A Father And Son Go On Their Last 'Odyssey' Together

Apr 15, 2012
Originally published on October 5, 2017 8:42 am

A few years ago, author, critic, and translator Daniel Mendelsohn was teaching the epic Greek poem The Odyssey when his father decided to take his class.

Jay Mendelsohn, a retired research scientist, wanted to understand his son better, and understand his life's work. When Daniel decided he wanted to retrace one of the most epic journeys of Greek literature, Jay became his travel partner.

Daniel, a professor at Bard College in New York, wrote about the trip for the April 2012 issue of Travel and Leisure Magazine. His father did not like the character of Odysseus in the first place, Daniel tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

"He said, 'How can this guy be a hero? You know, he lies, he tricks people, he cheats on his wife, he cries' — my father didn't like that at all," Daniel remembers – "How can you make this guy the center of a poem,'" Daniel remembers.

But Jay did love Homer's first poem, The Iliad, and he wanted to learn more about Homer and Ancient Greece. So, they partnered up and began cruising the Mediterranean, starting in the ancient city of Troy in modern Turkey – the city where Odysseus' journey begins.

"One certainly gets a sense of the cultural power and authority of the Homeric poems, both The Iliad and The Odyssey," he says, "from the fact that already in antiquity, it was a tourist destination to go to Troy." Even Alexander The Great visited the city as a tourist, he says.

Of course, Daniel and Jay didn't stop there. They visited places throughout Greece and the Mediterranean associated with locations in Homer's The Odyssey. There's a lot of speculation, however, about whether these sites are truly the places mentioned in these epic poems.

"A lot of these sites," Daniel says, "like Calypso's cave on Malta, one definitely feels like they were sort of invented — or at least hyped." Jay got a big kick out of each location anyway, Daniel says, even the phoniest ones.

The two companions traveled the ancient world on a cruise ship, which offered lectures by academics and archeologists. It was a small cruise ship, with about 80 passengers on board, but that didn't stop them from having unlikely encounters.

"The Odyssey is, of course, about funny encounters and unexpected coincidences and meetings that are too good to be true," Daniel says. "We got to talking with a couple that we had seen a couple times, and it turns out he had been the CEO of my dad's company," he says.

Some of the people they met even had an uncanny resemblance to characters from The Odyssey.

For example: There's one key moment in The Odyssey when Odysseus returns to his palace in Ithaca — in disguise, to slay all the suitors who had been courting his wife while he was away. Once at the palace, however, he's recognized by a scar on his leg from a childhood wound.

Coincidentally, Daniel was sunbathing on the deck when he noticed a Dutch man with a scar on his leg and an extraordinary story.

During World War II, this man was a starving teenager. He was weak and malnourished and ended up injuring himself while chopping firewood, swinging the axe into his own leg. This wound almost cost him his life.

"A family friend, who was a classicist, helped him get through this illness in part by reading The Odyssey to him," Mendelsohn says. "Even though he was not a classic student, he recited to me, on the deck of this ship as an elderly man, lines from The Odyssey in Greek," he says.

The man told Daniel he was on the cruise because he had vowed to see what Odysseus saw before he died.

All in all, it was a good trip for both father and son — and an especially poignant one. On April 6, 2012, Jay Mendelsohn passed away.

"I can't travel with him anymore," Daniel says, "but in a lot of ways, he will stay with me during the remaining trips that I am making and the readings I am making of these texts," he says. "That just became a different kind of odyssey."

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Writer Daniel Mendelsohn is a literary scholar, but he writes about all sorts of things. He teaches at Bard College in New York, and he's devoted most of his life to studying the classics. And a few years ago, Mendelsohn was teaching Homer's classic "The Odyssey" when his elderly father, Jay, a retired research scientist, decided to take his class. He wanted to understand his son better and to understand his life's work.

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: I think that students were very tickled by the fact that for once, there was someone in the classroom who had more authority than the professor by dint of the fact that he was father. So he liked to contradict me a lot.

RAZ: After the course was over, Daniel's father said he wanted to see the sites that Odysseus saw.

MENDELSOHN: And so I called my dad, and I said, you know, instead of us individually going to these various places, which are associated with the voyage of Odysseus, what if we got on this small boat and just followed on the footsteps of Odysseus? So we signed on, and off we went.

RAZ: This is a - one of the sort of cruise companies that has lectures by academics and archaeologists. And in fact, you had been a lecturer on this cruise boat about 10 years ago. But you came on as a complete civilian, totally anonymous, and it was 10 days retracing the Odyssey, which took, of course, 10 years.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah, right.

RAZ: One day for one year?

MENDELSOHN: One day per year. Exactly.

RAZ: The journey began in the city of Troy - ancient city of Troy. It's in modern day Turkey, and you make an interesting observation, which is that this has actually been a tourist attraction since the time of Xerxes, since 480 B.C. I mean, Alexander the Great visited there.

MENDELSOHN: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: People have been going there as tourists for thousands of years.

MENDELSOHN: Right. I mean, one certainly gets a sense of the cultural power and authority of the Homeric poems, both "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," from the fact that already in antiquity, it was a tourist destination to go to Troy, you know? And Alexander the Great went there, all kinds of people went there.

RAZ: He slept with a copy of "The Iliad" under his pillow, you write.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah. Yes. Also a dagger, apparently, because every Macedonian king had been assassinated for three generations. I like to think he got more out of "The Iliad" but...

RAZ: Back on the cruise, at certain points, you stop off to see these sites of antiquity. A lot of speculation about whether they are really the place...

MENDELSOHN: Right.

RAZ: ...where these things happened. And a certain point, your dad is looking at one of these sites and just sort of says, you know, this is just kitschy. This is not really where it happened.

MENDELSOHN: Right. Right. I've been, many times, to Greece and the Mediterranean as a classicist, as a travel writer, but he hadn't. And so even the phony ones, you know, he got a big kick out of.

RAZ: One of the amazing things about this trip was there were about 80 passengers, you write. It's a small, a relatively small, boat. And you talk about a passenger you met. You were sunbathing, and you noticed a scar on his leg. And you didn't ask any questions, but he saw you looking at it. And then he explained what it was about.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah. It's interesting. You know, when you study "The Odyssey," one of the key moments in "The Odyssey" is when Odysseus makes it back to Ithaca, but he's in disguise because he's going to make his way by stealth back into his palace and slay all the suitors who had been courting his wife for 20 years.

And there's a moment where he's given a bath. He makes - he actually gets to the palace, and he's given a bath, still in disguise, by an ancient crone who has been part of the household. We learn, in this extraordinary scene, that as a youth, he had received a terrible wound during a boar hunt that left a scar on his leg. The nurse recognizes the scar, and she knows it's Odysseus. And he, sort of, shuts her up because he doesn't want his identity to be revealed.

But it's a very crucial passage in the poem's sort of ongoing engagement with the question of identity and how you know who people are. And so I'm on this cruise, and I'm on the deck, and I notice this Dutch guy. And he told me this extraordinary story that during World War II, when the Dutch were starving during this terrible winter and eating tulip bulbs to stay alive, he had been a teenager.

He had injured himself trying to chop firewood. He was so weak and so malnourished that he had actually swung this ax and hit his own leg instead of the wood. And he almost died because he was so malnourished and he was on a bed delirious for weeks. A family friend, who was a classicist, helped him get through this illness in part by reading "The Odyssey" to him and other classical texts.

And even though he wasn't a classic student, he recited to me on the deck of this ship as an elderly man lines from "The Odyssey" in Greek which he had learned during this recuperation.

RAZ: He told you that he made a vow that before he died he would see what Odysseus saw. That's why he was on that cruise.

MENDELSOHN: Right. And so that's why he was on the Odyssey cruise, and it's just amazing.

RAZ: Unlike Odysseus, you never made it to Ithaca. There was a...

MENDELSOHN: No.

RAZ: ...strike at the port, so the boat never arrived. But you write that in some ways, it would have been almost anticlimactic to make it there.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah. It was very funny because the last stop on the cruise was supposed to be Ithaca, of course. You know, you're following in the footsteps of Odysseus, that's where you end up. And so people by that point, because it was the end of the cruise, knew that I was working on this book and they knew that I was a writer, and they came up to me to commiserate and say, oh, how terrible. You don't have the end of your article.

And I said, are you kidding? I couldn't even write an ending as good as the ending that fate has given me because this way, Ithaca just remains the infinitely receding horizon. And, of course, "The Odyssey" is a poem about someone who loves to keep traveling. So I thought that's perfect.

RAZ: Daniel, I read this article just a few days ago and wanted to speak with you about it, only to learn that last week, your father passed away.

MENDELSOHN: My dad had a stroke in January, and he struggled, as much as any Greek hero ever struggled, to make a comeback, but in the end, it was too much for him, and he died last Friday, April 6th. And so now I can't travel with him anymore but, you know, in a lot of ways, he will stay with me during the remaining trips that I'm making and the readings that I'll be offering of these texts. And that just became a different kind of odyssey.

RAZ: Well, Daniel Mendelsohn, thank you so much.

MENDELSOHN: Thank you.

RAZ: That's writer Daniel Mendelsohn. The story of his Mediterranean tour where he retraced the journey of Odysseus with his father is in the latest issue of Travel and Leisure magazine. His new essay collection, "Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture," will be published in August. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.