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Micah Reader in November 2018 by Brenda Levenson
An Odyssey, a Father, a Son and an epic by Daniel Mendelsohn, published in 2017, was acclaimed by our group as “an academic book.” Along with the Torah and In Search of Lost Time, the Iliad and the Odyssey dominate world literature as its three top masterpieces.
For the many of us in our group who delighted in the Iliad and the Odyssey in high school or college, re-living the period of the Trojan War and the lives of those who participated in it was an undiluted pleasure. However, Mendelsohn’s book is more than the epic allegedly authored by Homer, who was illiterate and may have composed it as songs. It is also part memoir and about relationships. Mendelsohn is a professor of literature at Bard College, writing about a class on the Odyssey that he is teaching to undergraduate students. His father, now a retired research scientist and mathematician, decides to join the class. Far from resenting the presence of the old man, the students appear to enjoy his participation and frequent comments. The exchanges affect the way Mendelsohn thinks and teaches as well as add to our recollection of the Greek classic, as our readers mentioned.
The father who Mendelsohn remembers was often removed from his family, immersed in his work and retreating to his desk after meals. The questions he raises during his son’s classes and his responses to students’ observations reveal a man much different from the one Mendelsohn thought he knew. As our readers noted, to Mendelsohn the Odyssey brings up memories of his own life and helps him gain a better understanding of his parents along with a greater curiosity about who they were. Interviews with family members and relatives open a window on aspects of his father of which he had been unaware, along with sensitivity he did not suspect, and that his father demonstrates during an incident that takes place on the Odyssey-themed cruise on which they both embark.
The Torah taught ethics to the world, and like all great literature, the Hebrew Bible, the Odyssey and the work of Proust are about life, touching on love, passion, adultery, anger, resentment and more. Mendelsohn’s beautifully written “memoir” carries the important message on how books can affect and sometimes change our lives. In his case it led to what our readers called “an evolution” in how he viewed his father.