A journey between fathers and sons

The Odyssey is a work that continues to speak strongly into people’s lives, says reviewer Mike Crowl.

Daniel Mendelsohn


As the subtitle suggests, this book is firstly about a particular father and son, Daniel Mendelsohn himself, and his 81-year-old "Daddy", Jay. But it’s also about other father/son relationships including the fathers and sons at the heart of The Odyssey. That extraordinary book has survived at least two and a half millennia, and continues to speak strongly into people’s lives.

Odysseus -  whom Jay doesn’t consider a "hero" - is both a son and a father: son to Laertes, and father of Telemachus, the boy he left behind as an infant. Twenty years later the two confront each other for the first time as adults. Telemachus is now a young man struggling to stand in his absentee father’s footsteps.

The Odyssey is the subject of a course Daniel teaches at his university. Jay, a man who delights in learning, asks if he can sit in on the course. He intends only to observe, not participate. But observing quickly becomes involvement. As we follow through this course and see the book’s effect on the students and the two men, we’re not only given an understanding of the book, with its various interpretations and challenging viewpoints, but also of the relationship between the two Mendelsohns.

Early on, Daniel tells us that The Odyssey uses a technique in which, during the course of its telling, we’re given backstories that explain the narrative, and stories that explain the backstories. Flashbacks within flashbacks, as it were. The Odyssey is full of such stories, many of which reflect and comment on other stories within the overall frame. Some of the stories may be "true"; some plainly are not. Odysseus is a trickster and a fabricator of tall tales: when is he speaking plainly and when is he embellishing events?

The two Mendelsohns experience at least two odysseys. Firstly, working through the book together brings to light the fact that the stories Daniel "knows" about his father aren’t necessarily "true". Other family members remember them differently. Some of Jay’s own versions of his history aren’t "true" in the sense that Daniel wants truth. For the first time, perhaps, Daniel learns things of deep significance about his father, a man whom he’s often felt was unemotional and remote.

After the course is finished a friend suggests the two go on a cruise that focuses on the places where The Odyssey is supposed to have taken place. This is their second odyssey, and one that brings them closer than before.

Daniel also learns that even though he’s the teacher, and has worked with The Odyssey for many years, he has to accept that other people’s interpretations may have validity, even those of some of his students. And some of the students’ observations are deep enough to bring change to Daniel’s views about his father.

This is a fascinating book. Daniel, being a teacher, tends to repeat things, perhaps to make sure we’ve heard and understood them. It’s a more helpful technique than it first appears: we encounter The Odyssey more effectively than we realise. The insights about father/son relationships are applicable to our own lives. And with Mendelsohn’s need to change his views -  sometimes to his embarrassment - we see that his book is as much about his - and our - ability to change, as it is about the extraordinary book, The Odyssey.

- Mike Crowl is a Dunedin author, musician and composer.

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