Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The book corner: An Odyssey

  • 29 July 2022
Daniel Mendelsohn is a classics professor and a writer, whose best known works are in the genre of memoir. He is Jewish, and his best-seller The Lost concerns his determined efforts to discover what happened to his relatives during the Holocaust. It is sub-titled A Search for Six of Six Million, for his American family had been haunted for decades by the loss of six close Polish connections, and by the fact that nothing was known of their fate. The searching and the writing took him several years: it was, after all, a 60-year-old story.

An Odyssey is another, but very different, memoir. Mendelsohn lectures in classics at Bard College, a liberal arts institution in New York State. His retired father, aged 81 in 2011, regrets gaps in his education, and that year asks to sit in on his son’s course of seminars on Homer’s The Odyssey. Not without some misgivings, Professor Mendelsohn agrees, and so Jay Mendelsohn joins a class of 18-19 year-olds: the interaction between crabb’d age and youth is a very engaging part of the book.  Later, father and son go on a cruise that retraces The Odyssey.

The Iliad and The Odyssey, considered to have been set down in the 8th century BC, are the oldest extant works of Western literature. The former relates the happenings of the Trojan War, and the latter details the struggles that hero Odysseus has to return to his home island of Ithaca when the war is over. The voyage, which includes many stops along the way, takes him ten years, and he has already spent ten years away at Troy, having left his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus behind.

The great Greek poet George Seferis, a Nobel Laureate, once wrote that the first thing God made was the long journey. Seferis was a career diplomat, so that journeys were part of his professional life. But his origins were in Asia Minor: he left his home there when he was 14, and because of Greek-Turkish tensions, did not see it again until he was 50. So it is no coincidence that he was particularly interested in The Odyssey, which is about many things, one of which is the matter of returning home. And Greeks are particularly attached to the idea of home, and habitually refer to their homeland or birthplace.

'Is home a physical place, or something you carry around with you or within