scathingly-brilliant,” chain-smoking iconoclast and innovator.

Mendelsohn’s father urged him to study at Virginia for reasons it takes the entirety of “An Odyssey” to understand in their full poignancy. In the meantime, as Mendelsohn unpeels the layers of his father’s life and education, he dramatizes the beauty and tedium of what he has learned in the classroom. “[T]he best teacher,” Mendelsohn writes at one point, “is the one who wants you to find meaning in the things that have given him pleasure.”

This is a lovely sentiment, but the reality of instruction is messy and imperfect even in the best classes, especially one being audited by a father. Mendelsohn happily shows us how difficult the transference of passion can be: the silent students, the stalled discussions, the misdirections, and then the burst of voices when discovery heaves into view. In this way, the students in Mendelsohn’s seminar become minor supporting characters to the book’s hero, his father, who lurks in the corner like a hero in disguise.

As in “The Odyssey,” there is but one ending to Mendelsohn’s book, one revealed in his own’s opening pages. Within a year of this class, Jay would die and so Mendelsohn’s journey — indeed like Homer’s — would be undertaken after the fact, when something remained to be learned. It is a remarkable feat of narration that such a forbiddingly erudite writer can show us how necessary this education is, how provisional, how frightening, how comforting.

AN ODYSSEY

A Father, a Son, and an Epic

By Daniel Mendelsohn

Knopf, 320 pp., $26.95

John Freeman teaches writing at NYU. His latest books are “Maps,” a collection of poems, and “Tales of Two Americas: Tales of Inequality in a Divided America.”
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