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.
from Scar Tissue (2006)
Suzanne Plunkett / AP
“It’s about fear. You know! They’re all throbbing with fear. We all are.”
He drank the tea without cleaning the lipstick off the rim.
“Bits of it floating in the air. It’s like dust. You walk about and don’t see it, don’t notice it, but it’s there and it’s all coming down, covering everything. You’re breathing it in. You touch it. You drink it. You eat it. But it’s so fine you don’t notice it. But you’re covered in it. It’s everywhere. What I mean is, we’re afraid. Just stand still for an instant and there it is, this fear, covering our faces and tongues. If we’ve stopped to take account of it, we’d just fall into despair. But we can’t stop. We’ve got to keep going.”
“I don’t know. That’s my problem.”
~Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (more…)
Many terribly quiet customers exist but none more
terribly quiet than Man:
his footsteps pass so perilously soft across the sea
in marble winter,
up the stiff blue waves and every Tuesday
down he grinds the unastonishable earth
with horse and shatter.
Shatters too the cheeks of birds and traps them in his forest headlights,
salty silvers roll into his net, he weaves it just for that,
this terribly quiet customer.
animals and mountains technically
,by yoke he makes the bull bend, the horse to its knees.
And utterance and thought as clear as complicated air and
moods that make a city moral, these he taught himself.
The snowy cold he knows to flee
and every human exigency crackles as he plugs it in:
every outlet works but
Death stays dark.
Death he cannot doom.
honest oath taking notwithstanding.
Hilarious in his high city
you see him cantering just as he please,
the lava up to here.
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.