Language: Greek

Grab the Nearest Buoy: On Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni

It’s a Euclidean landscape, stripped down and elementary, where desire is literally having to feel around in the dark.

How did a book of Greek poetry become one of the most-discussed and most-lauded pieces of contemporary European literature? Garrett Phelps, Assistant Managing Editor at Asymptote, explains what makes Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni trilogy is so unusual—and so difficult to describe.

Late last year, Shoestring Press published a complete edition of Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni trilogy, translated into English from a newly revised text. Not long after the first volume appeared in 2009, the work became the subject of near-unanimous praise. Fastforward about a decade and it’s widely acknowledged as a crucial addition to the literary canon, the strongest signs being its frequent inclusion in university curricula and its reputation in high circles as a masterwork, a post-modern epic, and a dystopian allegory for the cultural collapse of the West, whose legacy is only despair and rubble and war. Translations into French, English, and German have made it one of the most reviewed works of contemporary European literature, which is rare for any book of poetry and especially one written in Greek. That it’s a masterwork, or at least really near being one, is true. I gathered as much after my first encounter with it a few years ago, when Asymptote featured an extract from Shorsha Sullivan’s translation of Z213: Exit. It floored me back then and still does now.

I’m thankful that I read it before looking at anyone else’s thoughts, because the label “post-modern epic” is misleading, useful only for jacket copy. It reminds me of somebody like Umberto Eco, whose novels are long and fussy, and more about literature itself than that other rich wellspring known as real life. Dimitris Lyacos’ trilogy is definitely not that: whatever runs through its heart is too raw. Other postmodernists with actual talent, like Kathy Acker, are also a very different cut of writer. They tend to deal with ubiquitous cultural products—e.g., movies, music, targeted ad copy, the novel—whose influence pervades, or even dictates, modernity. Their work is heavy on pastiche and ready to relate, sometimes in a single breath, subjects as disparate as Nascar and archaic Greek poetry. Lyacos shares their skepticism of reigning cultural myths, although for him they’re free from the baggage of ideology, manifest destiny, and sense of self. Instead, myths revert to their most embryonic forms, such as the Homeric journey, leading some critics to argue that Poena Damni is in fact more modernist than post-modern. They’re right, too, but the claim sounds so dry when read aloud that I’ve already lost interest. Anxiety about missing the point usually means literature is doing its job. READ MORE…

Classic Philosophy Meets Arabic Language: A Dialogue with Professor Peter Adamson

A tenth-century resident of Baghdad could read Arabic versions of just about everything by Aristotle that we can read today.

The great Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries changed the Near East and beyond politically, culturally, and, in a particularly profound and lasting way, linguistically, resulting in the near hegemony of the Arabic language. This new Islamic world took shape around an original and powerful new religion, but the consolidation of an Islamic civilisation was also a period of immense cultural exchange and mutual influence, not only from fellow Abrahamic traditions such as Judaism and Christianity, but also from the world of classical Mediterranean antiquity. Indeed, while knowledge of classical Greek science and philosophy fell into virtual oblivion in the Christian West, Islamic scholars kept the tradition alive by means of large scale translation projects and sophisticated philosophical works, from the Persian Avicenna to Baghdad’s legendary house of learning and the Andalusian polymath Averroes. In this interview, Professor Peter Adamson of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München talks us through this fascinating and often overlooked period in philosophical history by exploring the works of translation that made it possible.

Jonathan Egid (JE): By the time the grand translation projects of the early Islamic world began, the wonders of classical Greek philosophy had attained the status of ancient wisdom, almost one thousand years old and already much discussed and much translated. How did the works of Greek thinkers come to be translated into Arabic, and what was the interest in these ancient and foreign ideas?

Peter Adamson (PA): This was a process that unfolded over the course of centuries. The translation movement begins already in the eighth century CE and continues well into the tenth century. It was basically an initiative of the elites under the Abbasid caliphate, including even caliphs themselves and the caliphal family, who also had philosophers as court scholars. For instance, al-Kindī, the first philosopher to make explicit use of Hellenic materials in his own writing, was tutor to a caliph’s son and dedicated his most important work to the caliph himself. The translators were well paid experts, so this was a very deliberate and expensive undertaking managed from the top down. It should, however, be said that it was not something that was undertaken in a vacuum. For quite a long time there had already been translations made from Greek into Syriac and other Semitic languages, and these were a model for the Arabic translations (sometimes literally: it was known for works to be translated first into Syriac for the purpose of making an Arabic version on that basis). Also I would say the translation movement had a kind of momentum of its own: whereas at first the texts to be translated were really selected by the elite and for a variety of practical or political motives, eventually they get to the stage where they are translating the entire output of certain thinkers, or at least everything they can get their hands on, in a kind of completist project. So for instance, one of the greatest translators, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, was clearly trying to translate whatever he could by Galen, the most important Greek medical authority, while his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn worked his way through Aristotle.

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Translation Tuesday: “Untimely Love” by Konstantinos Poulis

She’s grabbed Nikos tightly by the arm and they’re making their way together, huddled in a crowd trying its best not to run and cause a stampede.

On August 20, 2018, Greece officially exited from the series of bailout programs that had imposed vicious austerity on the Greek people ever since 2010. Now, an international narrative of Grecovery—a tale in which austerity triumphs and the curtain falls on the country’s alleged recent return to “normalcy”—has firmly taken root. But Greece’s so-called clean exit is much dirtier than they’d have us believe: the ongoing relief program ensures that the country will be shouldered with a brutal debt burden until at least 2060.

Konstantinos Poulis’ story “Untimely Love,” from his 2014 collection Thermostat, was first published when Greece’s crisis was a fixture of international headlines. Though it shares with Poulis’ other stories an interest in the power and perils of the human imagination, “Untimely Love” differs in the kinds of questions that it poses about its limits. How do we carry on when the outside world seems to have little space or patience for imagination? What happens to storytelling when circumstances (such as police strikes and teargas) conspire to cut short our daydreams of happy endings?

This was one of very few stories in Thermostat to foreground the crisis. Now, against the fairytale of Grecovery, Nikos and Maria’s untimely love acquires a new kind of timeliness. The national victory claimed by politicians (“We reached our destination,” Alexis Tsipras triumphantly pronounced on August 20, 2018) is hardly the kind of ending that, according to this story’s logic, would allow Nikos and Maria their own happily-ever-after. And though politicians and media have pronounced the crisis over, daily realities constantly shatter that illusion—just as they shatter Nikos’ fantasies of romance. In a manner of speaking, it still “simply isn’t an age for falling in love.”

—Translator Johanna Hanink

 

It was the sweetest love story that blossomed after the outbreak of the sovereign debt crisis. Times were tough, and no one would have expected that, in a tense era of rapacious capitalistic attacks on working people, at a time when the international capitalist financiers had declared open war, Nikos would fall in love with a girl, a regular sweetheart. She’d happened to pass by the office to see a colleague, Anastasia, who worked in Accounting. The problem is that Nikos didn’t have much of a relationship with Anastasia, so he didn’t have the courage to find out more about her friend. He just gazed at her every time she happened to drop by to get Anastasia so the two could leave together in the afternoon.

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What’s New in Translation: February 2019

Find the latest in world literature here, presented by members of the Asymptote team.

Curious about new titles in translation from around the world? We’ve got you covered here, in this edition of What’s New in Translation.

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Woman of the Ashes by Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, World Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

Mia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, is the first book of a trilogy called As Areias do Imperador (The Sands of the Emperor). It tells of the fall of the Gaza Empire in Mozambique at the hands of the Portuguese. Bradshaw’s translation successfully elaborates on the original’s rich images and themes while maintaining the ambiguity and contradiction that characterize the disordered world of war between cultures. Through its two narrators, the novel weaves together the threads of two archetypal narratives. The warp is a story of empire and war. The weft is a story of storytelling itself.

The year is 1894–5, the confused and bloody moment in which the Portuguese Empire replaces the Nguni as the leading force in a region full of once independent peoples. Alternating chapters consist of a series of letters from the Portuguese Sergeant Germano de Melo, ostensibly to his supervisor. The voice of the interceding chapters belongs to Imani, a girl from a tribe that’s tentatively aligned itself with the Portuguese in the hopes of resisting the Nguni invaders. Having learned fluent Portuguese, she is appointed by her father to attend Sergeant Germano, himself a convict exiled for the crime of political action against the monarchy. These complementary characters find themselves dislocated from their people and sense of identity, stuck serving the very forces that sentence them to their own demise.

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My 2018: Jonathan Egid

I relished the opportunity to read texts with somewhat more invigorating prose than typically displayed in analytic philosophy journals.

Israeli writer Amos Oz and Cretan memoirist George Psychoundakis are two of the highlights of Assistant Blog Editor Jonathan Egid’s 2018 reading list. Addressing topics ranging from Israeli politics and the death of Jesus (Oz) to Renaissance poetry and home-brewed alcohol (Psychoundakis), the two writers nevertheless share a sense of humour and a talent for producing powerful and thought-provoking texts.

Having spent most of the first half of the year reading texts about, rather than in translation, as part of my research for a thesis on the philosophy of cultural and conceptual difference, I relished the opportunity to read texts with somewhat more invigorating prose than typically displayed in analytic philosophy journals, and my summer reading list was full of translated fiction.

High on this list was the Israeli writer Amos Oz’s first new novel in over a decade, Judas. An old-fashioned novel of ideas in the tradition of Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, Judas begins with an end; the protagonist Shmuel Ash is left suddenly by his girlfriend, and then learns of his father’s bankruptcy, which forces him to abandon his promising studies. He takes up work caring for an elderly cripple in an ancient house on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and the narrative follows Shmuel as he is drawn into the troubled history of this crumbling house and its mysterious and enticing inhabitants.

The narrative is interspersed with Shmuel’s reflections on his now-abandoned thesis, giving the story—which takes place almost entirely in the old house and the neighbouring streets, cafes, and alleyways—a dazzling historical and intellectual scope, as Oz spans continents and centuries from medieval Al-Andalus to Galician shtetls and kibbutzim on the Sharon plain, tracing the fraught history of Jesus and the Jews. The focus of these reflections is neither Jesus nor the Jews, but on the eponymous Judas, or rather on the figure of Judas, the figure of a most reviled and hated traitor.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

We're back with weekly updates in world literature from around the globe!

We’re back with our regular Friday column featuring weekly dispatches from our Asymptote team, telling you more about events in world literature. Join us on a journey to Guatemala and Chile, before heading to New York City, to find out more about the latest in world literature.

José García Escobar, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Guatemala:

We begin with great news coming from the Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon whose novel Mourning (Duelo in Spanish) got shortlisted for the 2018 Kirkus Prize. Halfon, whom we interviewed for our blog last June, is sitting beside other fantastic writers such as Ling Ma, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Lauren Groff. Mourning, published by Bellevue Literary Press, was translated into English by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn. The winner will be announced on Thursday, October 25, 2018.

Additionally, Halfon was just declared the recipient of the 2018 Miguel Angel Asturias National Prize in Literature, the most important literary prize in Guatemala.

On a much sadder note, recently, one of Guatemala’s most influential and emblematic poets, Julio Fausto Aguilera has passed away at the age of 88. He won the Miguel Angel Asturias prize, in 2002; he was part of the arts collective Saker-Ti, and one of the founding members of Nuevo Signo—arguably one of the most important literary groups in Central America. He wrote close to twenty books of poetry, and his family confirmed that he left two manuscripts that they hope will get published soon. Francisco Morales Santos, his friend en Nuevo Signo’s editor, called Julio Fausto a worthy and unbreakable man. Many other writers such as Vania Vargas and the most recent winner of the Miguel Angel Asturias Prize, Francisco Alejandro Méndez, also mourned the death of Aguilera.

To read more about Aguilera and Nuevo Signo, click here.

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Fall 2016: A Fresh Opportunity to Talk

Asymptote’s power lies in its willingness to account for the inexpressible and use it as ground-zero for its vision.

Halldór Laxness, Stefan Zweig, László Krasznahorkai—just when you think you are announcing just these three international literary superstars in the Fall 2016 lineup, it turns out you have four. On October 3, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti controversially unmasks Elena Ferrante as Anita Raja. But, even before Gatti’s unwelcome revelation, I had already picked out Anita Raja’s contribution as a highlight and intended to include her name in all our issue-related promotional materials. Fearing that we would be accused of riding the controversy, I drop a note to Criticism Editor Ellen Jones: “What do you make of all this Anita Raja = Elena Ferrante business? Is it opportunistic of us to feature her name in our publicity materials (which we already sent for printing) and on the cover (which can still be changed)?” The issue’s been on her mind as well. “We want to avoid the same kinds of accusations NYRB are getting in this morning’s papers,” Ellen says, “but I don’t think it would do too much harm to have her as one among many names in our promotion materials… I don’t think we need to bury a good essay on purpose, in short.” But what about in the promotional materials themselves? How much do we say about Anita Raja? Communications Manager Matthew Phipps decides in the end to take a risk and state matter-of-factly that Elena Ferrante has been unmasked as Anita Raja (which anyone who has been following literary news already knows). Too frazzled to make a call on the copy after staying up for 36 hours to put together the video trailer (it’s been a while since I made these for Asymptote, and I am rusty), I sign off on the newsletter. That’s how, in spite of a massive publicity blitz that involved printing and distributing 4,000 postcards; print and digital ads in the Times Literary Supplement that set us back by 900 GBP; 97 personalized emails to media outlets, 90 tweets, 20 Facebook posts, and seven blog posts about the Fall 2016 issue (all documented in then Marketing Manager Ryan Celley’s publicity report here), dear reader, we still came to be booed. Here to introduce our Fall 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Garrett Phelps. 

What a work of literature ‘means’ is always tough to get a feel for, let alone talk about. Of course a famous theorist or two have claimed this is an insurmountable difficulty. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. Not being too slick with the theoretical stuff, I’ll just say that literature is meaningful to the extent it’s ambiguous and open-ended. And if any idea unifies Asymptote’s Fall 2016 issue, it’s the way interpretive problems result from this state-of-affairs.

For Anita Raja, ignorance is the reader’s point of departure and return. In “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance” she argues that “the translator must be above all a good reader, capable of diving into the intricacies of the text, taking it apart, discerning all its nuance. The translator is, in short, a reader required to puzzle over the complexity of the original text, line after line, and to piece it together in the new language—a fundamentally impossible task.” Good translators are, essentially, readers par excellence. Anyone who’s dabbled in the field probably won’t find this idea controversial. Sooner or later, though, even a top-notch translator hits the same wall as the average reader, who’s more okay letting intricacies, nuances and puzzle-pieces remain gut-feelings. Demanding much more is futile even if doing so is worthwhile. This is especially true of translation, where success is often the sum of accumulated failures. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Cellophane” by Maria A. Ioannou

Dad and I chat away at night; he wrapped in cellophane.

From Malta to Japan, we continue our island-hopping this week with a new translation from Cyprus. This week’s Translation Tuesday of “Cellophane” by Maria A. Ioannou tells a heartbreaking story of a child dealing with the loss of a father. The young voice filled with both hope and pain comes through beautifully in Despina Pirketti’s translation. 

Dad and I chat away at night; he wrapped in cellophane.

When mum goes to bed I open the closet in the guest room. I show him my new toys, the big remote control tractor and my teddy bear—and he fogs up the cellophane with his breath, grooving hearts for me with his nose. I try to come closer and kiss him in the Eskimo way, but I can’t reach him, and before too long the sketches on the cellophane will fade, there’s no room for more. He stands there still, like Tutankhamun’s mummy enclosed in wood. This reminds me of the boxes that keep the dead locked in. “The living can’t stand the dead,” grandma used to say. The living are afraid of the dead, that’s why they shut them in a box, to keep them from waking up and seeking revenge like vampires do! My words.

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Translation Tuesday: “The Chickens” by Ursula Foskolou

My grandmother's head was cold and in places translucent, like ice that had started to melt.

This piece comes from a published collection of mostly short prose. Many of the stories draw on themes of childhood, memory, unrequited love, and inner conflict, often using strong imagery of hunger and smells. As a translator, what drew me to the stories was the author’s ability to take ordinary and daily experiences and display them in a way that is surreal or fantastical, with a focus on the physicality of our bodies and the objects around us—and to do it all in very short stories (100-150 words each). In this format the subtle differences in syntax and grammar between Greek and English become particularly pronounced. Foskolou often uses longer sentences with one or more dependent clauses, in a way that is not unusual in Greek but would sound awkward or wrong in English. Similarly, the author uses the Greek past imperfect tense to evoke a sense of time and events, and the emotions that surround these events, that is incomplete, deferred, imperfect. English does not have a past imperfect tense, forcing the translator to use other linguistic devices to create a similar effect.

—Pavlos Stavropoulos

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Winter 2018

Our editors choose their favorites from the Winter 2018 Issue.

Asymptote’s new Winter 2018 issue is replete with spectacular writing. See what our section editors have to say about the pieces closest to their hearts: 

It’s a struggle to pick ​just one poet to highlight from this momentous issue of our journal, but perhaps I will mention the Infrarealist Mexican poet José Vicente Anaya ​whose work Heriberto Yépez described as “revelation, a sacred practice against brainwashing and lobotomy” (source: translator​’s​ note). Much as each poet in this issue and ​the set of circumstances in which they write are distinct, I read all their works as sacred, necessary attempts to counter the forces of obliteration and oblivion against which they—and ​we—strive. In Anaya’s case, a core element of the ritual is híkuri (​”peyote” in ​the ​indigenous language of​ Rarámuri), the ingestion of which makes the speaker spiral, psychedelically, inward and outward​,​ so that nothing is quite separate from everything else. The revelation is this: we’ve overbuilt the world and left ourselves broken. Joshua ​Pollock’s translation recreates the visionary​ spirit​ of the hyperlingual source text to bring us the ferocity of lines such as these:

On Superhighways we hallucinate
in order to carry on living, Victor,
let’s build an anti-neutron bomb
that leaves life standing
demolishing suffocating buildings /
new machines working for everyone
so that time raises us
from joy
to Art
to joy / and
HUMANity governs without government

—Aditi Machado, Poetry Editor

“[there are also] a number of young writers who are emerging, for instance, in the Gambia, who are also catering a lot to the local market. They are to come.” — Tijan M. Sallah at an interview at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, 2012

It is impossible to think of Gambian literature without thinking of the poetry, short stories, and essays of Tijan M. Sallah. Sallah is The Gambia’s most renowned and prolific literary figure, but what makes him most remarkable is his generosity. Sallah, like many of the great Gambian writers before him, balanced his “day job” while continuing his tireless support of other writers and The Gambia’s burgeoning literary scene. For writers such as Lenrie Peters, it was being a medical doctor, while holding literary workshops for aspiring young Gambian writers; for Tijan M. Sallah, it was a successful career as an economist at the World Bank, while continuing to foster community among the Gambian diaspora’s literary voices, his early contributions to the Timbooktoo Bookstore, or even—lucky for us at Asymptote—his willingness to write this essay on some of The Gambia’s emerging poets. Sallah’s essay is both a tribute to the previous wave of Gambian writers and a passing on of the baton to the next generation of poets. In this essay, he spotlights three of the exciting new voices in the Gambian literary landscape today. It’s a must-read from this issue.

—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

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Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

If it’s true that every translation must inevitably fail, this passage would be Exhibit A.

In this final installment of Vincent Kling’s translation column, En Route, Up Close, Kling discusses the difficulties of translating complicated works and considers whether one should remain loyal to meter at the expense of feel and fluidity. Kling explores translation in all its layered complexity, demonstrating with characteristic erudition and generosity the reasons why literary translation as a form resists the confines of any universally accepted code.

Two Hurdles for Translators

1. The Relatively Easy One. Two newly acclaimed releases, Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey and David Ferry’s of the Aeneid, have prompted some discussion about what elements can and should be reproduced as closely as possible and what should—or indeed must—be altered. Reviewers are mainly concentrating on meter, because it is usually agreed that Homer’s and Virgil’s dactylic hexameters come across awkwardly in English; even a technical virtuoso like Longfellow couldn’t always make six-beat dactylic lines work in Evangeline. Both Wilson and Ferry have opted for blank verse (beautifully rendered in both cases), and even strict Augustans like Dryden and Pope knew better than to espouse a line that’s too long for flexibility in English. It was Dryden, after all, who adopted the idea of “imitation,” of the need to respect the nature of the target language. Later, Richard Wilbur shrewdly recast Molière’s alexandrines into pentameter, a decision that finally made the French dramatist’s work performable, even palatable, in a meter that best follows the contours of English accentuation. Anthony Hecht similarly forged vigorous, muscular heroic couplets out of Voltaire’s six-stress lines in his “Poem upon the Lisbon Disaster,” an idiomatic, fast-moving translation that is at its most ‘faithful’ in changing six beats to five.

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The Nobel’s Faulty Compass

After all, it seems hard to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. 

In the will he signed in Paris on November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel established five prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace. In the sciences, the key characteristic of a laureate’s contribution to the larger field was that it should be the “most important” discovery or improvement, while the peace prize was intended to recognize “the most or the best work” performed in pursuit of fostering what he called the “fraternity between nations.” Yet when turning to the award for careful work with language, Nobel would distinctly modify his own: he specified that the literary prize should go to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

From 1901 to 2017, women have exemplified that ideal direction a mere fourteen times. Although that dismal distribution has somewhat improved in recent years, it is nothing to brag about: only five women have won since 2004, and only six in the past twenty-one years. Such disappointing diversity continues when we turn to languages: of the 113 laureates in that same period, twenty-nine have written in English. That number does not even include three laureates who each wrote in two languages, one of which was English: Rabindranath Tagore, the songwriter who won a century before Bob Dylan and who also wrote in Bengali; Samuel Beckett, whose most famous work is titled En attendant Godot in the original French; and Joseph Brodsky, whose poems appeared in Russian and whose prose was written in the same language as the documents certifying the American citizenship he had acquired a decade before winning.

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Translator Profile: Jennifer Scappettone

The notion of a unitary, homogenous, and monolingual “America” is as much an alternative fact as Spicer’s attendance numbers at the inauguration.

Former Asymptote blog editor Allegra Rosenbaum interviews translator and scholar Jennifer Scappettone, whose profile appeared in our Winter 2016 issue. Her translation of Italian poet Milli Graffi was featured on the Asymptote blog last week and her translation of F. T. Marinetti’s futurist poetry appeared in our Spring 2016 issue. 

Who are you? What do you translate? (This is just a preliminary question! To be taken with an existential grain of salt.)

I am a poet and scholar of American and Italian nationalities who grew up in New York, across the street from a highly toxic landfill redolent of the family’s ancestral zone outside of Naples (laced with illegal poisonous dumps). I translate Fascists and anti-Fascists; Italian feminists and a single notorious misogynist; inheritors of Futurism and the historical avant-garde; and contemporary poets who are attempting to grapple with the millennial burden of the “Italian” language by channeling or annulling voices from Saint Francis through autonomia.

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In Conversation: Daniel Mendelsohn on his new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic

What I’m interested in creating is something that combines all the things that I do in my life as a reader and writer and teacher

Memoirist, critic, and translator Daniel Mendelsohn is perhaps best known for the application of mythic paradigms from the Western classics to the analysis of popular and literary culture. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006 for The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, and finalist again in 2012 for his essay collection Waiting for the Barbarians, his criticism frequently graces the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. The forthcoming release (Knopf, September 12) of his new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic—about his octogenarian father’s experience auditing his Odyssey freshman seminar at Bard College and their subsequent voyage aboard an Odyssey-themed cruise—occasioned this conversation with Asymptote Interviews Editor Henry Ace Knight.

Can you tell me about the genesis of the book? Was it taking shape in your mind as early as your dad’s request to sit in on the Odyssey course?

No, not at all. The sequence was that early in 2011, before the semester began, he approached me about taking my course; I knew that he was interested in rereading the classics in his old age, and I said, “Well, I’m doing this Odyssey course in the spring…” And he said, “Oh, can I take it?” It didn’t occur to me at the time that it might be something that I would write about. Then, about halfway through the course, at which point so many interesting and funny things were happening, I started taking notes—his interactions with the kids, the things he said about the text. Much of the book is based on the notes I took right after class, memorable exchanges I recorded. Around the midterm, I thought, “OK, somehow I’ve got to write about this,” although I hardly envisioned a book at that point. In fact, at the end of the semester, when Froma [Zeitlin, a Classics professor at Princeton and Mendelsohn’s mentor] told me about the “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise, I called a friend of mine who was the editor of a travel magazine, and I said, “My dad and I are going on this Odyssey cruise and I think I want to write about it.” But I only thought I was going to write a magazine article! Then, when my dad fell ill, I started thinking all of this was…suddenly it took on a shape, you know: the class and the cruise and his illness. And so I started thinking, in a sort of inchoate way, of how all of this could add up to something: him taking the class, us going on the cruise, and him suddenly having a stroke and thereby raising the question of whether he could be his old ‘self’—a very Odyssean question indeed. I started to see it all as one event moving along an arc and that that arc was the arc of the Odyssey.

Did you start to draw more and more parallels between the Odyssey and your relationship to your father as the semester progressed?

I’ve done this with several books now, this entwining ancient texts and personal narratives. I did it in my first memoir, The Elusive Embrace, in which I wrapped exegeses of various classical texts around a story about me and my family and being a gay man who decided to become a father—my story was interwoven with musings on classical texts about desire and parenting and so on. And then I did it in The Lost, in which the intertext is not a classical text but a biblical text: I used Genesis, with its memorable narratives about fratricide and global destruction and wandering and miraculous survivals, as a kind of foil for this family story about the Holocaust. Once you start thinking about a text, these parallels to your life start to present themselves. So in this case, because my mind was on the Odyssey, everything about what happened to Dad and me, the course, the cruise, started presenting itself as “odyssean,” as potential material, and the parallels between the personal narrative and the text started to make themselves felt. So, for instance, the first major section of my book, which recreates the first weeks of the Odyssey course and our discussions of the first four books of the Odyssey, which are about Odysseus’s son Telemachus going on a sort of fact-finding mission to learn what happened to his absent father, twines around flashbacks to my childhood in which I too am a boy searching for his father, trying to understand who he is. And so on.

What happens when I start thinking about a memoir is that I’ll have an intuition about how a certain text is going to structure the memoir, and then once I’m thinking that way it just takes off. But of course it’s only in the writing that you can really carefully work out the parallels and draw attention to them in a rather purposeful, literary way; so in this sense I’m also creating the parallels, I’m establishing them in my text for the reader. I know the Odyssey intimately, so as things were happening in real life I would think, “Oh my God, this is so Odyssean!”—like the guy on the boat with the scar. [A major revelation in An Odyssey turns on an encounter between Mendelsohn and an elderly fellow passenger who had a scar on his thigh dating to an incident in World War II. In Homer’s Odyssey, a climactic moment is linked to the history of a scar on Odysseus’s thigh.] When I met that old gentleman with the scar I thought, “You cannot make this stuff up!”—as it was happening, I was thinking that no one was going to believe this, it was just too good to be true. But it really happened!

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