The release date for The Burdens of Aeneas: A Son’s Memoir of Duty and Love (Mercer University Press) is May 1, 2018. Two birthdays! My wife’s and this book’s, the gestation of which was a LOT longer than nine months — more like fifteen years.
Early yesterday morning, the phone rang. Too early. I saw my mother’s name in white letters on a black screen. My heart skipped a beat.
She was calling me at not quite the crack of dawn to tell me that she had a proposal, namely, that on my visit later this week, I read aloud to her James Joyce’s “The Dead,” followed by a critical essay on the story by Cleanth Brooks. She said I’d find the essay somewhere in the archives of The Southern Review.
I give her due credit for not saying into her phone, “I’m not dying, sweetheart, but I do want you to read me ‘The Dead.'”
“The Dead” is the concluding story in Dubliners, which appeared in June 1914. (Meanwhile, on June 28, in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip would assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Already in turn-of-the-century Dublin, as Joyce depicts it, the characters sense that an epoch is passing. Within days of his book’s publication, that world would be gone forever.)
The story has two parts. (more…)
“I stopped speaking and went on board ship, bidding my companions come aboard and unmoor us. They did so immediately, and having settled themselves in order upon the benches, they struck the gray sea with their oars. When we reached the mainland nearby, we saw a cave at the edge of the sea, lofty and overhung with laurel. Many animals were being kept there, both sheep and goats, and a high forecourt had been built of flagstones ringed round with long pines and tall oaks. And there dwelled a giant of a man, who kept to himself as he tended his flocks and herds, aloof, having nothing to do with others, rather in his isolation doing just as he pleased. For he was a wonder to behold, gigantic, not at all like a bread-eating man, but like a single forested peak in a towering mountain range, standing out from the others” (Homer, Odyssey 9.177-92).
Suppose you’re just a tad skeptical that you yourself have a personal destiny, and that it was created by a god who dipped from two jars, one full of blessings and the other of sorrows.
Suppose the implication of that scenario, viz., that every other human being partakes of your condition, if not your exact circumstances, doesn’t do anything for you.
Suppose the thought, “Their joy is my joy, their suffering my suffering, and so there can be no genuine peace, no true justice until every single one of us shares them,” just makes you super tired and a bit cranky.
Maybe you’d prefer a life that resembles the cyclops’ cave, that is, a refuge from other people and their messy, tedious, these-are-so-emphatically-NOT-MY problems. Dark in there? Dank? A bit cramped? Sure. But try squinting. Or if you happen to have just the one big round eye in the middle of your forehead, you won’t have to. (more…)
The title and subtitle of Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir of last year, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic (Knopf, 2017), are exactly in keeping with the story Mendelsohn tells and how he tells it. The right word for this lovely book is “restrained,” which you must understand to encompass the following:
Perfect command of tone.
A sense of decorum which, amid so much today that is crass and histrionic, appears to belong to a different era entirely.
The elegance of a man who has superb taste, who can be amusing without obvious effort, who does not pummel his audience with his erudition.
And finally, modesty, by virtue of which Mendelsohn wholly succeeds in convincing his readers that whatever his father’s shortcomings, and however close this gruff, opinionated father and his intellectual son came to never connecting, we end by ardently wishing that we had met and come to know Jay Mendelsohn.
An Odyssey, as Dwight Garner explains in his review for the New York Times, is at the same time a classroom drama, offering an episodic account of a Bard College seminar on Homer’s Odyssey, taught by Daniel and attended by Jay; travel writing, in that son and father later go on a Mediterranean cruise, supposedly tracking Odysseus’s route home from Troy to Ithaca; a memoir of Jay’s life; and a work of literary criticism on the Odyssey itself.
Mendelsohn deftly interweaves these genres and storylines into a coherent whole. If at first the above-mentioned restraint makes the reader worry that the book will not deepen, that it will skate throughout on the surface of these lives, that it will amount simply to a book-length version of the essay published by the New Yorker, “A Father’s Final Odyssey,” in the end, she will be happily, gratefully surprised. As Garner writes, “What catches you off guard about this memoir is how moving it is.”
Precisely, and partly for that reason, there’s something in me that thinks, “This is the kind of book I wish I’d written, instead of The Burdens of Aeneas.” I think of how unrestrained my book is in places, that is, how much about my father and myself it lays bare (or strives to). I think of lyrical passages that come close — but hopefully not too close — to being overwritten. I worry that what I’m attempting to say about the Aeneid will remain obscure and puzzling to my readers.
An Odyssey sets a high standard. I console myself by remembering the advice that my mother was given by a creative writing professor more than half a century ago: “Write the story that only you can tell.” By that standard, I think I’m okay.
δοιοὶ γάρ τε πίθοι κατακείαται ἐν Διὸς οὔδει
δώρων οἷα δίδωσι κακῶν, ἕτερος δὲ ἑάων:
ᾧ μέν κ’ ἀμμίξας δώῃ Ζεὺς τερπικέραυνος,
ἄλλοτε μέν τε κακῷ ὅ γε κύρεται, ἄλλοτε δ’ ἐσθλῷ:
ᾧ δέ κε τῶν λυγρῶν δώῃ, λωβητὸν ἔθηκε,
καί ἑ κακὴ βούβρωστις ἐπὶ χθόνα δῖαν ἐλαύνει,
φοιτᾷ δ’ οὔτε θεοῖσι τετιμένος οὔτε βροτοῖσιν.
“For two jars sit upon Zeus’s floor, one of which supplies harmful gifts, the other blessings. If Zeus, who delights in thunder, bestows a mixture upon a person, sometimes he meets with misfortune, at other times he prospers. But if Zeus bestows sorrows upon him, he makes him a pariah, and utter misery impels him to wander the sacred earth, and he roams, honored by neither gods nor mortals.” (Homer, Iliad 24.527-33)
These are the words of the warrior Achilles, speaking to King Priam of Troy. The two men stand facing each other under the former’s roof. Priam has come to the camp of the Greek army to offer ransom for the return of his son’s body. The corpse of Hector, that is, who had slain Achilles’ boon companion Patroclus, and had in turn been killed in a duel by Achilles, two weeks before Priam traveled through the night to visit Achilles’ hut and plead with him.
Since that day on the battlefield, Achilles had kept Hector’s corpse nearby, unburied, lying facedown in the dust. Sleepless with grief, he’d been tormented each night, tossing and turning, weeping for Patroclus. Rising from his bed in the darkness, he’d walk out onto the beach and pace, until finally [h]e’d see Dawn’s approach across the sea and beaches, / then he’d harness his fast horses to their chariot, / tie on Hector and drag him behind, driving / three times around the tomb of Menoetius’ dead son (Johnston). (more…)
I wake before dawn to the rhythmic sound of rain,
That final dream just beyond my reach — let it go.
I see her familiar outline, I hear her steady breathing.
She rides at anchor, I imagine, in the warm waters of some phosphorescent sea,
Rising and falling on the long, smooth swell of kindly waves.
First the squeak of that goddamn floorboard,
Then the burble and spit of my little machine,
Its pinprick of green light a tiny lighthouse on a rocky coast,
And at its feet, visible in the shallow water, lie shipwrecks,
Today’s headlines of sunken hopes and ruined lives.
No, give me instead this fretwork of shadow on the wall.
Let me return, through memory, our absent children to their vacant bedrooms.
Let this gentle rain shelter us, for a while longer, against the storms.
Let’s start with a basic question. How do you write? Perhaps with a fountain pen that Vladimir Nabokov bequeathed to you, in calligraphy on artisan paper lovingly handmade in Jaipur, India? Or chain smoking as you hunch over Paul Auster’s Olympia typewriter, which late one night, after one-too-many cocktails at the Peacock Alley Bar in the Waldorf-Astoria, he agreed to loan you? Or maybe with a vintage Cleo Skribent Der Gessner mechanical pencil, using a brand new piece of ultra-fine graphite for each successive sentence?
Can you describe your writing room?
You grew up in a very small town in eastern central Georgia. What was that like?
Seriously? Read the book, why don’t you.
The Burdens of Aeneas is a memoir, and at the same time it’s a collection of literary essays on subjects ranging from epic poetry to a beleaguered muskrat. Is it a departure from your earlier books?
Yes and no. Yes, it departs from my earlier books in the sense that it’s my only book. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, no, since I’ve never written a book before, it can’t very well mark a departure. I suppose it’s like when you step out onto onto your front porch, look up at the sky, check the temperature, and get a little fresh air. You haven’t really left your home, but you’ve certainly left the house. Does that make sense?
No, not at all. It makes the opposite of sense. By the way, did you ever meet Faulkner?
We met at a dinner party in Oxford, just old friends of his and old friends of mine, which was the right way for it to happen, and it was just grand. We sang hymns, and we sang some old ballads—and the next day he invited me to go sailing.
But you weren’t even two years old when he died.