Daniel Mendelsohn interview
Daniel Mendelsohn discusses how the Iliad and Odyssey establish the bases for our thinking about the greatest concerns of life and delves into the affecting journey which inspired his longlisted book An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and An Epic.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
I know it’s an Oscar-night cliché (and one which most people suspect is disingenuous anyway) to declare that one is happy simply to have been nominated, but the fact is that it’s true: it’s amazing to be longlisted. No one sits down to write a book in order to win prizes: you write because a subject or story is urgent within you, and you treat it or tell it as best you can. Writing is a job that you do alone, and it can be startling to find that the result of your solitary labour has a powerful effect on other people. If readers respond strongly to a book, that in itself is so gratifying; to have the judges of a distinguished prize respond to it strongly, and to know that they consider your work the peer of the best books of its genre--- that’s the best praise of all.
What inspired you to write this book?
When my 81-year-old father first asked to sit in on the undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey that I was teaching in the spring term of 2011, I thought I might get an amusing article out of the experience—you know, “How my octogenarian dad became my student.” Certainly, his cantankerous interventions in the class—he didn’t think much of Odysseus, it must be said--made for good material! Then, a few months later, after we embarked on a Mediterranean cruise that recreated Odysseus’s voyages, I started thinking that all this might lead to something bigger, although I wasn’t quite sure what—we had so many amazing experiences on that journey. It was only after Daddy died, a few months after we got back, that I saw how the entire last year of his life had been shaped by our Odyssean experience, and I knew I had to write a book.
For anyone who wants to explore the subject further, which book(s) would you recommend?
Obviously, one should begin with the Odyssey itself! There are so many excellent translations: Robert Fagles captures the swiftness of Homer’s Greek; Richmond Lattimore, its archaic cragginess. I’m partial to Robert Fitzgerald’s, which captures the wit and humour of the original—and I love how he transliterates the Greek names so that they “look Greek”: Kalypso instead of Calypso, Kirkê instead of Circe, and so forth.
In terms of non-scholarly secondary literature, M. I. Finley’s now-classic The World of Odysseus is indispensable: in a series of brief chapters, Finley sketches the key aspects of the Bronze Age culture: the gods; morality, economy, and so forth. I also very much like Eva Brann’s Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Iliad and Odyssey, in which the author zeroes in on certain key scenes and themes (“Odysseus’s Looks and Transformations”) and explicates them in a lucid, lively way.
Why should great works of antiquity be read today?
I like to say that we who teach the great works of antiquity have a secret weapon: the works really are great. Naturally I’m certainly aware of, and sensitive to, the fact that there are tremendous controversies raging about the Western Canon and how it was shaped: and of course we should interrogate how and why the classics became “classic.” But at the end of the day, so many of these works really are transcendently wonderful. The Iliad and Odyssey between them establish, with tremendous authority and inventiveness and style, the bases for our thinking about the greatest concerns of life: confronting our mortality, what it means to want your life to have meaning, what family and home mean, what identity is. And if you are worried about the Western Canon, I still say that before critiquing it, you have an intellectual responsibility to know it.
What are you working on next?
The next project is a (I hope) lively and accessible introduction to the Greek classics. Nothing fancy or abstruse, just the greatest hits—Homer, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, history, the basic philosophical works—and why you should read them and what you can get out of them: an undergraduate seminar in print.
Beyond that, I want to return to a certain narrative thread in An Odyssey that I ended up having to cut—it kept growing and growing and eventually became too independent, too substantial to weave in with the other threads. It had to do with the history of classical scholarship and the story of the reception of the Odyssey through the ages in both Europe and the Middle East, and also told the story of the great German scholar Erich Auerbach, who fled to Turkey after the Nazis took power and ended up writing the greatest book ever written about Western literature in…Istanbul. A great story.