A Scholar And His Octogenarian Dad Take On Homer's 'Odyssey'

Oct 2, 2017
Originally published on October 5, 2017 12:52 pm

Classics scholar Daniel Mendelsohn was preparing to teach his freshman seminar on Homer's Odyssey a few years back when he got an unusual add-in request: His father, Jay, wanted to join the class.

At first Mendelsohn wasn't sure it was a good idea. "I was a little bit afraid that having my 81-year-old dad in the class was going to disrupt the dynamic," he says.

But Mendelsohn agreed to let his dad join the class — in part because Jay promised to sit in the corner and listen silently to the seminar.

Things didn't exactly go as planned: "The very first day of class his hand shot up and he started contesting virtually everything I said," Mendelsohn recalls. "It was quite funny. It turned out to be remarkable, and I think he really ended up making [the class] so much better, actually, than it would've been."

After the class ended, Mendelsohn and his father went on a Mediterranean cruise that toured sites from the Odyssey. On the boat, Mendelsohn saw a side of his father he rarely saw growing up: a charming storyteller who would delight the other passengers singing songs from his youth at the piano bar.

A few months after their trip, Jay suffered a fall that led to complications from which he would never recover. Mendelsohn's new memoir is called An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic.


Interview Highlights

On why Mendelsohn's 81-year-old father wanted to take his Odyssey class

I think one reason was my dad in high school had been a kind of Latin whiz, and although his career ended up going in a totally different direction — he was a mathematician and a research scientist — I think he always had a lingering affection for the classics. ... So to some extent I think it was that. I think he wanted to reclaim something from his youth. ...

The other reason I think was that he was just curious about me. I think he thought it might be an interesting experience to have to sort of get closer to me in some sense.

On what his father thought of Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey

My father's hand shot up, and he says, "Well, I don't think Odysseus is a hero. What's so heroic? He lies all the time. He's moping around this island weeping because he can't get home. He's crying."

That drove my father absolutely bonkers, that the hero — this great Greek hero — cries all the time. He couldn't figure that one out, and he said, "He cheats on his wife. He's with this nymph Calypso, and they're messing around every night, and why is this guy supposed to be such a great hero?" And that was like the first hour of class. ...

My father — because he had this let's call it a "mathematical" view of life — he couldn't bear Odysseus because Odysseus, to some extent, represented everything that my father hated. Odysseus is nothing but gray areas. That's how he survives. ... He improvises. He lies. He famously makes up stories. He's cunning. He does sleep with Calypso and Circe and all these fabulous goddesses on his way back to his own true wife. And I think that just irritated my father. He not only disapproved of those things, but he was perplexed why this character is supposed to be so heroic.

On what his father, a mathematician, thought of Mendelsohn's work as a critic and professor of literature

I think he could never quite wrap his mind around the fact that as both a critic and as a professor of literature all I do all day long is interpret works of literature. The fact that there's no absolute factual basis for this activity, I think, was something that always perplexed him a little.

On the other hand, I will say that also part of teaching a text and certainly part of being a critic is that one has to marshal arguments in favor of ones' position, and that appealed to my dad — if you could make a great argument — because, of course, that's about reason and rationality and has a structure.

So that part he got. But ultimately, the fact that this ultimately comes down to my taste versus your taste — that was something that kind of left him bemused. It's not like numbers. The interpretation of literary text or taste is not somehow inherent of the structure of the cosmos the way that mathematics [is]. And for that reason, I don't think he could ever quite take it totally seriously.

On coming out of the closet to his parents in college

When I came out to my parents when I was just in my junior year at the University of Virginia, as I recall, I had worked myself into this frenzy. Look, you have to remember, it was 1980; it was a very different world. Things are a lot easier now. And so I had sort of worked myself into this frenzy of anticipation and I started talking to my parents and I must say, to her credit, my mother fell asleep. That's the God's truth: My mom fell asleep and my father nudged her and he said, "Don't you think you want to respond to this?" And she said, "Oh, Daniel's a good boy, I'm sure he will be fine." Which if I have any sanity, it's probably because of that.

Sam Briger is a producer at Fresh Air.

Roberta Shorrock and Therese Madden produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As Daniel Mendelsohn was preparing to teach his seminar at Bard College on Homer's epic "The Odyssey," he got a call from his 81-year-old father, Jay, saying that he wanted to take Mendelsohn's class. Despite the fact that their relationship had not always been easy, Mendelson agreed to let his father join the course but soon regretted it.

Jay often disrupted the class, expressing his dislike of the poem and its hero, Odysseus. And he challenged the professor, his son. But after the class ended, Mendelsohn proposed that he and his father take a cruise in the Mediterranean, touring cites from "The Odyssey." On the cruise, Mendelsohn saw a side of his father he rarely saw growing up - a charming storyteller who would delight the other passengers, singing songs from his youth at the piano bar. Where was this man when Mendelsohn was growing up?

A few months after their trip, his father suffered a fall, breaking a bone in his pelvis. The injury led to complications from which he would never recover. Mendelsohn's new memoir is called "An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, And An Epic." Along with being a classic scholar, Daniel Mendelsohn is a contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Daniel Mendelsohn, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: Thanks. It's great to be here.

BRIGER: So your father, when he was 81, called you up and asked if he could take your freshman seminar on "The Odyssey" that you teach at Bard College. Did you have any trepidations about letting him take it?

MENDELSOHN: Well (laughter) yes, I certainly did. You know, obviously I was very touched. And instantly I thought, oh, this is going to be really interesting and strange and fun. You know, and it's funny because at the time, I thought, oh, maybe I'll write some kind of amusing article about this - having my dad in my freshman seminar.

I did have some trepidations because first-year college students are not as practiced and sophisticated as upper-class students, students in their third and fourth years. And you spend a lot of time sort of forging a bond with them. And I was a little bit afraid that having my 81-year-old dad in the class was going to disrupt the dynamic. And of course, (laughter) as you know from reading the book, that's all he did - was disrupt the dynamic, although it turned out to be in a very good way.

And in fact, when we first discussed this, I said well, do you want to talk in this class? Do you want to participate, or do you just want to sit there and listen? He said oh, no, I'm just going to sit in a corner and listen. I won't say a word.

BRIGER: And that didn't last very long (laughter).

MENDELSOHN: The very first day of class, his hands shot up, and he started contesting virtually everything I said. So it was quite funny. But it turned out to be remarkable. And I think he really ended up making it so much better, actually, than it would have been.

BRIGER: I think if I was a professor and my father was going to take my class, I'd be really worried that my authority would be undermined by that somehow.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah, well, look; these are 17- and 18-year-old kids. And just by virtue of the fact that this strange man was my father, you know, particularly in their eyes because they're so young, he had more authority than I did. And it was funny because as the semester went on, I noticed more and more that, you know, say, I would ask some leading question in class (laughter). And they would stop looking at me, and their eyes would sort of slide over to see what my father - how he was reacting, you know? So it was kind of interesting to have this other authority figure in the classroom.

BRIGER: It's also interesting that he chose a position in terms of where he was seated in the class that seems to me sort of passive aggressive in terms of your position. Like, he was sitting...

MENDELSOHN: Yeah.

BRIGER: ...Kind of behind you, like behind your shoulder. So whenever you had to talk to him, you had to turn around to defer to him.

MENDELSOHN: Yes, exactly. We were - you know, this class was a seminar - so not that many students. And we're all sitting around a big, rectangular table. And my father, starting on the first day of class, picked - there were also some sort of scattered chairs in this room, and he had a chair off to, like, my 8 o'clock. So these comments would sort of, you know, float in over my left shoulder, and I would have to keep turning. I don't know if he did that consciously, but it certainly was a way of kind of commandeering the spotlight in some way. It was quite funny.

BRIGER: It sounds like Jay Mendelsohn was not the easiest father to have. You describe him as hard, and he was all head. He was not overtly affectionate with his family. And it sounds that when you were a child, you - maybe you were a little afraid of him or at least unable to relate to him.

MENDELSOHN: Every time I talk about my dad, I always start with the fact that he was a mathematician. I mean that sort of structured his view of life. And he loved precision and accuracy and facts and liked the equations of life to work out. And he was not an emotional person. He was not a hugger. He was not a kisser. And you know, I don't want to give the wrong impression. He was not some terrifying monster, either. My mother, by contrast, you know, was very funny and very affectionate. And so we grew up having these sort of two quite different models of parenting.

But he also had a kind of a hard, scrabbled childhood. He was born a week before the Depression began, and he was very much a product of that. And he was tough. You know, he's a very tough person. He was tough on himself, to give him credit, and expected a lot from himself. You know, his parents, my grandparents, were both immigrants. They never got past high school. My father was very brilliant, and he was largely self-taught. I mean, he just sat around reading all the time. And he demanded from us also results, good grades. He pushed us very hard. He was not happy if we didn't do well in school. He wanted us to achieve. So he was a kind of a tough nut in many ways.

BRIGER: OK, so the class begins - the seminar you're teaching in "The Odyssey." And your dad has joined you. And on the first day, you think to yourself, this is going to be a nightmare. So things do not begin as you hoped. Now, your dad did not like Odysseus as a character. What were the issues that he had with him?

MENDELSOHN: Well, yes, you're right. It started on day one. This was the first meeting of the class. And I had via email asked the students to read book one of "The Odyssey" which sort of sets up the situation and to have interesting things to say about it. And so I said so, you know, what do you think on the first day of class. And my father's hands shot up, and he said, well, I don't think Odysseus is a hero. What's so heroic? He lies all the time. He's moping around this island, weeping because he can't get home. He's crying. That drove my father absolutely bonkers - that the hero, this great Greek hero, cries all the time. He couldn't figure that one out. And he said he cheats on his wife. He's with this nymph Calypso, and they're messing around every night. And why is this guy supposed to be such a great hero? And that was, like, the first hour of class.

And you know, it was funny, though. And here again, this is something I came to perceive over the course of this semester, certainly not during that first class session. But my father was - because he had this, let's call it, mathematical view of life, he couldn't bear Odysseus because Odysseus, to some extent, represented everything that my father hated. Odysseus is nothing but grey areas, you know? That's how he survives.

BRIGER: Right. He's improvising all the time.

MENDELSOHN: He improvises. He lies. He famously makes up stories.

BRIGER: He's cunning.

MENDELSOHN: He's cunning. He does sleep with Calypso and Circe and all these fabulous goddesses on his way back to his own, true wife. And I think that just irritated my father. He not only disapproved of those things, but he was perplexed why this character is supposed to be so heroic.

There was a certain moment during the class - well into the class - when it finally hit me that one reason that he didn't like Odysseus was that Odysseus reminded my father of his own father-in-law, my grandfather, my mother's father, who was exactly a kind of Odysseus-type. And in fact, in my earlier memoir "The Lost," I wrote very extensively about my grandfather in a very admiring way precisely because he was all those things. He was a survivor. He was a raconteur and a fabulist and a liar and a trickster. And he'd loved wangling things out of people.

And so at a certain point one day halfway through the semester when my dad was inveighing yet again against Odysseus' qualities - and this lightbulb went on over my head. And I just thought, oh, my God, he doesn't like Odysseus because he reminds him of grandpa basically. But that's not to say that - you know, I don't think it was only that. One could say also that he didn't like grandpa because he was like Odysseus, you know? It was just a type he didn't understand.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the new memoir "An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, And An Epic." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "CONTRADANZA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the new memoir "An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, And An Epic." It's about how his relationship to his father, Jay, changed after Jay decided to take the college seminar Mendelsohn teaches on the Greek classic "The Odyssey." Jay challenged Mendelsohn in front of the students and believed the hero of "The Odyssey," Odysseus, wasn't really much of a hero.

BRIGER: He had a very combative attitude towards the poem and towards Odysseus himself. Did you ever take that personally?

MENDELSOHN: No, not really because I knew my dad. I think some of the students were sometimes taken aback because he could get pretty ferocious. You know, my father - you never wanted to be in an argument with my father - trust me - because he was like a dog with a bone. And he got tough when you were arguing with him.

I remember in particular we were arguing one day in class about the fact that - one of the things he disliked or another thing that he disliked about "The Odyssey" was that the hero of the poem of course, as we know if you've read it, is he's constantly getting help - supernatural help from his divine protectress, Athena. And that bothered my father. He would say, well, you know, if he's such a hero, why does he need help from the gods?

BRIGER: Right. It seemed like it was cheating.

MENDELSOHN: And we started to him - yes. He thought if you - my father of course also, you know, was somebody who did not like the idea or rather prized the idea of being totally independent. You don't get help. You don't get handouts from anybody. And I think that was partly to do with his experience as a child during the Depression. And he couldn't bear the fact that Odysseus would get these sort of divine makeovers from Athena, you know? He looked gorgeous when he needed to, or he'd look decrepit when he needed to be in disguise.

And we were arguing about this, and he got so ferocious. He kept cutting me off. You know, I'm - here I am, standing in front of this gaggle of 18-year-olds who are gaping while my father and I are clearly having some kind of argument...

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Having it out, yeah.

MENDELSOHN: ...Whose roots go much deeper than "The Odyssey," you know? And he was like, no. I still remember him jabbing his finger in my direction. No, no, if he needs help, he can't be a hero. And he was ferocious. But I never took it personally because by that time I, you know - when I - by the time I taught this course, I was very close to my dad in the latter part of his life. And I knew him, and I knew how to sort of look past these kinds of behaviors that would be sort of startling to a total stranger.

And I think the kids got used to it, too. And I think certainly as I later found out, you know, a lot of them appreciated the fact that my father, because of who he was, could be, as I keep thinking of it, you know, the sort of - the leader of the opposition in the class, you know? And I think because he kept contesting me, that emboldened the students to contest me, which is a good thing in a seminar, you know? So I think it was very useful - his argumentativeness.

BRIGER: So after the course ended, you and your father went on a Grecian cruise, this 10-day trip that takes tourists to sites from "The Odyssey." This was your idea. And it was on this cruise that you saw a side of your father you rarely saw and one that you wished you had seen maybe more as a child. He was this - among the other passengers, he was charismatic charmer. He would, you know, tell passengers about stories from his life. At the piano bar, he would sing along from the "Great American Songbook." You were shocked.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah. It was the most sustained exposure I ever had to a side of my father that I knew existed but only sort of peeped out intermittently in my own experience. He - you know, it's funny now that I think of it. Looking back, you know, he'd never like to take vacations. But once he was on vacation, he sort of relaxed into a different persona. And he was very charming.

You know it's funny (laughter) because my father - but you know, I always think of him as sort of grumpy in some way. And he hated clothes, you know? He couldn't understand why people like to get dressed up. It always irritated him. And you know, here we're on this Mediterranean cruise, and there would be dinners every night. And but suddenly he sort of started enjoying all of this stuff.

And you know, I work this experience into the book partly because as we know, I mean, it's a sort of truism that travel is expanding. I mean that's why we travel. That's why we go to different places. Of course "The Odyssey" is a text that's obsessed with travel and the transformative effects of travel because of course by the time Odysseus does get back to Ithaca, he is not the same person who left. I mean that's just a fact of travel and of life.

And my father was so - he was just charming. I - you know, there's no other word to use. He was - you know, every night, there was this sort of gaggle of people who would gather at the piano bar in the lounge, and the pianist would play all my dad's favorite music from his era, the '30s and '40s - the "Great American Songbook." And quite often, he would sort of sing along in his gruff voice and tell stories about his youth.

There was one night, and somebody had been asking if we thought that "The Wizard Of Oz" was a Odyssean text, and we were sort of discussing that. And suddenly, my father launched into this reminiscence of seeing "The Wizard Of Oz" in the last days of the summer of 1939 with his dad - my grandfather - and his brother. And you know - and so he just showed a side of himself that, for whatever reason, he wasn't comfortable showing all the time - certainly, not in our childhood and, you know, even later on.

BRIGER: There's a funny moment when you get on the boat where your dad puts a - is going to put on this brown shirt, and you actually throw it into the water (laughter).

MENDELSOHN: I threw it into the Aegean Sea. Well, you know, as I said, my dad did - was not a dresser. And so on the first night of the cruise, you know, there was a kind of welcome cocktail party. And I'm in the state room with my dad, and he's getting dressed, and he's putting on this brown polyester shirt. And I said, Dad, this is a Mediterranean cruise. You just - you know, it's either blue or white, or don't wear it, you know? And he's like, what? This was an expensive shirt.

And I took the shirt, and I walked to the balcony, and I threw it into the sea. I said, I am not going to go to this cocktail party with you looking like a frump. And he actually thought it was pretty funny once he got over the loss of this shirt. But I - you know, it's an anecdote that says something about him and his relation to clothes. He just - one item of clothing was very much the same as another, as far as he was concerned.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the new memoir "An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, And An Epic." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH SONG, "OVER AND OVER AGAIN (LOST AND FOUND)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the new memoir "An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, And An Epic." It's about how his relationship to his father Jay changed after Jay decided to take the seminar Mendelsohn was teaching on the Greek classic "The Odyssey." After the semester, Mendelsohn invited his father on a cruise retracing Odysseus' journey.

BRIGER: So on the cruise, you have a moment that relates back to when you came out of the closet to your parents when you were in college. At the time, your father said to your mother, let me talk to him, I know something about this. But you write that you didn't want your coming out to be a basis for intimacy with your father, so you left the room before he could tell you. But he tells you the story on the boat. What was the story he told you?

MENDELSOHN: When I came out to my parents just in my junior year at the University of Virginia, as I recall, you know, I'd worked myself into this frenzy, you know. Look, you have to remember, it was 1980. It was a very different world, and it's - things are a lot easier now. And so I had sort of worked myself into this frenzy of anticipation. And I started talking to my parents, and I must say, to her credit, my mother fell asleep.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

MENDELSOHN: That's - it's the God's truth. My mom fell asleep, and my father nudged her, and he said, don't you think you want to respond to this? And she said, oh, Daniel's a good boy. I'm sure he'll be fine. But which - you know, if I have any sanity, it's probably because of that.

But my father - I was very struck at the time. And you remember, this is the time when I was not close to my father and was sort of uncomfortable at the idea of having a kind of closeness to him. And he said to me something at - which, at the time, I didn't really process, and he said to my mother, let me talk to him. I know something about this. And I never - you know, it was such an emotional moment for me. There were so many things going on that I never really thought through what that could've meant.

And then at a very crucial moment in the cruise, he revealed to me why he thought he could talk to me all those many years ago when I had come out to him. I don't want to give too much away, but he had more experience with this subject than I'd dreamed that he did when I was 20 years old. You know, it was just one of the many surprising things about my father that I wished I had known earlier. And, you know, he had known somebody when he was in high school in the Bronx who was gay, which is not something I ever, ever knew. And he then told me a story about how he had found this out and what his reaction was. And it was just so wonderful because it again showed this side of him.

You know, imagine my dad is a tough teenager in the Bronx in 1944 and 1945, and there's some little gay boy in his high school. I mean, I can't imagine what that poor guy went through. But it was typical of my dad that he was actually very tender towards this friend, as it turned out.

BRIGER: Your father died about five years ago. When you look at yourself in the mirror or you see photos of yourself, do you see him in you or do you recognize him in things that you do? I know, like, whenever I clear my throat, I sound exactly the way my father did when he would clear his throat.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah. I totally do. And it's funny because when I was younger, I looked a lot more like my mom. But as I've gotten older, I'm looking so much like my father. It's uncanny. But yeah, of course. I think there are things - you know, there's a way I kind of screw up my features in contempt when somebody says something that I think is just mushy and ill thought out. And I realize I'm making the daddy face, you know? But I find that very comforting. And I love this stuff even if I'm sort of echoing or mimicking some grumpy aspect of my father's character. I like it because it's reassuring because, you know, at the end of the day, he was my father, and I'm his son.

BRIGER: You say that when your dad retired he kept a home office where he kept his papers including five manila folders, one for each of his children and their families that he faithfully would keep, you know, up to date with photos and articles about you. After he died, did you look in your file?

MENDELSOHN: I have seen it. You know, I - it's funny because the room that he turned into his home office after we all flew the coop...

BRIGER: Was your bedroom.

MENDELSOHN: ...Was my room, the room I shared - the bedroom I shared with my older brother Andrew. And he loved clipping out stuff about, I have a brother who's a filmmaker, I have a sister who's a journalist, I have a brother who is a photographer, you know? So we're sort of public people to some extent. And he - you know, he never - you know, he never told us very often, but he was very proud of our accomplishments.

And he loved these bulging folder - you know, every, you know, tiny announcement in the newspaper that said, oh, Daniel Mendelsohn will be giving a reading at the library, you know? He would cut it out, and there it would be. And you know, that was what touched me because, you know, he could never say I'm proud of you. It was not easy for him. Sometimes he did, but it was not easy for him.

But those folders I think really reflected how he felt in some way. And it was very moving to see how much he had gathered and squirreled away because it obviously made him very happy. And that was really nice to see.

BRIGER: Yeah. It seems - there's something so perfect about your father doing this. You know, There's a - there's sort of a methodical-ness and precision, you know, sorting and filing the facts of your lives into these distinct folders. I mean, it's - but it obviously shows so much love. It's just very endearing.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah. It's very touching, very touching. Actually, the funniest thing after my father died was - because, of course, I'm one of five, we all, you know, we obviously had all different relationships with our parents. But my father was my father, to use the X is X phrase. My father was my father. And then the greatest challenge after he had his stroke, which was the beginning of his decline, is I still remembered this sort of mad conferencing that went back and forth among the five of us trying to figure out my dad's passwords to things because we had to get into his computer for medical stuff. And sort of us trying to recreate the workings of his mind was so funny.

And also, you know, I can't help thinking again, very Odyssey-an, because the whole climax of "The Odyssey" is a - kind of shared mental secret between Odysseus and Penelope. And it's like when you try to get your friends passwords. You have to know them very intimately to figure out it's going to be, you know, their dog's name and their mother's year of birth or whatever. And I still remember my sister, you know, sending out emails when she was at my parent's house trying to figure out what combination of our initials and birthdates he would have used. That was very funny.

BRIGER: And did it turn out to be...

MENDELSOHN: She got it.

BRIGER: Yeah, she got it, yeah.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah.

BRIGER: Well, Daniel Mendelsohn, thank you so much for coming on FRESH AIR.

MENDELSOHN: Thank you. It's great talking to you.

GROSS: Daniel Mendelsohn spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Mendelsohn's new memoir is called "An Odyssey: A Father, A Son And An Epic." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

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MUHAMMAD ALI: He's too ugly to be the world's champ. The world's champ should be pretty like me.

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