A Family Cruise

Jay and Daniel Mendelsohn
Jay and Daniel Mendelsohn; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

In January 2011, just before the beginning of the spring semester, Daniel Mendelsohn—well known to readers of The New York Review and a professor of classics at Bard College—was approached by his eighty-one-year-old father, a retired research mathematician and instructor in computer science. Could he, Jay Mendelsohn asked his son, “for reasons,” Daniel writes, “I thought I understood at the time,” sit in on his annual freshman seminar on Homer’s Odyssey? Nervously, Daniel welcomed this unexpected auditor, believing, as he was assured, that the old man would be happy just listening. Before the first session was over he had realized his mistake and was thinking: This is going to be a nightmare. In fact the paternally augmented seminar, and the Odyssey-related Mediterranean cruise that father and son took shortly after it, turned out to be an unexpected, and revealing, success. In particular, they stimulated exploration, via Homer, of the timeless elements of family relationships down through the generations.

About a year after the seminar, Jay Mendelsohn suffered the fall that unexpectedly led to his final illness. The unusual, and unusually complex, nature of the book before us is previewed, and explained, in a meditation that its author recounts in its early pages of watching over his unconscious father, “as imperturbable as a dead pharaoh in his bandages,” in the local hospital’s intensive care unit:

But we had had our odyssey—had journeyed together, so to speak, through this text over the course of a semester, a text that to me, as I sat there looking at the motionless figure of my father, seemed more and more to be about the present than about the past. It is a story, after all, about strange and complicated families, indeed about two grandfathers—the maternal one eccentric, garrulous, a trickster without peer, the other, the father of the father, taciturn and stubborn; about a long marriage and short dalliances, about a husband who travels far and a wife who stays behind, as rooted to her house as a tree is to the earth; about a son who for a long time is unrecognized by and unrecognizable to his father, until late, very late, when they join together for a great adventure; a story, in its final moments, about a man in the middle of his life, a man who is, we must remember, a son as well as a father, and who at the end of this story falls down and weeps because he has confronted the spectacle of his father’s old age.

The sight of his infirm father is so overwhelming to Odysseus that he, a congenital liar and expert storyteller, abandons his manipulative tales and “has, in the end, to tell the truth. Such is the Odyssey, which my father decided he wanted to study with me a few years ago; such is Odysseus, the hero in whose footsteps we once…

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