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 recent release of his new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic (Knopf, 2017)—about his octogenarian father’s experience auditing Mendelsohn’s 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 (Knopf, 1999; Vintage, 2000), 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!
The challenge for me as a writer, of course, is to figure out a way to give the reader enough of the Odyssey so that when those remarkably “literary” moments happen, the moments of parallelism between life and the text, the reader can have that aha! moment, too—the reader recognizes the allusion. So for instance, the reader of my new book has to know about the scar in Book 18 of the Odyssey so that when the old man’s daughter approached me on the ship and said, “Oh you should talk to my father, he has a scar on his leg and a wonderful war story,” the reader will get it. And in this book the obvious way to give the reader the Odyssey, to familiarize the reader with the “master text,” was to recreate our classroom discussions over the course of the semester, so that the reader is “learning” the Odyssey just as the students did.
Can you tell us about the choice to explicitly model the structure of your own narrative after that of the Odyssey and to use Odyssean compositional techniques?
Once I started thinking of the book in terms of entwining this personal father-son story with the Odyssey class, I then had to think of a way to make the Odyssey itself a structural basis. This book took an unusually long time to write. I’m usually a very fast writer. The Lost is almost twice as long as the new book but it took exactly one year to write, whereas the new one took almost three and a half years. This was partly because the structure is so complicated—I had to figure out a way to map my story onto the story of the Odyssey in a really meaningful way. And at first I got it all wrong because I wasn’t thinking Homerically. I thought there would be four parts narrating my story in chronological order, more or less: the proem or introduction, the class, the cruise, and the hospital, in that order. And I wrote the entire “classroom” section, which was nearly five hundred pages in the first version, and it became clear that when you got to the end of the course, the book was over—no one at that point would have wanted to read another section about the cruise, and so forth. I realized I had to restructure the whole thing in a Homeric way, had to actually use Homeric techniques—to employ ring composition, to digress from the narrative in interesting ways that bend time and chronology. It was then that I realized that I had to fold the cruise and my father’s illness into the classroom narrative—and, hence, into the narration of the Odyssey’s plot. So the “plot” of my book, so to speak, is the course of the Odyssey seminar from January to May, but out of that reconstruction of the seminar there spiral outward many flashbacks—my childhood, my father’s youth—and many flash-forwards, too: to the cruise, which of course didn’t happen until after the course was over, and ultimately to my father’s illness. It’s odd that I didn’t figure this out earlier, because of course this is exactly how Homer constructs his narratives, too. Nothing is A-to-Z: it’s all convoluted, involuted, and so much more satisfying than getting everything in order.
Throughout my book I keep winking at the reader, so to speak—providing hints about how to read my book as well as how to read the Odyssey itself. I go to great lengths to describe ring composition, to explain how Homeric narration works, because this was a way of alerting the reader to how I’m telling my story. That took a long time to figure out how to do—there’s no question that it was the chief challenge of the book. Many people said to me, “Oh it’s taking so long because this must be such a difficult book to write, it’s your father and now he’s dead and it’s so sad.” But no, that wasn’t the hard part. It was actually great to think about my father all the time—it was like having him around, it was like a pleasant haunting. The difficulty wasn’t emotional, it was technical, figuring out the structure, and the only way to make it work was to make it Odyssean.
Another challenge was to make the sections of my book—which correspond to the various parts of the epic—thematically as well as structurally coherent and rich. So, for example, there’s the introductory part, the Proem, and then there’s a Telemachy—the formal name for the first four books of the Odyssey, Telemachus’ search for his father, which some ancients saw as being about the theme of paideusis, “Education.” So in my book that’s the part about me learning about my father, but also it’s about the seminar itself, me and my students . . . and then spirals back in time to my own student days, my relationships with my teachers, and so forth. Then there’s a section called Apologoi—the traditional name given to Odysseus’ famous adventures—which in my book is the part where I flash-forward to narrate my dad’s and my "adventures" on the Odyssey cruise, which is twined around recreations of our classroom discussions of Odysseus’s travels, and revisits in various ways the theme of storytelling and mythmaking in my own family history. And so on, culminating in the final sections, “Homecoming” and “Recognition,” which explore the meaning of those themes in the Homeric epic but also tie them to the illness and death of my father and what I learned about him from that experience.
So although the subject of this book is quite different in a sense from those of my earlier memoiristic or narrative-nonfiction works, the technique is the same and the thematic interests are very close: What is identity? How does narrative impinge on our sense of who we are? Can the identities we create through self-narration obliterate the “real” us? If I were a critic reviewing this book, it’s the first thing I’d notice—how it continues, in a way, the investigations of the first two memoirs. I hope that’s how at least some reviewers will engage with it. Nonfiction writers always have this terrible problem—sorry, but this is one of my great hobbyhorses!—which is that it’s rare for reviewers to treat nonfiction writers as writers. Instead, you’re always identified with the subject. As someone who has now written three substantial works of narrative nonfiction, I’m always bemused by the fact that some reviewers don’t feel compelled to read the other books I’ve written because they are about different “subjects.” It’s as if they thought, “Oh, he wrote a Holocaust book, now he’s writing a father-son book.” But my feeling is, “No, I’m interested in the same themes, I just have different vehicles.” And in fact, I surprised myself by suddenly realizing the other day, while leafing through the first finished copy of my book, that the structure of this book is, in fact, almost identical to the structure of The Lost. The first section covers a lot of history—the pre-history that is necessary to understand the narrative as it unfolds—and each major section after that keeps narrowing the temporal focus, a couple of months, one month, and so forth, until the last section in each book treats the events of a single day. It’s also very Homeric, this funneling.
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—thinking about ancient texts, and thinking as a critic, and being a memoirist who thinks about the past and how it impinges on the present—and I suppose I’ve just tried to create a form that allows me to do all three things in the same text.
Can you tell us about the role your father played in the course? The scene you describe from the first seminar is so familiar, that moment of paralyzed, panicked silence when the professor asks a question and everyone averts their eyes, or mumbles, or thumbs furiously through a text they haven’t read yet in search of the answer.
I love that thing that students do. You ask a question and they’re staring at the book. I always think, “Honey, if you haven’t read it by now, staring at the text now is not going to help.”
Right, in the first class it’s so absurd. And your dad seemed to set the tone for the class at a pivotal moment. You never expected him to intervene in the seminar discussion and when everyone else is sitting in stony silence he chimes in and seems to get everyone talking.
I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but actually that’s interesting and I think you’re probably right. My father was a catalyst. I’ve been teaching seminars for twenty-five years and I know what I’m doing, but his presence there really altered the dynamics of this seminar, in several ways. First of all, as the semester went by, more and more of the students looked toward my father as a kind of leader of the "Opposition," especially students like Blond Tom, who were always a bit contrarian. I think it was amusing for the students to have someone in the classroom who had more authority than I did just, as it were, ex officio—because he was my father, particularly at the beginning. My friend Bob Gottlieb, a great editor, always says the beginning of a book bears the most pressure, that’s the hardest thing to achieve, and it’s also true of a seminar. You have to establish your personality, the rhythm of the class, the relationship with the students, and you only have one chance to do that, and if you blow it, it’s very hard to come back from. I think my father helped a lot—just because the curious fact that he was in the classroom got things going. He was irrepressible, particularly because he was so exasperated by Odysseus as a character and he didn’t like him. That class was unusual—it turned out those kids were great and super smart—but I think at the beginning it was a little awkward because he was there. He filled in a lot at the beginning. And the fact that he was so contrary emboldened those kids to be more adventurous in their thinking than they otherwise might have been. I always encourage debate and all that, but we had, as you know, one very tense moment where one student really challenged me and accused me of trying to force my interpretations on the class—this was, in a way, the pedagogical climax of the course—and I think that happened because my father was there. Because he was always challenging me, it became okay for the students to do that. So I think my father did have quite a big impact on the shape of the semester.
I also think that he was an example in a different way. I now think that it was great for the students to see that, at the age of eighty-one, you would still be interested in taking a course on this stuff. Some of them have to take it, or are classics majors, and here’s this person schlepping three hours each way every week to take this course. I think that made a big impression on them.
Was that dynamic ever threatening or precarious for you?
Yeah, absolutely. The night after our first class session, when I got home I really did think, “This is going to be a nightmare.” I know I’m a good teacher. I’m a ham, and I have a good sense of humor, and my classes usually go well. But the first few sessions of the Odyssey course, I thought I had to come up with a way to deal with my dad’s presence, because I felt it was potentially disruptive—one of the many mistakes I made that semester, because it turned out to be the best possible thing. But it was unnerving at the beginning, these constant interruptions and disagreements. The other thing that was interesting about my father—he was obviously a very well-read person, but he was not a literature person, in the way that you and I are. People like us, writers and professors of literature, make certain assumptions about what literature is for, what it does, how it works; and literature people tend to love Odysseus because he’s a fabulist, a storyteller, a manipulator of language and words. So it was interesting to have in the classroom someone who was highly intelligent and well-read but who didn’t share any of these biases or pet theoretical approaches. And that’s where his ability to challenge me came from. It sounds funny on the face of it to say, as my dad did many times that semester, “Well I don’t think Odysseus is such a big hero, because he lies all the time,” but when you think about it, it’s an interesting question: Why do we heroize this person who was a liar and a cheater and who, in fact, leaves a trail of ruination everywhere he goes? He blinds the cyclops, he abandons Calypso, he destroys the nice Phaeacians who help him get home, he leaves heartache and destruction wherever he goes. He’s a dark character! And I saw that more clearly because of my father that semester—it was, in the end, great to have my father resist my own admiration for Odysseus.
As I suggest in the book, Dad’s dislike of Odysseus also ties into the fact that Odysseus reminded him, I suspect, of my mother’s father, about whom I wrote a great deal in The Lost. He was also a trickster and a fabulist, and I think that something was being worked out in that classroom whenever my father kept complaining about Odysseus, and it wasn’t just about the Odyssey!
Right, it’s this reciprocal lens of interpretation—you’re making sense of your relationship to your father through exegesis of the Odyssey, and your students, including your father, are inescapably filtering their understanding of the book through their own experiences. At one point Brendan asks this question about Telemachus—whether it’s more painful to never know your father, or to be forced to get to know him after twenty years apart—and you infer that it’s an insight sourced from his personal life. What makes Greek epic, Greek tragedy, the classical texts such a compelling lens through which to interpret your own familial relationships?
I’m going to try to evade this question in a very interesting way. At some point in the book I talk about my mother confronting the doctor at the hospital about my father and she needs to make a story out of it. The doctor just cares about his charts, but my mother needed a narrative. At this point in the book I write something like, “She’s her father’s daughter, it always has to be a story.” I was talking to her yesterday. She called up to say she fell, but it was fine and she’s okay. And I asked how she fell, and she said, “Well, the day before yesterday I had to go and buy an air conditioner . . . ” And I’m like, “Ma, just tell me about the part where you fell.” But for her she has to start with the day before. And that’s very Odyssean and very Homeric, too.
It’s the famous Joan Didion line, We all need stories to talk about our lives. The Greek myths subtend the way we think about things; they are a major source of our civilization. I’ve built my whole career on exploring this, not just as a memoirist but as a critic—these mythic patterns, these expectations of stories, they’re in us already. To some extent it’s a chicken-and-egg thing. I could say I like to use the Greeks as a lens because I’m interested in the Greeks, I’m a classicist, after all. But that’s a boring answer. The real answer is so many works of contemporary culture, high culture, pop culture—indeed so many real stories, so many things that happen and strike us as supremely resonant, assassinations, disasters, and so forth—would have no traction if these ancient, mythic ways of thinking weren’t already part of our cultural and mental furniture. For instance, even to say “the journey of one’s life” is already Greek-mythic: it’s an Odyssean phrase. The metaphor seems so self-evident but it isn’t, it’s self-evident precisely because the Odyssey exists, because there’s this great foundational epic in which journeying becomes a metaphor for life.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, there’s a long essay I wrote about the Titanic for The New Yorker, on the 2012 centenary of the sinking. The question is: So why does the Titanic resonate a hundred years later—why the cultural obsession? And my point was that it unconsciously feeds into a mythic structure that preexists in our own thinking about the world. You build a really big ship and say it can’t sink—well, it’s gotta sink! And when I say “it’s gotta sink,” we all know what I’m talking about—but the reason we know what I’m talking about, the reason we know that if you challenge nature you’re going to get screwed, is that the Greek idea of hubris and nemesis already exists in our culture. Imagine that there’s some culture that exists somewhere, in which it’s not a given that challenging nature is inevitably going to bring a punishment upon your head; for those people in that culture, the story of the Titanic would be just blah, would have no resonance, it’s just a stupid boat that makes a mistake and sinks. But it has resonance for us because our thinking is always and already structured by our classical inheritance.
And that’s why your question is difficult, because I don’t know what comes first, the chicken or the egg. You could say, “Oh, well Mendelsohn writes these books with all these classical parallels and classical lenses to think about culture because he’s a classicist,” and that’s certainly true. But I could say, “Nobody will read these books and get these books unless they already sort of get them to begin with,” if you see what I mean.
It occurs to me that this book is, to a certain extent, the product of chance. Your dad just wanted to revisit the classical texts of his youth—it could have been the Iliad or Antigone or the Aeneid, but you happened to be teaching the Odyssey that semester. I’m thinking of your conversation with Nino toward the end of the book, in which you discover that your father spent most of his working life thinking about chance and uncertainty.
Sure—you could say, “Oh well, it was an accident, what if I had been teaching the Iliad that semester?” And my response is, If I had been teaching the Iliad that semester we’d probably be sitting here talking about a book about a new memoir of mine called An Iliad. That’s what it means to be a writer. Life provides you with your material. It seems inevitable when you’re finished with it, but while it’s happening you just don’t know—it’s just the raw material, and the difference between writers and other people is that the writer will make what happens to him feel as if it had to happen. Your question is really about narrative and storytelling. We used to have this joke about my grandfather, my mother’s father, who is a very central character in my Holocaust book: the joke was that if you go to the grocery store to buy a quart of milk, you come back with a quart of milk. But if Grandpa goes to the grocery store to buy a quart of milk, he brings back the milk but he also has fifty amazing things that happened to him, he met his first three wives, he won the lotto, he ran into his buddy from the Bronx, he rescued a bird—and so on. It’s not that he’s any different than me and you. There are just certain kinds of people who make things happen, and they are writers, basically. Or it’s not even that they make things happen; it’s that things happen and they make them look like they had to happen. If we’d read the Iliad I would have written a different book and gone on a different cruise.
Were your interpretations of the Iliad when your dad read it on the cruise as divergent as your interpretations of Odysseus’ character?
It’s an interesting thing to bring up because my father just got the Iliad in a way that he never got the Odyssey. He was so resistant to Odysseus. But the Iliad, he loved, and I can see why: he was formed by the Second World War, and a global cataclysmic conflict made sense to him, as did having one’s manhood and heroism tested and so forth. That made sense to him, that discourse of the Iliad—made sense to him in a way that the discourse of the Odyssey never did. He was always suspicious of it.
I was struck by the extent to which your pursuit of the classics was interwoven with your relationship to your father. You tell the story of a drama project in high school for which you were required to recite an excerpt of a play from memory. You picked Antigone from an anthology of the Greek tragedies because it was the sort of play you imagined your dad liking.
Yeah, and I always like to give my dad credit. Looking back I now see the extent to which my father was responsible for me being a classicist. In more ways than one—it wasn’t just his obsession with rigor and difficulty and all of that, but he was a star Latin student, he had a feel for the exactitudes of the classics. I didn’t realize it at the time—I wish I had—but he really supported my choice. In the milieu where I grew up, on Long Island, second-generation Americans, the highest aspiration of kids my age was to be an orthodontist. That was the career track—you were supposed to be a professional, a doctor, a lawyer. But when I announced to my parents that I wanted to study Greek my dad was ecstatic, he thought that was just great. He always supported my intellectual enthusiasms—I think a little vicariously because, as you know from the book, he didn’t continue to pursue Latin himself for all kinds of complicated reasons. I think the Classical languages appealed to him because to some extent they were like math. There’s a known correlation among secondary school teachers of prowess in mathematics and Latin, and when you think of it you can see why: in both, you have to be able to think about paradigms and structures in a certain way. A lot of kids who are good at languages or who love books and reading and mythology come to grief over the classical languages because they’re highly inflected, structured with unbelievable complexity and subtlety; but a certain kind of brain, a mathematical brain, doesn’t see a problem with that. So temperamentally, my father was suited to a kind of philological rigor. That was the part of classics he understood. I remember when I wrote a piece for Bob Silvers [the late founding editor of The New York Review of Books] many years ago about A.E. Housman, a great textual critic of the classical works, when I described in detail just what it is that textual critics do—looking at multiple manuscripts of an ancient work and figuring out what the right reading ought to be—my father loved that. He said, “It’s like the Times crossword puzzle!’ and I said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what it’s like, you have to know the language well enough to know what the missing parts are.” He really was the source of that impulse in me, and I like the idea that I can give him credit for that.
You’re well known for applying ancient classical texts to pop culture criticism. Can you tell us about your father’s aversion to pop culture while you were growing up, which you detail in the book? You and your siblings seemed to indulge in secret.
Well, certain kinds of pop culture. My father was a great moviegoer and loved the popular songs of his era—and in fact, later. He was very interested in rock and roll. He was an early Beatles fan.
Before they were cool?
At the very beginning. I remember the day Sgt. Pepper came out we were jumping up and down with excitement waiting for him to come back from Sam Goody with the album, and when he did, we put it on the record player downstairs, and we danced around. So it wasn’t at all that he was against pop culture, he was merely against the kind of mushy parts of pop culture. I think a lot of contemporary bubblegum rock he would have hated. But anything he saw as authentic, he approved of. I think sitting around in secret listening to Jackson Browne albums was not something he would have approved of my doing, just because he thought there was no rigor, it was mushy. But he loved lyrics particularly and he always loved listening to interesting lyrics. His disdain wasn’t for the pop part, it was just for the aspects of pop culture that were superficial. We always talked about old movies, too, movies from his youth, the thirties and forties, although again to his credit he wasn’t blindly loyal to them. I remember one day about ten years ago he called me up and said, “You know, Dan, the best thing about Turner Classic Movie Channel is that it reminds you how many old movies are really terrible!” He understood that just because they were old they weren’t ipso facto “classics.”
I think my father set a great example. It wasn’t like we had to listen to classical music all the time, but he wanted us to appreciate quality. Great quality comes in all different forms. That was something he was intent on teaching us. There was no genre that was necessarily better than any other, it was that certain qualities were important. And that’s something I believe in strongly and a point I’m always trying to make in my writing about popular culture. I take everything seriously. By the same token, if you want to be taken seriously then you have to step up to the plate. Fine, I’m going to go see Spiderman: Turn off the Dark: Why not? But if you claim seriousness for your work of popular culture—as Julie Taymor et al. did—then you have to be willing to be judged by serious standards. Have you seen the new Planet of the Apes movie? It’s so good. This is the third in the newly rebooted series. So yeah, I’m happy to look at anything, and I think my father was actually pretty open-minded for most of his life. He listened to everything, and I try to emulate that.
Do you go to the movies a lot?
Yeah, I always go to the movies. Partly because I love them and partly because after you’ve spent eight or nine hours staring at a computer screen all day you have to do something else.
Look at a bigger screen!
Well, a slightly bigger screen. I’m also addicted to TV, which is so great just now, how could I ignore it? Years ago, I was gossiping with my agent about a date I had gone on with this guy who was a professor. I said, “You know, he has no television. He has a piano but no television, because he told me that at a certain point he had to decide whether he was going to have one or the other and he chose the piano.” And my agent said, “Don’t date him! You can’t date anyone who doesn’t watch television.” And I thought, My God, she’s right. Because this is our culture, you have to know it. How can you “profess” and have no idea what your or your students’ culture actually consists of? And a lot of it is great. I don’t mind what form quality comes in.
Whenever people disagree with me, I’ve noticed—people in the comments sections or whatever—they always say, “Oh, he’s a classicist,” as if classicists do nothing but stare at busts of Homer all day and never go to see a Spiderman movie. It’s so idiotic. Nobody’s asking Emily Nussbaum what she majored in, why do they care what I majored in? If anything, I think my background as a classicist gives me a way of talking about things because the classics are elemental and primal in a way that nothing else is, and that’s a great advantage. So when people say, “Oh, how can he talk about Mad Men? He’s a classicist,” my response is, “That’s precisely why I can talk about Mad Men”—because we know about narrative, and drama, and form; Aristotle really did have it all pretty much figured out in the Poetics. And in fact it’s actually amazing how many allegedly “modern”—or even postmodern—devices the Greeks had figured out. I did a piece for The New Yorker about five years ago, a roundup of classically themed recent novels, and one of them was a book I quite liked, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason. There were a series of chapters consisting of very clever riffs on Odyssean themes, very amusing. But in fact there was nothing that wasn’t already in the Odyssey itself. The Odyssey, for instance, gestures in this very weird postmodern way to parallel Odysseys, to other versions of itself and other epics: in it, there are banquets when bards start singing songs that are clearly riffs on the Iliad and Odyssey themselves. It’s very sophisticated. It’s hard to outfox the Greeks. They already thought of so much.
What do you make of the more experimental translations of Greek and Latin classics emerging recently?
I’m all for them. Particularly with the classics because the territory is both vast and well-trodden, I think there’s always room for more. Anne Carson is a fabulous example of the kind of thing that I think is so great, these creative adaptations of the classics—taking classical texts and massaging them in unexpected ways, like her Autobiography of Red. It’s a poem-as-novel, based on a Greek myth about a strange character called Geryon. Some people get very indignant about more experimental treatments of the classics and I think, well, you know, even if they’re no good, it’s not like they’re going to hurt the classics. It’s not as if Homer is going to take a hit from some weird experimental translation of the Odyssey. My feeling is, it’s totally fine, there’s room for everything. As a critic, my feeling is that the criterion for judging these things is not necessarily some absolute platonic criterion that preexists and inheres in the structure of the cosmos that will tell you whether a translation is “right” or “wrong.” I think you have to judge things by the standard that the author announces. So if someone is doing some kind of creative adaptation of Homer, you can’t then review it and say, “Oh, well, this is nothing like Homer.” You have to take into account what the aim of the piece is. And, as I never tire of saying, the Greeks themselves futzed around with their own mythic tradition in experimental ways. A lot of Greek tragedy is already experimental riffing on Homeric themes. I just wrote a review of a book by Colm Tóibín which is based on the Oresteia narrative, in which he does some very Euripidean playing around with the myth. I’m always in favor of this kind of playing around. And if they don’t work, they don’t work—so what? If you treat the classics as sacred territory, that’s the real mistake. Myth is plastic, not a set thing. This is the difference between the classical and the biblical traditions. There is no master text in the classics that cannot be touched. Certainly, for example, the Iliad had great authority for the ancient Greeks—but people were always adapting episodes from it and rewriting them and so forth.
What was your approach to translating Cavafy? What was most challenging about rendering his poems in English?
Every translation is, to some extent, a reaction to previous translations. When I began my Cavafy translation, in the mid-1990s, there were relatively few English translations of the complete poems available (this has changed by now). The preeminent one was the Keeley-Sherrard version, published in the 1970s. This marvelous translation had done so much to make Cavafy known in the Anglophone world—and, in particular, to make him known as a modern poet: the diction is crisp and plain, and one feels, reading this version, the presence of a poet very much of the twentieth century.
In reaction to that, I wanted to emphasize certain other qualities in Cavafy’s verse—not least, the formal elements that were less apparent in some of the Keeley-Sherrard versions: the persistence of rhyme, for instance, and Cavafy’s use of sonnet forms, and a certain strangeness of diction, an archaizing impulse that one feels in the verse even into the late poems of the 1920s and 1930s. So I went out of my way in my own rendering to bring those qualities to the surface again.
As for approach, I suspect that, like many other translators, I vastly underestimated the challenges when I began. This is a sign, no doubt, that you’re working on a really great writer, the complexity and depth of whose meanings and technique become only more apparent as you work on the material. In Cavafy’s case, there’s a surface plainness that seemed relatively easy, at first, to render, but (as always in such cases) masks a thousand subtle and delicate and difficult choices, all of which I became more and more aware of over time. If anything, I came to respect and admire what earlier translators had accomplished the more I worked on my own version. As time passed and I abandoned some of the more strident or showy choices that had at first seemed attractive, I realized that some of the existing renderings had gotten things just right, and the impulse to do things differently just for the sake of novelty had to be resisted.
A feature of my translation that very much played into my life as a critic and, so to speak, a public explainer of classical texts, is the extensive literary commentary that accompanies it, and preparing the commentary took an enormous amount of time and labor. As many people know, I’m a classicist and Hellenist, and that training equipped me to deal with some of Cavafy’s so-called “historical poems”—the ones with ancient or mythological settings. But his areas of historical interest lie largely outside of mine, in fact (he has almost no interest in the High Classical period, Periclean Athens, Greek tragedy, and so forth, which have always been my scholarly focus), and so I had to spend years, literally, reeducating myself in order to prepare the notes on the poems set in the Hellenistic and Roman and Late Antique and Byzantine periods—to say nothing of the contemporary poems, which required a different kind of preparation. But it was worth it in the end, and I like to think that the commentary offers readers a useful way into the poems. I was startled, when some of the UK reviews of the translation came out, that a few critics felt that Cavafy is too recent to require a commentary. I was, like, “Really? You’re that familiar with John Catacuzenus, Mr. Daily Newspaper reviewer?”
In a 2014 interview with the French publication La Revue des Deux Mondes, you named Cavafy and Proust as the two writers "who accompanied [you] along the way working on The Lost." How has the process of translating Cavafy's poetry affected your own writing?
Well, you choose your writers and your writers choose you. In my own work, both my criticism and narrative nonfiction, I am interested in time and memory and particularly in the tension that can arise between history (by which I mean, oral or written narratives of events in the past) and memory, and in which traces and memories of prior civilizations and earlier lives haunt the present. These are large themes in Cavafy. It’s why I have responded to him so strongly from the start (and to Proust, of course)—and working on him so minutely kept these themes and issues uppermost in my mind during the years of the translation process, which also happened to be the years I was working on The Lost, my narrative nonfiction account of my attempts to glean information about relatives who were murdered during the Holocaust. There’s no doubt in my mind that Cavafy’s sensibility seeped into my own as I pondered questions of history and what it means to have “lost” past, which is something of huge importance to him.
As the Odyssey seminar unfolds, one of the concepts you discuss is what the Greeks called homophrosyne, which you translate as “like-mindedness,” the bedrock of any stable relationship. How are you and your father like-minded, and how are you not?
To some extent, I think a great inheritance from my father is a kind of taste for rigor, intellectually. I think I have ended up being very much like him. Certainly when I’m writing as a critic, I find myself thinking most like my father—particularly in his impatience with superficial qualities that are not supported by a deeper structural necessity. That’s something that comes directly from my father. There’s no question that I’m much more sentimental than my father, more mushy and willing to be open about my emotions. I think in a lot of ways my father was very uncomfortable expressing emotions—much to my mother’s dismay, as you know from reading the book! We’re temperamentally very different but intellectually more alike than I ever thought we would be. But look, I discovered some surprising things about my father while we were traveling together—and I should say, parenthetically, that we traveled together very often in the last six or seven years of his life; the Odyssey cruise was just one adventure. He had always wanted to travel, but my mother didn’t, and so he didn’t go anywhere. But then, in the last six or seven years of his life, I started taking him everywhere with me—when I had professional obligations, literary festivals, book tours, whatever. We had many adventures. We went to England, South Africa, Jerusalem, Paris. We traveled a lot, and so we talked a lot, and one thing I learned—and this is a major part of my new book—is that my father was a lot more feeling, as a person, than I had ever given him credit for when I was young. In fact, the punchline of the new book, the culmination of a sort of ongoing mystery, is the answer to a question that was one of the mysteries of my father’s biography: he’d gotten into a very prestigious high school but went to the second-best school, and I always had wondered why he didn’t go to the best one—he who’d pushed his children to go to the best schools, etc. And at the end of the book you find out why, and it was actually a very touching, very sentimental reason.
Did the seminar, the trip, and the process of writing the book itself shift your conception of how like-minded you two were?
I don’t know whether it shifted my conception of how like-minded we were. It certainly shifted my impression of my father, all the things I learned about him. Something I’m very interested in—and that I’ve written about in other books of mine; certainly it’s at the heart of The Lost—is how hard it is to know someone, to know a thing. There’s that wonderful Orson Welles movie—I think it’s A Touch of Evil—where Marlene Dietrich says at the end, after the main character dies, “What can you really know about a man?”—something like that. My brother Eric, a filmmaker, always talks about that line. That’s a great obsession of mine—What can you really know about a person? Because the selves that we present—this is a very Odyssean consideration, of course—to the world may not be false but they’re not equal to all of ourselves. This is a great obsession of Henry Green, whom I like a lot; I was so happy to have an opportunity to write about him recently, in an introduction to one of those NYRB reissues of some of his work. The tension between what we present and what we are: that’s the greatest subject. But it’s also about history as well as people. In my Holocaust book I was trying to know something about these people, my murdered relatives in Poland, who just disappeared off the face of the earth. And I wanted to know just what could be known about them—not in some general, statistical way but what specifics could be known, seventy years later? And that is its real subject—not the Holocaust per se, but “what can you really know about the past?” The new book, in a certain way, shares that theme but it has a subject who is, in fact, known to me: my father. What do I really know about my father? Much of the journey that is sketched in this book, both in the actual Odyssey cruise but also the experience of teaching him, revealed a “him” to me that I was unaware of. For instance, I was very impatient all semester because I felt my father had made no effort to get to know the students. He would sit in the same corner every day and rarely refer to them by name in class discussion. Only at the end of the course did I realize that, in fact, he had relationships with many of these students and was talking with them and coaching them and mentoring them, sort of behind my back. I had no idea.
This leads me to the next fascination of mine. I’m very interested in this question of perspective, which is very Odyssean, too: I guess it’s why I had to end up writing about the Odyssey. As narrators, because we have our own mentalities and preoccupations and tastes and values, we are often prevented from seeing things that others see. This is also a Proustian issue, but it starts in the Odyssey. For example, we all know how Odysseus defeats the huge hulking cyclops, by virtue of some very sophisticated trickery. At the end of the episode, the cyclops admits to being surprised that he was defeated by a puny little guy. He always knew that someone was going to come along and challenge him—it had been foretold—but he was expecting a big guy, and so he didn’t notice the little guy who actually did turn up, and didn’t take him seriously, and that’s why he was defeated. It’s about how your perspective—your identity, in a word—shapes your mental world, your life expectations. I had certain notions of my father that were exploded during the course of this seminar and the cruise, and also in his illness and death. It’s a sort of cliché, of course, but when you teach, you learn as much as you teach, about your students, about your subject. That was certainly no different in the case of my father than it was in the case of my students. I learned a lot about him through his reactions to the text, what they revealed about him not as a reader but as a person. (Hence his dislike of Odysseus was, in part, due to the fact that Odysseus reminded him of my grandfather, whom he didn’t really get along with.) Our tastes as readers are deeply shaped by experiences and tastes which seem to have nothing to do with literature but do in fact make themselves secretly felt in funny ways. My father’s not a dummy, he knew how to read, and he couldn’t stand Odysseus.
It seems like one of the best aspects of the seminar was hearing a fresh perspective that diverged from what you’ve generally encountered in past iterations of the course.
Yes, there’s no question. The book is not only about fathers and sons, but about teachers and students, about what it means to be a teacher—about parenting as a kind of allegory of teaching, or maybe vice versa. So much of what I was trying to teach those students that semester was what I had learned from my teachers, and that’s why I have these digressions about Froma and Jenny [Strauss Clay, Mendelsohn’s undergraduate mentor] and the incredible effect they had on me as a thinker. When you’re teaching, you have to tread a very fine line between wanting to impart what you know and wanting to be open to what the students know or are aware of. You don’t want to squash their originality. On the one hand, you have to keep them on the straight and narrow, so to speak, have to impart the facts, the stuff, the knowledge. And that also goes for interpretations. You’re trained in a certain way and you want them to be independent-minded, and indeed sometimes they’ll come up with some brilliant new idea that’s totally theirs and you have to acknowledge the validity of it. That’s why that climactic scene in my new book is so central—the scene where I have that confrontation with the students who have come up with this very clever idea when we were discussing the Apologoi, Odysseus’ narration in Books 9 through 12 of all his famous adventures, their idea being that maybe Odysseus just made the whole thing up. It was a really interesting idea. Other people have talked about this—the students couldn’t know that because they’re not immersed in the secondary literature—because it’s true that many of the adventures Odysseus relates bear uncanny resemblances to episodes that Homer himself narrates. (For instance, Odysseus recalls meeting a hideous, cannibalistic trio of royals, a princess and her parents, an episode that is like a nightmare version of his visit with the charming princess Nausikaa and her parents.) I had my own ideas about this part of the text, but they had just come to a conclusion which was totally opposite to the conclusion that I had been led to when I was a student. That was unsettling, but it was, as Froma likes to say, “scathingly brilliant.” It was really good. And that’s teaching. It’s like raising children—you train them so that they’ll be able to leave you behind. You want them to be independent, of course, but maybe there’s also part of you that still wistfully wants them to think like you do, too. Not in some slavish way, but to resemble you somehow, right? Interestingly, this business of resemblances as proof of filiation is a great anxiety of the Odyssey. Is Telemachus really the son of Odysseus, the young man wonders glumly. What does it mean to be someone’s child? Does it mean you look like them? Do you think like them? How do you prove it? These are great Odyssean issues and believe me, they work themselves out in the classroom, too.
It’s funny because it worked itself out in this particular class. One young woman who was really smart, very even-tempered, very well-spoken, and who wrote a brilliant classics thesis went on to become a speech therapist; I was convinced that she was going to go to grad school in classics. Whereas Jack, the class wise guy, became a classics major. One of the things about teaching is you just never know what effect you’re going to have. Teachers, like parents, can bring their young only so far, and then they do their own thing. Given these parallelisms between teaching and parenting, it was so great, so overdetermined in a way, to be teaching a class in which my parent was also my student. If it were a novel, I couldn’t think of a better way to treat that theme.
Have you written any fiction since your dad responded to that story you placed on his desk when you were fourteen with an offhand comment about the impossibility of perfect love? Did you have ambitions to write fiction and that comment maybe steered you in a different direction?
That’s so interesting, I’d never thought of that before. Subconsciously, maybe it fried my wires or something. I wrote a lot of fiction when I was a teenager, which was all very crude wish-fulfillment, as I think beginning fiction is, and lots and lots of very bad poetry. All of my short stories were about dark-haired, brooding Long Island boys who met cute, blond, British lords on ocean cruises and then everyone died of a terrible disease. Or the boat sank, or whatever. I doubt all this would pose much of a challenge for a psychoanalyst. And I showed one of these stories to my dad one day, very tentatively and shyly, and he read it and said, “It’s beautiful, Dan . . . but don’t believe any of that shit about perfect love.” It floored me. I don’t know if that particular instance turned me off to fiction: maybe. If one were doing a psychoanalytical reading of my work, as you are doing by asking this question, one might say that maybe my insistence on being a nonfiction writer and a classicist and a critic—that my insistence on rejecting fiction—was a way of trying to please my father. Because I could imagine my father thinking that nonfiction is the harder of the two; as my father might put it, “anyone could just make something up.” (I don’t believe this, of course!) But to grapple with what is really in the world and to have standards and to apply them—that’s tough. And as you know from my book, “tough” was something my father admired.
That said, the sad fact is I could never write fiction because I could never make up a story. I could never make up a plot, if I tried for a thousand years. Even “Jack crossed the road”—I couldn’t even think of that. Just envisioning Jack and trying to dream up why he’s crossing the road would make me want to lie down on the sofa with a cold compress.
Has your family read the book?
They’re reading it now. I’m in a state of total anxiety.
Are your boys old enough to read it?
Peter is going to be a senior in college this fall. He’s an English major with a minor in classics—no pressure from me, I swear! Thomas is going to be a senior in high school and is brilliant with his hands and a genius at every sport he picks up. Who knows? I remember when my first book came out, which was very much about deciding to become a parent, about Peter’s birth and babyhood, and I mentioned to Gottlieb that Peter’s mother and I were worried about what he might think when he grew up and read the book, which is also about my life as a gay man, cruising and hookups, and Bob laughed and said, “Don’t worry, writers’ children never read their books.”
Lots of graduations on the horizon!
Yeah, it’s a big year for us. Anyway, whether they read it or not, they’re going to get copies. As for my siblings, of course I’m in a state of anxiety. My sister read it. She’s a journalist, and we had a long conversation about it. Obviously I’m antsy. It’s a delicate thing because I’m one of five children. I’m not an only child, but I can only tell my story. Every child has a different set of parents. You always have different relationships to your parents than your siblings do. My brother Matt, who’s a photographer, had a very different relationship with my father. So I’m kind of fascinated to see what he and the others are going to come up with as far as their reactions go. I know from past experience that people remember things differently in families. That’s one reason I often consulted with my siblings about certain episodes in our childhood, and quite often would get wildly different versions of the same event.
Like the remembrance of your father’s military service—everyone had a different impression of the facts, and it was unclear if he had told different stories to each of you or if you had just remembered the same story differently.
Yeah, or the famous story of the rabid dog—my dad had always said he’d been bitten by a rabid dog when he was, like, nine, as a way of explaining his lifelong fear of dogs. This becomes important in my book, actually—it’s twined around some crucial dog stories in the Odyssey, of course—but it turned out that only Andrew had heard the full story, which isn’t at all what I remembered. This is a phenomenon I’m always writing about; obviously it played a very big role in the research for my Holocaust book, in which I was interviewing people about an important historical event and everyone had a different memory of things that happened. That to me is so interesting. I’ve written about it in different ways. For example: My sister is the only sibling I’ve talked to who’s read this whole book thus far. After she finished she called me up and we talked about it and at some point she said, “Well, my only question is that my memory of Dad’s illness is so different from what you wrote.” But then, she lives in Baltimore and was coming up once every week or ten days, whereas I lived in New York at the time, and I was there every day or every other day—at a certain point after his stroke my dad was in rehab in the city, on the East Side, so I was there every night. We have different memories of what he was like when he was ill, because I was seeing him almost every day, and she was seeing him a few times a month. So of course our memories are different—it’s not that one is right or wrong, but they’re constructed out of different snippets.
My mother is reading it very slowly. It’s hard for her because she can only read a few pages at a time because she says it’s hard to think about him a lot, but she’s making her way through it.
It’s fascinating, this process of family epistemology, how we know what we know about certain family members, and the impediments to learning that come with each category of relationship.
It’s such an Odyssean thing. Telemachus goes out and interviews his dad’s buddies to find out about things that happened before he was born, and of course the picture he’s forming of this man he never really knew—Odysseus left for the Trojan War when his son was an infant—is hazy, an accumulation of fragments, a kind of mosaic. Talk about parallels—that just couldn’t be better for me. I’m interested in this process in general—family epistemologies, as you call it. My first book, The Elusive Embrace, is about how families tell stories about themselves that may or may not be true but that satisfy their vision of who they are in the world. That’s a theme that I’ve always wrestled with. In that book, it was all about this story my grandfather used to tell—which turned out not to be true at all—but he had come to believe it because it suited his vision of who he was and who his family was: beautiful, tragic, victimized. When I was interviewing my dad’s brother Howard and his best friend Nino for the new book, there were some real revelations about the differences between stories my father had told, or allowed us to think were true, and what really had happened. Some of it was just facts we couldn’t know, but in my case, at least, there were things he allowed me to believe which turned out to be not quite true—for instance, the real reason why he never finished his dissertation. Here again, we’re confronting the subject I was talking about before—the way that your own subjectivity occludes the possibility of knowing things correctly. There were so many revelations in that part of the book, which is called “Recognition”: recognition being a crucial theme toward the end of the Odyssey, when both Odysseus and Penelope have to find ways of proving who they are to each other.
That was an interesting part of the book because it ran entirely contrary to your conception up to that point of who he was as a character.
Right, but that was poignant to me because he violated his own precepts about truth and never lying, by allowing us to believe this thing that wasn’t true—because he was so ashamed, because he couldn’t deal with his not having finished his dissertation. To some extent this book, like the others, is structured as a mystery, with my father’s true identity as the mystery that has to be solved. My first book is also very much about solving a family mystery, and The Lost is about solving a sort of large family mystery that intersects with a great historical trauma, and this book is about trying to figure out who my father is. In all of these books I’m fascinated by the same double problem, which is the subjectivity of the narrator or the questioner and the subjectivity of the subject itself. You can’t see things clearly because you are who you are, with your prejudices and tastes, especially when it comes to a family member. And you also can’t see things clearly, can’t know things clearly, because they themselves have their agendas, might not be telling the truth, or maybe half-truths. For example, I was floored to find out my father had been offered a West Point commission. That was just amazing to me. Whenever he talked about his army service, it was, “Oh I peeled potatoes in Petersburg, Virginia.” That was all he ever said and he poo-pooed the whole army experience. And then it turns out he was this great character who they thought so highly of they wanted him to go to West Point. If my father had been a slightly different kind of person, he would say, “Well, you know I was offered a West Point thing, but I wasn’t interested in West Point.” But being himself, he said nothing, and that sort of deepened the mystery about him. All those little things. I always thought he lived in this crowded apartment growing up, and it turned out he was totally alone; he was this little kid who just read books to keep him company. That was so sad.
The process of researching and writing about people and events in the way I’m trying to do is like trying to get a clear view of somebody in a train across the platform, but both your train and their train are moving. And all the while somebody is asking you, “What does that person look like?” or “What just happened in that car?” And you’re saying, “Well, it’s hard to know, because the windows keep passing each other, it’s a blur . . . ” That’s what it’s like to engage in this kind of search, but that’s the question I find so interesting.
So by the end of the narrative your father ended up being as mysterious and opaque to you as perhaps Odysseus is at first glance when you’re reading the Telemachy?
Well yes, but maybe it's only a mystery if we insist on a unitary identity. Maybe he’s not a mystery, he’s just—in that polytropic way—more things than I thought he was. They only looked mysterious and incoherent because I had a notion of who my father was that was ultimately belied by what I found out about him, that he was sentimental, he was gentle, he was generous, that he was also rough, and sometimes cruel, cold. Like Odysseus, he was many things, and my mistake was trying to think of him as one thing.
And this way of seeing your parents, the difficulties we have seeing them clearly, is also something the Odyssey understands. As I write in the book, “Parents are mysterious to their children in a way that children are never mysterious to their parents.” The poet of the Odyssey understands that. Telemachus doesn’t really understand anything about either of his parents. He’s also so exasperated at the end of the story, after Odysseus has slaughtered the Suitors and finally confronts his wife after twenty years, all disguises cast away—and Penelope is still wary, still suspicious, and insists on testing the man who claims to be her long-lost husband. And Telemachus is, like, “Ma, just go and hug him!” But she says, “Not so fast.” She needs to test Odysseus. It just shows you how little the son knows—he’s come very far, he’s learned a lot since those first few books of the poem, but even at the end of the epic he doesn’t fully understand these two people who created him. We, the audience, do, and so we know that it’s Penelope’s insistence on testing Odysseus—even after he’s killed all the Suitors and thereby, you’d think, proving who he was—that proves she’s the same old clever Penelope that her husband left behind two decades earlier, the kind of woman he should be with. But Telemachus is still clueless. It’s kind of adorable. Whoever composed that poem knew a lot about families.
An interview with Daniel Mendelsohn
Henry Ace Knight