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.