Tales of exciting—and often perilous—journeys away from home have been a staple of storytelling ever since Homer’s Odyssey introduced the figure of the wandering hero to Western Literature. In this series of five weekly seminars, Daniel Mendelsohn, the New York Review’s Editor-at-Large, will lead participants through readings of five works in which journeys and voyages become vehicles for exploring the self and the world, language and art, time and mortality. The first seminar, devoted to the Odyssey itself—the model in many ways for all subsequent travel writing in the European tradition—will be followed by four seminars devoted to twentieth-century works by Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, W. G. Sebald, and Rachel Cusk.
Seminars, to be conducted online, will meet weekly. Each one-hour session will start at 7 p.m. Eastern time. Each session will be recorded and available for later viewing up to seven days after the live session. Subscriptions are available in two tiers, one for full members, with access to participation in discussions and discounts on NYRB titles, and one for auditors. Thirty places for full members will be available in each seminar on a first-come, first-served basis.
Six Wednesdays: September 20, 27, October 4, 11, 18, 25
Homer’s epic about the decade-long wanderings, and eventual homecoming, of the great hero Odysseus after the end of the Trojan War established the themes that still dominate the literature of journeying, from travel memoirs such as those of Patrick Leigh Fermor to fantasy and science fiction literature such as The Wizard of Oz : the tensions between the allure of adventure and the comforts of home; the use of the exploration of fantastical foreign lands and cultures as a vehicle for understanding our own cultures and selves; the deployment of real journeys through space as symbols of our progress through time and, indeed, life; the evolution of the concept of the travel-battered protagonist as a new kind of hero—a hero of survival.
Three Wednesdays: November 1, 8, 15
Can a travel narrative involve little or no actual movement through space? Woolf’s 1927 modernist classic suggests that the answer is “yes.” The novel, which evokes the lives of the Ramsay family and a handful of their friends over a number of years as refracted through visits to their summer home in the Hebrides, uses the family’s desire to sail to a nearby lighthouse—a wish not actually fulfilled until the book’s final section—as a vehicle for exploring the nature of time, love, truth, and art.
Three Wednesdays: February 7, 14, 21
In Baldwin’s 1956 classic about a repressed American man who moves to Paris in order to live his complex sexuality more freely—a trajectory that mimics the one followed by Baldwin himself—the characters’ restless journeying between cities, continents, and cultures becomes a metaphor for a striving after emotional liberation. David, a closeted bisexual with profound anxieties about masculinity, flees the Brooklyn of his childhood and adolescence for France, where he oscillates between affairs with women and a romance with a doomed Italian waiter: Giovanni, whose darkened room is both a place of stillness and safety and, finally, a symbol of David’s inability to integrate his sexuality successfully.
Four Wednesdays: March 6, 13, 20, 27
The German author’s 1995 novel follows in the footsteps of a nameless narrator as he takes a long and erratic walking tour of Suffolk. As he moves through landscapes that seem increasingly haunted by violence both natural and man-made, his encounters with places and people trigger ruminations on everything from the history of silkworm cultivation to the writings of Conrad and Hölderlin to the architecture of the Temple of Jerusalem, become a means of ruminating on history and literature, the passage of time and cultural decay.
Four Wednesdays: April 3, 10, 17, 24
The first novel of Cusk’s Outline trilogy brings us full circle with a return to Greece and, not accidentally, to the twinned themes of travel and storytelling that are central to Homer’s Odyssey. We will devote two sessions to Outline, which follows its nameless heroine, a writer, as she voyages to Greece to teach a writing class—a journey during which she becomes the receptacle for other people’s life stories while remaining curiously passive and blank (an “outline”) herself. The tension between the narrator’s cagyeness and the volubility of her interlocutors becomes a fruitful vehicle for thinking about narrative, writing, and gender.
This seminar will conclude with Cusk’s Second Place, written during the Covid pandemic, which tells the story of a writer, isolating in the countryside with her family, who hosts a disturbing visitor—a story that, while returning to the odyssean themes of the potential dangers of hospitality, inverts many of the tropes of Outline by exploring the nature of immobility.
Daniel Mendelsohn, the Editor-at-Large of The New York Review of Books, is an award-winning critic, author, essayist, and translator. His books include An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic and three collections of essays and reviews, including Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture and Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones, both published by New York Review Books. Mr. Mendelsohn is the Charles Ranlet Flint Professor of Humanities at Bard College and the Director of the Robert B. Silvers Foundation, a charitable trust that supports writers of nonfiction, essay, and criticism.