The Classicist’s Eye

On the cover of Daniel Mendelsohn’s new book, the lower part of a broken portrait bust from ancient Egypt confronts the reader with still smoldering intensity. The bust belongs to the Metropolitan Museum and is all that is left of a glamorous queen who reigned in the fourteenth century BC. Her lips, which survive intact, would do credit to the Botox industry. From the lower part of her cheeks and jaw it is clear that her face was carved in precious yellow jasper, but Harper’s jacket designer has dramatically wiped out the royal color by bathing the entire object in a cool blue light. At the bottom of this arresting image is the long title of the book, which is taken from the stage directions of Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie: “How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.”

The cover subtly evokes the range of criticism that Mendelsohn has gathered together in this volume. The world of classical antiquity that he studied throughout his undergraduate and doctoral career informs every essay in this collection, whether the subject is overtly classical, as in his pieces on movies about Troy and Thermopylae and stagings of Euripides’ plays, or wholly modern, as in his sensitive appreciation of Noël Coward or his fiercely gay interpretation of Brokeback Mountain. If Egypt in the second millennium does not exactly count as classical antiquity, it was nonetheless a fundamental part of the past for the ancient Greeks and Romans, and it shaped, in ways that are still discussed today, their thought, religion, and art. It serves here to suggest the antiquity that Mendelsohn knows so well.

The quotation from Tennessee Williams that stands underneath the mysterious fragment of that antique face proclaims at once Mendelsohn’s commitment to contemporary culture across a wide spectrum of books, theater, film, and opera. As he says in his introduction, Williams’s line

acknowledges, with perfect simplicity, the inevitable entwining of beauty and tragedy that is the hallmark of the Greek theater, and is a consistent element in the works that have always moved me the most.

But Williams also represents the complexities of gender and sexuality, which are recurrent themes in Mendelsohn’s critical writing. His revised doctoral dissertation, published a few years ago, was on women in the political plays of Euripides, and he turns here to some of Euripides’ most memorable women with illuminating comments on modern interpretations of Medea, Iphigeneia, Clytemnestra, and others.

As for the blue light on the queen’s originally yellow flesh, that tells us something too. Just as no visitor to the Met will ever see that Egyptian fragment as it appears on the cover, Mendelsohn is never content to see what the world sees when he reads a book or goes to a movie, opera, or play. When other critics were writing raves, he uncovered the weaknesses in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, and Colm Tóibín’s The Master …

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