The Blurb (from Goodreads):
When eighty-one-year-old Jay Mendelsohn decides to enroll in the undergraduate Odyssey seminar his son 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, a writer and classicist. But through the sometimes uncomfortable months that 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’s famous voyages–it becomes clear that Daniel has much to learn, too: 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 triumphant entwining yet of personal narrative and literary exploration.
My next novel is set in Greece, and so I am reading as much as I can about their extraordinarily rich history and culture. A friend recommended Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir about teaching The Odyssey to his elderly father, and so I ordered it online and settled down to read.
The plot is very simple:
Daniel Mendelsohn teaches The Odyssey to undergraduates at an American university. His eighty-one-year-old father Jay decides to enrol in the course, as one of his life regrets is never reading the great classics of literature. The rest of the class are young and don’t quite know how to react to finding a grumpy old man in their class. Daniel, meanwhile, has deep misgivings. His relationship with his father has always been troubled.
Through this experience, Daniel Mendelsohn examines the history and meaning and study of The Odyssey, said to have been written by a blind poet named Homer in the 8th century but most probably composed and retold by many different tellers over the centuries. It is said to be the second oldest surviving work of Western literature, and the sequel to The Iliad which is the oldest.
Daniel Mendelsohn loves this ancient poem, and loves teaching it. He knows it very well. Yet during the long months in which he teaches his father, he discovers that there is always more to learn – about literature, about life, and – most poignantly – about himself.
The Odyssey is a poem about fathers and sons, trickery and truthfulness, being lost and searching for home, and Daniel Mendelsohn’s book illuminates both the universal and the personal relevance of these themes today. It is cleverly constructed and beautifully written, deliberately echoing the circular structure of the poem. It made me dig out my old battered copy of the poem from my own school days and dip into it again.