Daniel Mendelsohn's essay in the April 27 New Yorker about reaching a deeper relationship with his elderly father through their shared interest in "The Odyssey" gave poignant testimony to how classic literature can change our lives.
Jay Mendelsohn, a retired computer scientist, was 83 when he asked Daniel, a professor at Bard College, if he could monitor the freshman class Daniel teaches on Homer's epic poem about the Greek hero Odysseus' 10 -year journey home from the Greeks' war against Troy. The elder Mendelsohn drove to Manhattan from his home in Long Island each week to attend the class.
The classroom study of "The Odyssey" led to the father and son taking a cruise that traced the sites of the Greek hero's voyage. The cruise leads to a stronger understanding between father and son.
Mendelsohn reaches higher acceptance of his father's rational mind, and the father better understands his son's artistic viewpoint. Jay Mendelsohn emerges as a wonderful literary character, witty, compassionate and insightful, qualities that Dan says he didn't often reveal to his family. The piece briefly touches upon his father's last painful days and death after suffering a massive stroke.
I discovered from Mendelsohn's web site that the New Yorker essay is an excerpt from a memoir, "An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic," which will be published in September. National Public Radio recently did an interview with Mendelsohn, and put the photo above on its web site.
Mendelsohn's long been one of my favorite writers. I experience a jolt of anticipation whenever I see his name listed in the Table of Contents of the New Yorker or New York Review of Books. He's one of the few writers whose essays I'll reread in his books after enjoying them in a journal.
Not only does Mendelsohn excel at explaining classical literature and themes, he's also brings a different perspective in writing about pop culture. I especially remember his New York Review piece that dismantled the "Mad Men" hoopla.
He's also a translator from the Greek language, although I was disappointed with his rendering of Cavafy's "Collected Poems." His Cavafy poems lacked the sharpness and emotional weight of other translations.
Nevertheless, I'll look forward to reading more about his and his father's odyssey to greater love and understanding. The book will also teach valuable lessons about how classics like Homer's work can enrich modern life.