The Story Is Never the Whole Story: The Millions Interviews Daniel Mendelsohn

November 6, 2017 | 10 books mentioned 1 18 min read

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Daniel Mendelsohn is one of the most prominent classicists in America today. A contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, he’s also a professor at Bard College. His 2006 book The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Memoir, among many other awards, recounts Mendelsohn’s attempt to discover what happened to six relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. It is also a book about storytelling and how we construct our identities and our relationship to the past, issues that recur throughout his work, including the memoir The Elusive Embrace. He has also translated the poetry of C.P. Cavafy and established himself as one of the most significant critics and cultural writers of the moment. Mendelsohn has the kind of wide-ranging mind one hopes for from a critic. He ends up writing about topics that one might expect, like the films 300 and Troy, but he’s clearly a pop culture junkie writing about Mad Men and George R.R. Martin and Patrick Leigh Fermor and the meaning of the Titanic.

covercovercoverHis new book An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic is about his father. At the age of 81, Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, attended his son’s weekly seminar on The Odyssey, and when the class finished the two took a cruise retracing Odysseus’s steps through the Eastern Mediterranean. His father died not long after; the book is about teaching The Odyssey, about the last year of his father’s life, and about Mendelsohn trying to better understand his father. Which happens to be one of the themes of The Odyssey. An excerpt of the book appeared earlier this year in The New Yorker. We spoke recently when he was jet-lagged in Paris on book tour.

The Millions:  Where did this book start? You wrote a travel article about going on the cruise with your dad not long after it happened.

Daniel Mendelsohn:  All my books accidentally end up being books. As soon as my dad asked me to take the course, I thought I would do something with it because the experience at a certain level was just so amusing. I may have even called my editor at The New Yorker. When we were on the cruise, I think I started thinking that it was going to be a book. It was after he died that I looked back at what had turned out to be the last year of his life and saw that the whole thing was one story—the classroom and the cruise and the hospital. On the cruise I started to think it would be a book but I didn’t know at that point what the narrative was, what the shape of it was, but I knew I had a story. Several months after daddy died I started thinking, this is the book. I knew that I wanted to map the structure of this book onto The Odyssey somehow and figuring that out took me a while.

TM:  Anyone who reads you knows that structure is very important to you, and I can only imagine how much time it took to figure out the right structure for the book.

DM:  That’s a shrewd observation. I had a lot of material. The classroom was so funny at times and also so poignant at times. Then the cruise with the cave and the guy with the scar on his leg—and not getting to Ithaca. I thought, life is handing me a great story. The Lost took me one third as much time to write as did this book, although one could say it’s a much more gigantic story. It took me a very long time to figure out how to map this onto the structure of The Odyssey. It was not easy. It took a long time. People said, it’s taking a long time because it’s your dad and he’s passed away now and it’s so sad and emotional. I said, no, actually that’s not the reason. I love thinking about my dad every day. It was like a nice haunting. It was hard because I wanted to be echoing both the structure of The Odyssey and the development of the themes of The Odyssey. Going from this education of the son to this metaphorical emphasis on recognition at the end of The Odyssey and then at the end of my father’s story. That was not so easy.

coverIn my review of the movie Troy with Brad Pitt I began by quoting Aristotle—which is probably too big of a stick to use on Brad Pitt. Aristotle has a very interesting observation about the other so-called epics about the Trojan War that did not survive. Every aspect of the Trojan War had an epic about it, from the judgement of Paris to the death of Odysseus. We only have The Iliad and The Odyssey. Aristotle said some of these other epics just weren’t that good, and the reason why is because they told the story in the order that the events happened, which is a mistake that Homer did not make. I realized about two years into writing this book I was making exactly that mistake. In other words, I told first the class, then the cruise, then my father’s illness, and death in that order. Each element was interesting, but it didn’t have an interesting structure. I never share my work while I’m writing except with my editor and a close friend and mentor of mine, Bob Gottlieb, who used to run Knopf and The New Yorker. This was literally only a year ago. I had hundreds of pages and Bob said, the problem is when you get to the end of the school year, you don’t want to go on. That’s the narrative, the class. You have to think of a way to work everything else into that. Literally the minute he said that I burst out laughing because of course, I need to do this Homerically, which is, to think of a way to fold the other aspects of the story into the classroom narrative. The class is the spine of the book. I have to talk about the cruise while we’re discussing Odysseus’ adventures at sea in the class. I have to talk about the illness and death when we’re coming to the end of the class. Then the whole thing fell into place and I was finished in two months.

TM:  As soon as he said that, the structure presented itself to you.

DM:  It clicked into place all at once. He said, you have to think of something and he didn’t know what it was, but the minute he said that, I thought, duh, you have to think like Homer.

TM:  You make the point in the book that The Odyssey is much more narratively and structurally complex than most people understand.

coverDM:  Oh my god, yes. The Odyssey is—in an almost postmodern way—aware of its own narrative devices. In fact it draws attention to its own constructed-ness, so to speak, in a way that is just amazing. I remember reviewing a very good book, that I quite liked, by Zach Mason called The Lost Books of the Odyssey for The New Yorker. I said this book is very clever and interesting, but you’re never going to be more clever than The Odyssey itself because it already anticipated all these games. One of the things I really wanted to make people aware of in this book—through getting to be a fly on the wall in the seminar—is how incredibly structured The Odyssey is and how alert it is to the tricks of narrative. All of my books, starting with my first memoir, are obsessed with narrative and truth-telling and the way that lived history becomes narrated. It’s very interesting to me. It’s a theme that binds all of my memoirs together certainly.

TM:  I think thats true. Your books are about how we construct our identity through narrative.

DM:  Precisely. When I was writing my first book, my grandfather, who reappears in The Lost, is sort of the figure of narrative. He is a great storyteller. In both books I become alert to the way in which the self fashioning through narrative can be misleading. Not necessarily in a sinister way. I think quite often people narrate themselves not with the intention of deception but because they honestly believe that this is who they are. That this is their story, if you see what I mean. I’m fascinated by this. It’s also a way of alerting my readers to the fact that even though these are true stories that I’m telling in my book, they are constructed as narrative. The story you’re reading is never the whole story because if you told the whole story, it would just be boring.

TM:  I know you’ve written about this a lot, and I’ve written about it a little, but the fact that the memoir isn’t a recitation of events; it’s about the psychoanalysis of the self, it’s a consideration of what those events mean, it’s much more complicated than just what happened.

DM:  The memoir is a highly crafted version of unedited reality. Nobody wants to hear a boring story. The Lost is highly obsessed with the dangers of narrative because I’m trying to get at a historical truth. When I was on book tour for The Lost, a woman in the audience very nicely said, I loved your book and I’m so glad that somebody has finally told the whole story of this one little town. I burst out laughing and I said, if I had told everything that I heard, it would be 2,000 pages long and unreadable. It’s not a matter of fact or fiction, it’s not a matter of you’re making it up or whatever—even if you’re just relating things that happened or things you heard, you’re shaping it, because people want to be enticed by a narrative. In this book I’m doing that very deliberately by evoking parallels with the themes and structure of structure of The Odyssey—which is itself a text which is very alert to the enchantment and seductions of narrative. It’s over-determined in a kind of fabulous way, but of course I don’t talk about the boring parts of the cruise or the days we just sat around waiting to get somewhere or the questions that people asked at the site of Troy that weren’t interesting. You’re always shaping and when you’re writing this kind of thing you are writing in a way to convey what you think are the insights that you have had about yourself. But of course who knows what you’re doing unconsciously, right? That’s for the critics to figure out.

TM:  I think you were harder on yourself than you were on your father in a lot of ways.

DM:  I take that as a huge compliment. I think when you’re writing memoir obviously the great danger is to glamorize yourself. Even through a kind of disingenuous negativity by saying, oh I’m so terrible. I think I’m pretty tough on both of us. The Lost was about the search for the identities of people I had never known. So in a funny way even though the subject matter was so painful, it was easier to write. This book was about my father, and for that reason I was bending over backwards to not sentimentalize either myself or my relationship to my father. I thought that was very important and I think it’s something he would have approved of given the kind of person he was. [Laughs.] He didn’t like mush. You’re probably right. I may have bent over too far, but the hero of this book is not me. The hero of this book is my father. It’s like those bunraku puppeteers who dress in black but you only look at the puppet? I wanted to be like those puppeteers, not intruding too much because it is about my father, although obviously through the lens of my relationship with him.

TM:  I guess what I mean is that you don’t overdramatize anything, you’re not overly sentimental, and you write that when you were young you were embarrassed by him. You make it clear that this isn’t about a distant father and a dutiful son.

DM:  Absolutely. When you write a memoir, you have an unwritten pact with the reader that you have to expose even the unattractive aspect of your narrative. I’m not talking about, I had a problem or I had an addiction. I mean really embarrassing things that make you squirm and might make the reader squirm, but I think you have to do that because that’s why the reader is on board. In particular, reading a book about a father-son relationship, I just felt I owed it to myself, I owed it to my father, and I owed it to the readers to put those mortifying, uncomfortable moments on the page because that’s the bargain you’re making. Look, no one has perfect relationships with their parents. We’re all embarrassed by our parents at some point in life, but only a few of us get to write about it. That’s the point hopefully when the reader will say, aha, I never really went there or talked about this, but I know what it’s like to have a parent you’re sometimes just mortified by. I don’t think it reflected well on me but I was 14. This is life and you have to be honest about it.

TM:  As you were writing these moments seemed to present themselves. Like the man on the cruise with the injured leg. The emotional climax of the book is your father revealing himself to you and the class when you’re discussing Book 23, which was echoed in the very last scene of the book.

DM:  I reflected on this a lot when I was writing The Lost when there were so many extraordinary coincidences. Truly amazing things happened that you wouldn’t believe if it were a novel. I had a long passage in The Lost where I reflect on that and I say it happens because to some extent you make it happen by putting yourself into this story. If you sit at home on your sofa nothing’s ever going to happen. Just by putting yourself out there you make things happen. You know what this is like as a writer when you’re working on a thing, suddenly everything becomes about that subject. Everything becomes irradiated because your perceptions and sensitivities are engaged. It’s not that more things are happening or more coincidences are happening, you’re just noticing things you never would have noticed before because you weren’t writing a book about them. I was just lucky because the one time my father really responded positively to The Odyssey was on the last day of class when he said this amazing thing. If you read the passage it’s not like he bears his soul, but for him…That’s a great vehicle for talking about how you turn experience into a narrative. What I had to do in order for that moment to feel like a climax, which is how you just described it. It is the emotional climax of the book, I would say. What I had to do was to create my father as a character in such a way that for him even to say that feels like a huge climax. Everything before then I have to choose out of everything that he said and did, those things which I thought illustrated his character in such a way so that by the time you get to that I think amazing moment where he started talking about my mother in class you’re like, whoa.

TM:  And then you play with structure and time so that you jump to you relating it to your father and show her reacting to it.

DM:  Here also I’m imitating slightly something that Homer does; he gives you reaction shots, as it were. I felt that to be an extraordinary moment in the classroom and I know that some of the students did, but then I choose to narrate the conversation that I had with my mother about that because she thought it was amazing too. It was a way of locking the significance of that moment both when it happened and afterwards. I didn’t have to describe the conversation I had with my mother—although that conversation leads to what I think is the second big emotional moment at the end of the book. I was trying very hard in this book to avoid over-dramatizing and that’s why you get in the conversation with mother as a throwaway remark the information that finally explains why my father didn’t go to the high school he always wanted to go to. For me that was a very big emotional moment, but I bent over backwards not to spotlight because I think it’s more devastating if you experience it the way I experienced it, which was in passing. It’s a throwaway remark from my mother because she’s not thinking about what I was thinking about at that moment.

TM:  That’s also a narrative tool, to have a great emotional moment but not to dwell on it or emphasize it.

DM:  That’s a thing that happens in the work that I admire the most. You’re not showcasing the big emotional moments and I think they’re more devastating for that reason. I always think of Proust where you meet Odette de Crécy early on in the novel. She’s a major character and the focus of a lot of narrative attention and you’re led to believe that this fancy aristocratic name that she has is one of these made up names that high-class courtesans gave themselves. I think it’s in the fourth or fifth volume where in passing the narrator meets the Count or Maquis de Crécy and you realize that Odette really was married to that guy. Every time I encounter that I’m just blown away by how brilliant it is. A thing that interests me is retrospective emotion, when you think oh my god that’s what that thing was and you get that kind of pang. I’m fascinated by that because to my mind it has 10 times the power of some big drumroll cymbals clashing kind of climax.

TM:  It gets at this point, which is at the heart of so much classical Greek literature, that character is destiny.

DM:  Right. It’s interesting when you think about what is this book about. Yes, it has a plot, which is the classroom and the cruise and the hospital, but like The Lost is a search narrative, the search here is just to know who my father was. You can say, well who cares who my father was, except that we all have fathers and mothers and we never quite understand them. This book I would say what it’s about is a series of gentle revelations about things that I never guessed about my father or why he did them. I thought I knew who he was and then through a kind of odyssey and sequence of events, people saying things—sometimes knowingly sometimes accidentally—reveal the key to major episodes of my father’s life. That’s about character. So much of Greek literature—particularly tragedy, my scholarly specialty—is about how events reveal character. That’s all that tragedy is about, one could say. That’s what this book is about. As with tragedy, you could say who cares about that person’s character, but you want to do it in such a way that it can be enlarged and become a metaphor for a certain type of experience. In this book the type of experience that I’m interested in is a child’s partial knowledge of parents and a child’s partial understanding of his parents’ marriage.

TM:  You get at this in the book that so much of The Odyssey is about this father-son relationship and the education of a son into the wider adult world.

DM:  I think that’s about as good a way you could put it.

TM:  You’ve been teaching these works for years, I wonder if there’s been a shift in how students respond to Homer?

DM:  It’s an interesting question. I don’t mean to be evasive, but I have two answers to that question. On the one hand, I don’t want to call it superficially but certainly the students now are interested in things because they’re being raised in a different culture than I was raised in, so they’re focusing on things that they have been trained to notice. I got here yesterday afternoon and a kid who graduated from UVA who I met and kept in touch with is in Paris so we had dinner together. He had just finished reading The Iliad and I said what did you think? What he was focused on was why aren’t there more female characters, why there aren’t more strong female characters, what is Achilles’s sexuality exactly, to what extent is the text explicit about his relationship with Patroclus. I thought well of course because he is a product of contemporary college education where—and I say this with approval—they’re focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. Every generation has its own focuses and lenses, let’s call them.

That said, at a whole other possibly larger level, I would say no, there is no difference. [Laughs.] I started teaching as a graduate student in 1989. The fundamental elements are still fundamental and it doesn’t matter what gender or sexuality you are—or what class, something contemporary students are rightly zeroing in on. Who are the slaves? Beyond that I think they’re all finally susceptible to the great power of both The Odyssey and The Iliad in the way they present in the strongest and also most stylish way the fundamental issues of human existence. That’s why they’re classics. I always like to say that the great advantage to teaching great books is that they are great. It’s not like we’re trying to sell you a bill of goods here. [Laughs.] We’re not trying to sell you a lemon and dress it up as a Cadillac, they really are great.

I had never really understood the extent to which The Odyssey is obsessed with familial relationships and particularly father-son relationships, as you were just saying. Even people who haven’t read The Odyssey know that it’s a famous story about a guy who’s trying to get home to his wife after 20 years away from home. But in terms of pure real estate, more of the poem is devoted to father-son relationships than to husband-wife relationships. I’ve never done a count, but my hunch is it’s just as much if not more so. The Greeks were obsessed with this as a patriarchal society. Surprise! Odysseus in the book has a double role. He is both a father to a son he doesn’t know and didn’t raise and who has found other father figures to be his father in his absence, but also at the end of the book there’s his old father that he has to reconcile with, come to terms with. As I think I point out in the book, the climactic reunion of The Odyssey is not Odysseus and Penelope, it’s Odysseus and his father. Even structurally the emphasis is clearly on that relationship. I understood this, of course. I taught it a million times, but somehow it just hit me this time around. Look, we all have parents. We all watch them getting old. Those of us who have children watch our children growing up. I think many people feel, did I miss something in my child’s growing up? This is a text that speaks very loudly and clearly and powerfully.

TM:  One reason I ask is because the military has been sponsoring performances of Greek tragedies for soldiers and veterans and using them as a way to talk about war and trauma. I know The Odyssey is often talked about in a post-traumatic context.

coverDM:  I’m not a big fan of those readings. It’s not because I don’t think they’re not true, but I think it leads to the possibility of a reductive reading and I am always militating for expansive reading rather than reductive reading. I reviewed one of those productions, of Euripides’s Herakles, which is adapted as a war hero with post-traumatic stress disorder. I think the danger of that is reducing the complexities of extremely complex works of art for the purposes of contemporary psychologizing. It’s not that I think they’re wrong, but because their emphasis is on trauma I don’t like the idea that people will think that’s what they’re about and thereby exclusive of other readings. Ajax suffers this kind of madness for reasons that are made very explicit in the text that have to do with hubris and Greek theology and the whole system of honor and heroism. I’ve spent my whole career trying to argue for the continuing, vivid relevance of these texts, but there’s more to the story than just this kind of interpretation. I have been certainly been keeping abreast of these performances before veterans and obviously the veterans are responding. If you get a group of soldiers and they’re crying during Ajax, I’m never going to argue with that. But there’s a much bigger picture. I’m a product of a certain moment in classical education when I was in grad school. One was constantly reminded that they were a very different and often strange civilization in comparison with our own. One can go down a slippery interpretative slope if you want them to be a perfect mirror of contemporary experience because they’re not. They had this wacky religion, they had very weird ideas about gender and sexuality, and you have to be careful about how you use them I guess is the point of this digression.

TM:  When I talk with people who are adapting or interpreting classical stories, we talk about how pop culture stories are often fundamentally different from classical stories. Classically character was destiny, and in contemporary stories that means everything is awesome, I guess. I still remember your review of Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man musical and how she was trying to combine the comic book transformation with the mythical tradition of transformation and they don’t quite match up.

coverDM:  Exactly. Listening to you one thing that flashes through my head is that maybe these Greek texts have a kind of hardness and durability because they don’t make a mistake which I think is the great mistake of so much popular entertainment—sentimentality. Modern superheroes are all essentially optimistic visions of transformation. The transformations are always empowering, where you need to only read two pages of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to understand that the ancient transformations are very problematic. The essential vision of life is pessimistic and these transformations are punishments, so [Taymor] was trying to conflate two essentially incompatible visions

TM:  This is incredibly geeky but Spider-Man always fights people who go through animal-like transformations—The Lizard, The Rhino, Doctor Octopus—and they are flawed tragic characters caught up in this web of hubris and obsession. Who are then defeated by, I guess, a can-do American attitude?

DM:  I think that’s a brilliant observation. The Greek dramatists would focus on the villain in the Spider-Man stories, not on Spider-Man. That’s so interesting because they’re all grandiose strivers who go wackily wrong—both physically and mentally because of their grandiose ambitions. Those characters would be of much more interest. Back to Taymor, you have made a much more interesting way of stating the issue that I was talking about in the Taymor production—the villains are so much more interesting.

Because the heroes are so obviously heroic, the drama about the American hero versus the Greek is they have these double identities. The drama is generated by the necessity of keeping the heroic identity secret. That’s the great anxiety. There is no inherent drama in the way the Greek mind would understand the word drama in these heroes. I’m not saying this is a lesser theme—especially today when we’re so alert to issues of identity and concealment. There is drama in that, but it’s not what a Greek dramatist would be interested in. Obviously identity and self-revelation are very interesting to Homer in The Odyssey.

TM:  You wrote that great piece in The New Yorker about Mary Renault and your correspondence. I was curious if you planned to write more about it or do something with the piece?

DM:  I do have an idea for a book. Bob Gottlieb suggested it to me after I wrote that piece and I always listen to him. A book with a title like My Old Ladies. I published that piece on The New Yorker website about this fabulous elderly French lady that I boarded with when I was in college. I could write about [my teacher] Froma. How continually I’ve come under the influence of these very strong older women. As I recall, that Renault piece was probably 14,000 words. I think to amplify it would be a matter of adding more detail but not more structure, so I don’t know that I’m going to revisit that but I would like to assemble some of these ladies in one place. I could write about my mother. It might be a fun book.

TM:  I also read that you’re working on a book about reading the classics.

DM:  That’s my next book, which I’ve thought about doing for a long time. When I’m on book tour, there’s a huge number of people who really want to know why these great texts are supposed to be so great. Not in a skeptical way, but a lot of people are like my father, for whatever reason they didn’t get to read the classics or they sped through them in high school and as adults they have some sense that these texts have tremendous amount to say but they need someone who’s going to be the professor. I thought it would be a good to write a book, which in some sense is like these pieces I’ve done for The New Yorker about The Iliad or Herodotus or Thucydides. A number of chapters on different authors or genres, and just say, here’s what it is, these are the issues, let’s sit down and look at them together.

TM:  The description of An Odyssey sounds like the description of either a new sitcom or an Oscar nominated film, so I have to ask, have you sold the Hollywood rights?

DM:  [Laughs.] As my grandmother would say, from your lips to God’s ears.

has written for The Believer, The Paris Review, The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail, The Comics Journal, and other publications.

One comment:

  1. Hiding in plain sight within the pearls is this: I love thinking about my dad every day. It was like a nice haunting. This is really*** helpful for me. A turn away from grief/guilt to a nice haunting.

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