An Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn

OR:  Are there moments or scenes in the Odyssey where the idea of home and family and what they mean is most especially concentrated for you?

Mendelsohn: Paradoxically, there are two scenes in the poem where Odysseus is reunited with family members that speak very powerfully to this issue of who are — and how you relate to — the people most intimate with you. And they couldn't be more different. Odysseus, after 20 years (it's actually halfway through the poem, at the beginning of book 13 out of 24 books), finally reaches his home. He sets about making his way back towards his palace in order to take vengeance on the suitors. The first family member with whom he is reunited is his son.

It's a strange passage. When Athena finally waves her magic wand and allows Odysseus to reveal his true identity to his son Telemachus, it's a curiously anticlimactic moment. Telemachus doesn't believe it. He resists the idea that this total stranger could be the father that he's dreamed about for 20 years. As we know, Odysseus left when Telemachus was an infant. Now his son is a 20-year-old man. There's a disconnect between father and son. And Odysseus actually says at one point, "There's no other Odysseus who's going to come.” I think that's very canny, because they don't know each other. There's nothing to recognize; you can't have recognition without a prior cognition, so to speak. They never knew each other and so there can't be a kind of “ah-ha” moment of truth between them. They have to take each other on faith.

One could contrast with that the unbelievably emotional climactic reunion that takes place in the poem between Odysseus and his aging father Laertes, who's the last person to whom Odysseus reveals himself. By this point he has killed all the suitors and revealed himself to his wife Penelope. He goes to look at his father and they both break down in tears, overwhelmed by the very real connection that they have. And so I think those moments signal something very smart about relationships on the part of whoever composed this poem. With the son there's a lot of talk. Telemachus says, "No, no, no, no, you can't be my father." Odysseus goes on and on explaining why, and then they finally accept each other and start making plans. Odysseus and his father — who did have a relationship, who are in fact being reunited — nearly can't bring themselves to talk. They dissolve in tears.

OR: Do you have a favorite character in the poem — one that you identify very deeply with?

Mendelsohn: I'm anti-identification. I always tell my students not to identify or to try not to identify.

That said, you can't teach the Odyssey unless you have a bit of a crush on Odysseus. And he is a beguiling character. I think that as a writer I wouldn't say I identify with him, but he's famous for his way with narratives. He's a storyteller, a liar, a trickster, a punster. He vanquishes the Cyclops by means of a very elaborate pun. He is a hero of language and narrative. In that sense, of course, he's irresistible to writers.

But the Odyssey has so many great characters it's sort of torturous to have a choose a favorite. The Cyclops is a great character. Penelope is a great character. As is Eurycleia, the crabby old nurse who helps Odysseus kill all the suitors.

The Odyssey, as many people know and are now remarking on in particular, is particularly rich in great women characters. I should say female characters, because some of them are deities. Athena is a great character. She has a bit of a sense of humor. She's no distant, remote goddess. Then, of course, there are Circe and Calypso. There was a theory at one point that whoever composed the Odyssey had to have been a woman because there were so many great female characters. No one believes it. But it says something about how rich these characters are. I can't choose a favorite because they're just all so damn good.

OR: What is the most rewarding thing about teaching the Odyssey to undergraduates? What is the hardest thing?

Mendelsohn: A lot of undergraduates come in because they know it's a poem about adventure, which it is. I'm not going to deny that. But it's always rewarding when you can start opening undergraduates’ eyes to the extraordinary thematic richness of this work of art. There is nothing that the Odyssey isn't interested in: anthropology, language, narrative, identity, disguise, family, social life. I always think they come in for the adventure, but they leave with a healthy appreciation of how vast and complex — in a delicious way — it is. And what it is to be connected to somebody, and what that means, intimacy and recognition.

That brings me to what the hard part is. Like many highly sophisticated and very complex works of literature, it's sometimes about aspects of life that 17-year-old freshmen just haven't reached yet. That can be a frustration. The climactic unfolding of Odysseus' recognitions by the members of his family is so moving if you can imagine, as you can when you're middle-aged or elderly, what it's like to lose track of someone for 20 years and then to be reunited with them. Anyone who's been to a 25th, or a 35th, or a 50th high school or college reunion knows what I'm talking about: that strange displacement. Someone is standing in front of you. You used to know them. They don't look anything like the way they used to. Yet there's something about them that seems familiar. That's just an experience you cannot have had when you're only 17 or 18. You haven't even been alive 20 years — the length of Odysseus and Penelope’s separation.

OR: What fundamental things are lost in reading the poem in translation?

Mendelsohn: In my book I recreate the classroom discussion when I was explaining to my students exactly how elaborate is the pun with which Odysseus conquers the Cyclops. When he first meets the Cyclops he says, "Oh, my name is Nobody.” At the end of the episode, after Odysseus and his companions have attacked and blinded the Cyclops, the Cyclops' neighbors come running for help. They say, "Is anyone killing you? Is anyone hurting you?" And he says, "Nobody is killing me, Nobody is hurting me." They say, "Okay, in that case we'll go home." So he doesn't get any assistance.