An Odyssey by Daniel Mendelsohn

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic is:

  • An analysis of Homer’s The Odyssey through a seminar that Daniel Mendelsohn held for college students which was attended by Mendelsohn’s father.
  • A comparison and contrast of Mendelsohn’s relationship with The Odyssey as a student reading it and as a professor teaching it.
  • A portrait of Mendelsohn’s relationship with his father.

It seems like a huge pill to swallow but the narrative flows with no difficulty among the three modes. I haven’t read The Odyssey itself. I admit that I don’t have the guts to tackle such Greek classics but I’m quite familiar with the basics of it. Readers who haven’t read it yet will not be alienated because the seminar part of the book introduces you to one of the greatest heroes in the world of literature, Odysseus.

After the seminar, the author and his father, Jay Mendelsohn, both go on a cruise ship that traces the places Odysseus went to as stated in The Odyssey. During this cruise ship, we see the relationship between the father and the son somewhat grow as the son discovers things about his father through stories from the past that are unearthed for the first time. It somehow parallels the narratives of Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, and Odysseus himself, except that the cruise ship never made it to Ithaca, which makes a point about journeys versus destinations. Which is more important? I always thought that the journey is more important, but after hearing out the father’s take on the matter, he convinced me that both are equally important. Yes, you will learn a lot from the experiences that you gain from journeying, but is a journey even possible without having a destination? If so, what is the point of the journey then? Also, wouldn’t reaching a destination give yourself a boost?

The main contention here is whether Odysseus is a hero or not. After finishing the book, I’m still stumped. A part of me says that he is a hero. Odysseus, after all, managed to come through the challenges thrown at him and lived to tell the tale. The other part of me says that he is not because I feel that he didn’t have noble causes to support his deeds. Is going home to be with his wife Penelope noble enough? Most likely yes. Is sleeping with other women a noble deed? Most likely no. So to be able to answer the question, one must be able to define what a hero is. Either Mendelsohn was not able to actually define what a hero is, at least in literature, or he was not able to convince me with his definition.

I may not have been compelled by Odysseus but Mendelsohn’s father kept me going on. I like how he is portrayed: a scathingly brilliant mystery. He is mostly bereft of physical and verbal affections but he is caring enough to attend to his children’s other needs. One example is when the Mendelsohn family was short on funds on the day of the younger Mendelsohn’s awarding ceremony or something. The son suggested that it was okay for them not to attend or to at least forego the ice cream party afterwards. The father insisted that they should do both, regardless of the money situation.

There are more subtle episodes like that one that pierce through the father’s rigid exterior. But in the end, the son never gets to fully know his father. There are some things that he only discovers about his father as an adult, about why he never went to Bronx Science, about what they were really working on at his job, about why he never finished his dissertation. These are only a few things that he had answers for, and for sure, there are more, and these, considering his father’s age and health, will most likely be left unanswered.

Now that I’ve finished this book, I’m still not sure if I want to read the original text of The Odyssey. But if I ever get around to reading it, I’m pretty sure that I will remember the seminar that Mendelsohn held where I was an invisible student silently awed by the presence of his father.

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