Daniel Mendelsohn is an American academic and critic known for his lofty broadsides against the prevailing cultural consensus. A few years ago, in the New York Review of Books, he memorably laid into the TV series Mad Men, describing the writing as “extremely weak” and the acting as “bland and often amateurish”. More recently, Hanya Yanagihara’s much-garlanded novel about sexual abuse, A Little Life, came in for a similar drubbing. I was therefore struck, on reading An Odyssey – a memoir in which Mendelsohn explores his relationship with his father through the prism of Homer’s epic – by its soft, delicate tone. Mendelsohn the stern critic is absent from these pages. This is a gentle, at times almost nostalgic, work.
Mendelsohn had an awkward, if never exactly turbulent, relationship with his father, a research scientist and maths professor who died, in his 80s, in 2012. Jay Mendelsohn was one of those American dads who believe that the world is a brutal place – the odds overwhelmingly stacked against the “little man” – and that, to get on, you have to be tough. He believed, his son writes, in an “irreducible hardness” at the centre of things. Daniel wasn’t tough – or at least not in the way his dad wanted. Always fairly hopeless at science and maths, he gravitated to classics – a subject Jay deemed insufficiently rigorous. Matters were further complicated when, as a teenager, Daniel came out as gay. The result was a relationship marked, over the decades, more by reticence and circumspection than by warmth and intimacy.
Then, early in 2011, Jay surprised his son with a proposal: he wanted to sit in for a term on one of Daniel’s classes, an undergraduate course on The Odyssey. (Daniel teaches classics at Bard College in upstate New York.) And so, for 14 straight weeks, Jay made the three-hour journey from his Long Island home and stayed the night in his son’s apartment, before attending his seminars the next morning. Once term finished, the pair cemented their new bond by going on an Odyssey-themed cruise through the Mediterranean. These events – the classics seminars and the cruise – form the narrative core of An Odyssey.
Fortunately, though, they are not all the book is about. Just as Homer’s poem contains multiple timeframes, its narrative continually looping back to earlier events in its characters’ lives, so Daniel’s memoir regularly slips from the present as it delves into his father’s past. This, we soon gather, is the book’s special “trick”: a memoir largely concerned with The Odyssey, it is itself a deeply Odyssean work. And not just structurally, but thematically too: as Daniel takes us through Homer’s epic, almost line by line, he reveals how its themes – the passing of time, identity and recognition, the bonds between fathers and sons, husbands and wives – resonate across his and his father’s lives. The book thus enacts a truth that has long been central to Mendelsohn’s writing and teaching, which is that the great works of antiquity remain relevant today.
All this may make An Odyssey sound rather convoluted, even unapproachable. Yet, remarkably, it isn’t. More than anything, this is down to the litheness of Mendelsohn’s prose, which flits seamlessly across intervals and registers, switching from erudite exposition one minute to emotion-filled reminiscence the next. There are some flaws. Minor characters, such as the students in Daniel’s seminar, are little more than props. Some obvious opportunities for comedy are missed. And Daniel’s portrait of Jay, while affecting, lacks the fierce tenderness of, say, Philip Roth’s writing about his dad. Still, this is an accomplished, brave book that testifies to what is perhaps The Odyssey’s most abiding message: that intelligence has little value if it isn’t allied to love.
• An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn is published by William Collins (£18.99). To order a copy for £16.14 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99