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An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic Paperback – 31 May 2018
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‘A brilliant family memoir … At its core, it is a funny, loving portrait of a difficult but loving parent: … An Odyssey is a stellar contribution to the genre of memoirs about reading – literary analysis and the personal stories are woven together in a way that feels both artful and natural. A thoughtful book from which non-classicists will learn a great deal about Homer … A funny, loving portrait of a difficult but loving parent: a “much-turning man”’ Emily Wilson, Guardian
‘Combining an in-depth literary analysis with a personal narrative is a bold enterprise. An Odyssey could have been, in the hands of a lesser writer, grandiose. It isn’t. It is so well written that every page makes you feel more alert and alive. The brilliance of An Odyssey lies in the insightfulness of the writing, as Mendelsohn immerses himself in the Odyssey: lives it, breathes it, and presses it for meaning’ Helen Morales, TLS
‘There are a handful of books that have captured the pleasure and romance of this subject. Donna Tartt’s was one … this is another. Homer has a phrase for those who can speak bewitchingly: they have ‘winged words’. Mendelsohn has winged words’ The Times
‘The book enacts a truth that has long been central to Mendelsohn’s writing and teaching, which is that the great works of antiquity remain relevant today. His prose flits seamlessly across intervals and registers, switching from erudite exposition one minute to emotion-filled reminiscence the next. An accomplished, brave book that testifies to what is perhaps The Odyssey’s most abiding message: that intelligence has little value if it isn’t allied to love’ Observer
‘An exquisitely written book about fathers and sons, life and grief’ Mail on Sunday
‘Subtle, profoundly moving … an intricately constructed, multidimensional journey of a father and son and their travails through life and love … A book of shimmering, beautiful, dapple-skilled intelligence’ Adam Nicolson, New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Daniel Mendelsohn is a prize-winning writer and critic. His books include the international best seller The Lost, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and many others; a memoir, The Elusive Embrace, a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year; a translation, with commentary, of the complete poems of C. P. Cavafy, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year; and two collections of essays. A frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, he lives in the Hudson Valley of New York.
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Homer’s The Odyssey serves both as a vehicle for an exploration of his evolving relationship with his father to be mapped onto, and as the subject of exploration in its own right; I enjoyed both of these strands in very distinct ways. I have always enjoyed picking out literary allusions in texts and thinking about how the source text is being reworked and whether it be Proustian madeleine type references with perfume bottles, or buried quotes from the Odyssey (alongside many signposted ones), this book is awash with them. I have perhaps more of a taste than some other readers will have for some extended passages on ancient etymologies and the role of the Greek moods, but I learned much about Homer from him and that is a huge positive for me (much will go, reworked, into my teaching of The Odyssey) and I’m going to buy this for a friend who is coming to Homer.
The explorations of his relationship with the father and his family are less universal – though the relations are of course ubiquitous – and so perhaps have drawn me more for the way they are used to understand Homer and his commentary on identity and the human condition than for themselves, but as one would expect from the author of The Lost, Mendelsohn descriptions emotional impact and pathos in descriptions of death and in realisations about his father leading to reversals in his thinking (the mapping to Greek tragedy is not I think accidental) .
I read most of this book in one day and I will be recommending it to others; buying it for some (as I have the Cavafy) and returning to it in time (and not just to pillage his Homeric insights).
Strangely one of the most important reasons I have engaged with the text is the degree to which I find his reading (at least within this narrow insight into his thinking) of Odysseus too positive: the slaughter of the suitors in his house as they feast echoes Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon, Heracles and Iphitus, and indeed the Cyclops and Odysseus, yet his father’s and students’ antipathy to the figure is given apparently short-shrift (perhaps unfairly I could see why his students might have said in the book that they felt he had a position he wanted adopted). On this and some other issues the book seems to call you into debate and I loved this.
Although Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, promises to sit at the back of the class and keep quiet, he is soon putting forward alternative readings of the text – much to the amusement of his son’s students who often agree more with father than son. From Jay’s response to the story and a Mediterranean cruise which Daniel and Jay undertake together, retracing Odysseus’ legendary voyages, Daniel begins to uncover long-buried secrets which helps him to understand his difficult father better.
I found the story touching - OK I cried - illuminating about my relationship with my father and I think every man will find something rewarding. Although I was not as interested in the commentary of the Odyssey at the start, I found myself becoming more and more engrossed. So the book works on both levels. A real find.
Nearly anything that I write will spoil your pleasure of this highly original late coming of age-----but who comes of age?
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