by Alison Buckholtz
What makes a relationship last?
Self-help shelves offer up-to-the-minute answers based on the latest psychology, sociology, and technology. But it turns out the solution has been around for millennia—literally from the time of the ancient Greek poet Homer, best known as author of the tales that make up the Odyssey. Spoiler: according to that epic, in which Odysseus, King of Ithaca, and his wife Penelope are separated for 20 post-war years and then reunited, a good marriage is based on homophrosyne, or “like-mindedness.”
It’s a simple enough concept. But in the hands of the classicist, critic, and best-selling writer Daniel Mendelsohn, author of An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic, the concept he translates as “like-mindedness”—the memories two people share–becomes a profound meditation on what bonds two people over the course of a lifetime. Not just spouses, either: fathers and sons, siblings, even friends estranged across decades who are pulled back into each other’s orbit because of experiences no one but them could understand.
It’s not an insight readers might expect from An Odyssey, in which Mendelsohn narrates how his time teaching the epic to a class of undergraduates drew his 81-year-old father, Jay, back to studying the classics. First Jay sat in as a student in Mendelsohn’s class at Bard College, and then the two took a Mediterranean cruise together, retracing Odysseus’ path and exploits. Jay died a few years after that, and their late-in-life closeness inspires Mendelsohn to find out more about his father—much like the way Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, launches his own journey to discover the truth about the man he knows only from others’ tales.
Equal parts lit-crit class, language lesson, and memoir, An Odyssey alchemizes to create its own unique and compelling sub-genre. But unlike alchemy, which sought to convert base metals into gold, each element of Mendelsohn’s experiment—his story—is already buffed to perfection.
Mendelsohn knows that many people read parts of the Odyssey in high school, but he doesn’t assume any serious familiarity on the reader’s part. That’s a welcome gesture. But as author-professor he goes one brilliant step further: he smoothly, invisibly places his readers in the seminar with his students, sketching the layout and atmosphere of his classroom at Bard College, as well as the roster of co-eds signed up for Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer, which started at 11:15 on a cold January in 2011.
Our fellow Bard travelers include Tom, who resembles Don Quixote from a Picasso painting–so Mendelsohn remembers him as “Don Quixote Tom,” to distinguish him from another student, “Blond Tom.” There’s “Trisha of the Botticelli Hair,” “dark-eyed Nina,” and several others whose insights, questions, and conflicted feelings about the Odyssey over the course of the semester animate and advance our own understanding of one of the West’s most lasting works of literature.
And of course, there’s “Daddy” –Mendelsohn always refers to his father as “Daddy”—in a chair that’s angled awkwardly away from both the teenage students and his own son, the authority figure.
Jay may love the classics, but he doesn’t like Odysseus. “I don’t think he’s a hero at all,” he announces early in the term, declaring Odysseus a disastrous leader who lost his twelve ships, failed to protect any of his troops, and frequently cries. The crying is especially galling to Jay, who was in the Army during World War II. He maintains a stoicism about military service that carried through to decades of a different kind of service as faithful husband, father of five, and loyal employee of Grumman, the aerospace company near his home on Long Island.
That dedication to duty kept Jay from pursuing his own interest in the classics, as well as other professional goals he’d once targeted. That was what Mendelsohn and his siblings had always thought, anyway. As son gets to know father during the class and the cruise, hints of new narratives nudge aside long-accepted stories. But it’s hard to pierce a legend, even when it’s just generation-old family lore.
Although the two men grow closer, overcoming much of the distance they used to feel, Mendelsohn’s still-incomplete understanding of his father prompts him to seek even further. So after Jay’s death, Mendelsohn schedules a series of visits to his father’s long-time friends and close relatives to piece together the events that influenced Jay’s approach to life, which is so fundamentally different from his own.
Although the lit-crit and linguistic threads are woven just as tightly into the texture of An Odyssey as the more traditional elements of memoir, they don’t overwhelm. That’s because Mendelsohn doesn’t lecture, either as a character or a narrator. His storytelling leaves room for other teachers—including his current students, his former professors, and relatives who decode multi-layered family myths.
All of these relationships, no matter how long they were left untended, are grounded in like-mindedness–nourished by memories, loyalty, love, or some combination of the three. They continue to yield an emotional bounty, even after a half-century. That may not sound like a long time compared to what transpires in the Odyssey, but for mere mortals, it’s epic.
Sure, Odysseus is the hero of one of the West’s most famous stories. Sure, Homer and the question of authorship has polarized critics for centuries. But what if it’s Penelope—the loyal, long-suffering military wife—who you want to know better? There’s no sidling up to her at the O Club’s monthly spouse coffee. But there’s something even better: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, a re-working of the Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view.
This Penelope, a spirit wandering through the asphodel of the Underworld, may not have a body, but she is nonetheless all too human. For starters, she nurses a life-long grudge against her beautiful cousin, Helen of Troy. There’s good reason for this: Helen is the ultimate frenemy. Her passive-aggressive cuts (“Divine beauty is such a burden. At least you’ve been spared that!”) make Regina, the alpha Plastic from Mean Girls, look like Anne of Green Gables.
Penelope loves Odysseus, but she’s also practical: she realistically assesses his faults and foibles, adjusting her own responses accordingly. For example, it’s sometimes assumed that Penelope did not actually recognize Odysseus when he came home from his 20-year sojourn, reappearing in the guise of a beggar. In Atwood’s re-casting of the myth, Penelope knows. “As soon as I saw that barrel chest and those short legs I had a deep suspicion,” she says. But she’s calculated that it’s better to hide that awareness. “The hardness of my heart was a notion I was glad to foster…as it would reassure Odysseus to know I hadn’t been throwing myself into the arms of every man who’d turned up claiming to be him.”
Penelope’s as good an actor as Odysseus is; she plays into what she knows what her husband really wants from his wife. And she’s right. “Odysseus grinned—he was looking forward to the big revelation scene, the part where I would say ‘It was you all along! What a terrific disguise!’ and throw my arms around his neck.”
Penelope has been faithful to her role since she was King Icarius’ daughter, biding the time until she transitioned from child to wife. She knows how to act because when you’re 15 and your father picks the winner of a race to marry you off to, you do what’s necessary to survive your fate. She always holds part of herself back, remaining watchful as an owl. Nothing escapes her notice.
Well, almost nothing. And therein lies Penelope’s unraveling, the one that haunts her afterlife. Once Odysseus slaughtered her suitors, he hanged Penelope’s 12 maids-in-waiting—young women she loved, gently manipulated, and then failed to protect. Quite literally, she has never gotten over it.
If you don’t remember the part of the Odyssey that recounts the maids’ hanging, you’re not alone. But once Penelope recounts it–and these maids narrate, Greek chorus-style, the story of their downfall–it shifts the plates of Homer’s story so seismically that it doesn’t even seem to belong to Odysseus anymore.
Mendelsohn, Daniel. An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic. Knopf, 2017.
Atwood, Margaret. The Penelopiad. Canongate U.S., 2006.
About the Reviewer:
Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin, April 2009; in paperback April 2013). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories. Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.
She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.