An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic

by Daniel Mendelsohn

Hardcover, 2017



Call number



Signal (2017), 320 pages


"When eighty-one-year-old Jay Mendelsohn decides to enroll in the undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey that his son Daniel teaches at Bard College, the two find themselves on an adventure as profoundly emotional as it is intellectual. For Jay, a retired research scientist who sees the world through a mathematician's unforgiving eyes, this return to the classroom is his 'one last chance' to learn the great literature he'd neglected in his youth--and, even more, a final opportunity to more fully understand his son. But through the sometimes uncomfortable months that follow, as the two men explore Homer's great work together--first in the classroom, where Jay persistently challenges his son's interpretations, and then during a surprise-filled Mediterranean journey retracing Odysseus' legendary voyages-it becomes clear that Daniel has much to learn, too: for Jay's responses to both the text and the travels gradually uncover long-buried secrets that allow the son to understand his difficult father at last. As this intricately woven memoir builds to its wrenching climax, Mendelsohn's narrative comes to echo the Odyssey itself, with its timeless themes of deception and recognition, marriage and children, the pleasures of travel and the meaning of home. Rich with literary and emotional insight, An Odyssey is a renowned author-scholar's most revelatory entwining yet of personal narrative and literary exploration."--Jacket.… (more)

Media reviews

There have been plenty of gimmicky books about returning to the classics and unearthing the contemporary implications and timeless wisdom therein. This sharply intelligent and deeply felt work operates on an entirely different level—several of them, in fact. A frequent contributor to the New
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Yorker and New York Times Book Review and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, Mendelsohn (Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture, 2012, etc.) is also a classics scholar who teaches a seminar on The Odyssey at Bard College.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member streamsong
Author Daniel Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, had always loved his son and the classics. But Jay had given up his literary bent in order to pursue a scientific job to support his family. He and his son had also grown away from each other in the intervening years and lost any sense of closeness.

So, when
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Jay asks to join his son’s class, Daniel cautiously says yes. He’s never quite lost that teenage feeling that what his father may say will embarrass him.

Mendelsohn’s professorial insights into [The Odyssey] are truly interesting and easy to follow even if you’ve never previously read it. (I fall into this category, although I’m familiar, of course, with the story.)

Since it’s a seminar, everyone is encouraged to give their opinions. But although Jay Mendelsohn has promised to sit quietly without speaking, he, too, unabashedly give his opinions (How can Odysseus be a hero when he cries and cheats on his wife?). As the young men and women interact with his elderly father’s comments with recognition and respect, Daniel becomes more open to his father’s thoughts. We see the modern father and son begin to interact and understand each other played out against one of the greatest father and son stories ever written.

Finally, the two Mendelsohn’s take a Mediterranean cruise following the path of the Odyssey. And what they truly find are each other.

This is a touching and instructive story, recommended for anyone who has a love for the classics or a father (elderly or otherwise).
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LibraryThing member PDCRead
Mendelsohn has been passionate about the classics, so much so that it is he teaches it at Bard College. One year his eighty-one-year-old father, Jay, decides that he will sign up and join the young people learning about this epic tale for the first time. Jay is a retired research scientist who was
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a maths expert but realises that this is his one last chance to discover about the great literature of the world, something that he didn’t do when he was being educated. So, begins an emotional adventure that they both undertake, as they teach the students and learn about each others perception of the tale and Mendelsohn peers through the chinks in the armour to see the secrets that his dad has not spoken about all his life. This journey into the book inspires them to take a cruise around the Mediterranean where they visit the places mentioned in the book, and it gave Mendelsohn a collection of memories that he will treasure forever.

It is a touching memoir of Jay Mendelsohn and Daniel Mendelsohn and their relationship that was straightforward and complex at the same time. As he works his way through the Odyssey, he draws parallels between that and his own life journey with his parents and his father in particular. He is open with his relationship that he has had with his father and takes time to be open and explain details as the discovery of things that were to clarify what made his father the way he was. One challenging part of the book was was that I have never read the Odyssey, so this book was a voyage of discovery in certain ways for me. It is a book that has never crossed my radar before but might give it a go one day. Worth reading for those that was a different take on a family memoir.
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LibraryThing member meandmybooks
Well, now I'm ready for a reread of the Odyssey! Mendelsohn's book, which successfully combines the genres of family memoir and literary criticism, is wonderfully engaging. Mendelsohn, a writer and professor of Classics at Bard College in New York, uses the story of how his father sat in on his
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“Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer” seminar as a launching point for exploring family relationships, particularly the bonds between fathers and sons, with all their mysteries and complexities, both in his own life and in the classic epic they study together over the course of a semester.

Early in his book Mendelsohn brings up the topic of “ring composition,” a literary device where an author uses flashbacks and flashforwards but always circles back to “present” events in the tale, and this device, introduced in reference to The Odyssey, allows him to examine with deepening understanding the life and motivations of the father he loves but has long regarded as cold and tough. Mendelsohn and his father follow up the spring course with a summer “literary cruise” around the sites made famous by Homer's epic, and that experience too offers him new perspectives on his father.

Like I said, this made me want to reread the Odyssey, and that's saying something, as I've always agreed with Mendelsohn's dad in finding Odysseus is a hard guy to admire. He fails to bring his men home, he cheats on his wife, he's a braggart, etc. Mendelsohn's a skillful teacher, though, and he helped me see details, parallels, and connections in the work that I'd previously missed or not fully appreciated. While I still don't like Odysseus, Mendelsohn showed me that the poem is more concerned with the bonds between family members and profound in its insights in these matters than I'd previously appreciated.
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LibraryThing member auntmarge64
What a beautiful book to read! Classicist and author Mendelsohn teaches part time at Bard College, but his primary occupation is as a writer. I've previously read his "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million", about a years-long inquiry into his family's past. Here he weaves an exposition of
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Homer's Odyssey into the story of his relationship with his father, a mathematician who late in life attended one of his son's semester-long seminars on "The Odyssey", after which they took a cruise that retraced Odysseus's journey home. Their father-son relationship had long been fraught with difficult communication between the elder, who lived for precision and order, and the younger, who reveled in literature and interpretation. But here, at the very end of the father's life, as it was for Odysseus and his family, there is healing and recognition between the generations, and it's a lovely tale, full of the scholarship for which Mendelsohn Jr. is known and the amused fondness he has for his own family: his mother, who bursts with life and is the frequent author of malapropisms that become part of the family's private language (Deathbed and Beyond (the store) and Lafayettes (the pastry named after a different French soldier) come to mind), as well as a plethora of aunts, uncles, and other relatives and friends. The parallels Mendelsohn finds in his own family history will bring frissons of recognition to most readers. One of the most interesting concepts discussed, and which pops up over and over throughout the book, is homophrosýnē, likemindedness, seen by Homer as the foundation of a good marriage, in this case that of Odysseus and Penelope and, in some ways, that of Mendelsohn's own parents.

Erudite, heartwarming, and sometimes amusing, this was a delight to read.
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LibraryThing member banjo123
This is just a lovely memoir. Mendelsohn's father, Jay, asks to sit in on a class that he is teaching at Bard College on the Odyssey. Mendelsohn weaves in the story of that class; a themed cruise that he takes with his father, to visit the historical sites in the Odyssey; his relationship with his
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family and especially with his father, a retired research scientist. He also covers marriage (both his parents' and Odysseus and Penelope's; father-son relationships; and the value of traveling in circles. Jay is quite a character, and I loved getting to know him. Here he is talking about Odysseus.

“I don’t know why he’s supposed to be such a haihhro,” he says. “He cheats on his wife, he sleeps with Calypso. He loses all of his men, so he’s a lousy general. He’s depressed, he whines. He sits there and wants to die.”

Mendelsohn uses ring composition to weave different strands together. Ring composition, as he explains in the book, involves digressions in narrative, with frequent forays into the past to explain what is happening now. Mendelsohn shows how ring composition is used in [The Odyssey] and also uses it liberally himself. I had noticed this technique when I read Mendelsohns earlier book; [The Lost; A Search for Six of the Six Million]; but at that time, I didn't realize it was a technique; I thought he was just writing like an old man talks. I do like this technique, as it helps in making connections between past and present; which, as a classics scholar, is one of Mendelsohn's strong suits. However, I think he overuses it in this book, and a more straightforward narrative could have helped certain parts of the book. However, that's a minor quibble, and overall this book is a jewel.
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LibraryThing member nmele
This book worked for me on so many levels--as a memoir of Mendelsohn's father and a family history, as a study of Homer, and as a travel tale (a cruise to places mentioned in Homer is part of the narrative). Each of the different strands sheds light on the others. I was moved many times while
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reading this.
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LibraryThing member FormerEnglishTeacher
This book, by a college English professor, is about his love of Homer’s epic and his attempt to connect with a father who had drifted from him in adulthood. The father audits the son’s Odyssey seminar, and the two of them take an “Odyssey cruise,” which followed the path of Odysseus in 1200
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B.C. Since I had taught The Odyssey for several years, this book was both interesting and rewarding to read.
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LibraryThing member viking2917
Damn this is a good book. You will have wanted to read the Odyssey first. Well hell, it's a fine book even if you haven't read the Odyssey. If your parents have passed on, you'll cry at the end.
LibraryThing member ffortsa
A few years ago, my read-aloud group read through Fagle's Odyssey, and it made me curious about this title. Mendelsohn is teaching a seminar on The Odyssey, and his elderly father asks to sit in, to refresh his memory from his high school days. For the reader, this becomes a dual text: fascinating
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notes about the Odyssey itself, and a wonderful meditation on fathers and sons, particularly this father and son, so different from each other. As the ancient story moves forward, the son reflects on his father's reactions as well as his own, and his students' responses, and the search for the father parallels in many ways Odysseus's journey home. Bronson Pinchot read the audiobook I listened to, and I loved every minute of it.
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Original publication date


Physical description

320 p.; 9.5 inches


0771057423 / 9780771057427
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