Writers and Company

Daniel Mendelsohn on his journey with his father through Homer's Odyssey

Eleanor Wachtel speaks with the American writer and classical scholar about his latest memoir.
Eleanor Wachtel with writer Daniel Mendelsohn in Toronto. (CBC)

American writer and critic Daniel Mendelsohn's work is described as "irresistible." 

His bestselling book The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, which explores his family's tragic past in the Second World War, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Now he has another memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic. Moving and illuminating, it's an account of what happened when his elderly father sat in on his university seminar on Homer's epic poem, and the cruise they later took together, tracing the journey of the Greek hero.

Mendelsohn's background as a classical scholar gives him a unique angle on contemporary pop culture and his essays appear regularly in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Eleanor Wachtel spoke with Daniel Mendelsohn in Toronto.

On his father's personal philosophy

"My dad was born a week before the stock market crash in 1929 and his childhood and youth were haunted by the Depression. His dad — my grandfather — was a union electrician and scrambled for work when he could get it. I think that formed his vision of life — that it was tough and the odds were stacked against the little man. That was such an intimate part of his self-definition. We heard it a thousand times when we were growing up. 'If it's not hard, it's not worth doing.' He loved being challenged and I think it was because that's how he saw the world as a young person."

The mathematician versus the hero

"At first, I was a little shocked by the vehemence of [my father's] dislike of Odysseus. But anyone who has been in a book club or a reading group knows this phenomenon, that people's reactions to a text say a lot more about them than they do about the book they're reading. And certainly, I began to see that in a kind of touching way Odysseus represented everything in life that my father had struggled against. I revert to the fact that he was a mathematician. He wanted things to be clear and true. Two plus two can only mean four, but there was something about Odysseus' creative attitude towards the truth that really upset my father. He started on the first day of class by saying, 'Why does everyone think this guy is such a hero?'"

One final adventure

"The two things that I always think about now — five years later —  what a wonderful example he set in that seminar for those students, who became very fond of him — for both his independence of mind, in contesting my own interpretations all the time, and the fact of him being there showed that this literature is always worth knowing, even in your 80s. It's very Odyssey. The voyage is not over. You don't just shut down in your ninth decade. You want to keep growing and learning. I think that really bowls me over now. When this first started I thought, 'Oh, this is going to be amusing.' But now I'm incredibly moved by the gesture that he made. He had to drive three hours a week to get to [the university]. It was an effort. I felt so lucky, that in what turned out to be the last year of his life, we had this great final adventure together and how great that it happened at all."

Daniel Mendelsohn's comments have been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the interview: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31 by English composer Benjamin Britten, performed by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra.