Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Open the Door, Homer

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Open the Door, Homer

Article excerpt

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic

Daniel Mendelsohn

William Collins, 304pp. 18.99 [pounds sterling]

When his elderly father comes to stay, Daniel Mendelsohn buys instant coffee. The 81-year-old has made his feelings about the Nespresso machine abundantly clear. Jay Mendelsohn, a mathematician, is the kind of man who wears cologne with "a smell as synthetic as that of dry-cleaning fluid" and fails to notice when people scorn his table manners. To his classicist son's perpetual embarrassment, he pronounces Ovid as "Ohvid" and, worst of all, thinks that Homer's Odysseus is a wimp.

There's a moment early on in the Odyssey when Athena says, "Few men resemble their fathers. Few sons are better, most are worse ..." The elderly Nestor says something similar in the Iliad when he describes how much mightier men were in previous generations. This Homeric idea lies at the heart of Daniel Mendelsohn's memoir of his father's final months. Only, neither Mendelsohn can quite agree that it's true.

The book begins with the elderly Jay enrolling on the Odyssey course that his son teaches at an American liberal arts college. Surrounded by students a quarter of his age, he quickly acquires a reputation for his contrarian views. Odysseus, a mighty hero? He loses his men, cheats on his wife and spends years weeping on the shores of Calypso's island. "I was in the army," says Jay, "and I knew some guys who were real heroes. And I can tell you, nobody cried."

Naturally, Daniel feels that he's fighting a losing battle. Teaching his father initially seems to teach him only how little they have in common. Jay is a scientist through and through. He can tell strangers that his wife is beautiful, but never his wife, who sums him up simply as "undemonstrative". Daniel is open, artistic and gay, with two sons and a female "parenting partner".

If any subject can dissolve their differences, it is Classics. As Mendelsohn recalls, Friedrich August Wolf, the late-18th-century German philologist who proposed that the Homeric epics were composed orally and only later written down, made a strong case for classifying the interpretation of Greek and Latin texts as a science. Mendelsohn's lecture room becomes the place where science and the humanities engage in battle.

From this Iliad-like setting, the narrative proceeds to its sequel when the two Mendelsohns embark on a "Retracing the Odyssey" cruise. In one of his enjoyable etymological digressions, Mendelsohn reminds us that the word "travel" is a cousin of "travail" ("painful or laborious effort"), which derives from the medieval Latin word trepalium, meaning "instrument of torture". …

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