In the winter of 2011, 81-year-old retired college professor and mathematician Jay Mendelsohn enrolled in Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer, an undergraduate seminar taught by his son, Daniel, at Bard College. In this insightful, tender book, the younger Mendelsohn gracefully marries literary criticism and memoir to describe how that class launched an intellectual and personal journey that becomes one of profound discovery for both men.
Father and son are unlikely traveling companions as they embark on this odyssey. Daniel acknowledges an antipathy to the world of hard science to which his prickly father devoted his life, while Jay approaches Homer’s revered work with skepticism born of a conviction that Odysseus was something less than a real hero. “This is going to be a nightmare,” Daniel worries, after his father violates a pledge not to speak even before the first class session ends. But by the time the semester concludes and the Mendelsohns depart for a cruise that retraces Odysseus’ difficult homeward trek, they seem to have reached a well-earned truce, born of their deep engagement with the classic work and their respect for each other.
Daniel is an artful storyteller whose skills are equal to the task of weaving Homer’s poem into his own life. Most impressive are his transitions from scholarly consideration of “The Odyssey” to intimate stories of his family life, as when the class discussion of Odysseus’ reunion with his wife, Penelope, at the end of his 10-year voyage home from Troy flows effortlessly into a magical moment, witnessing Jay as he offers a heartbreakingly beautiful tribute to his wife of more than six decades. Daniel writes, “You never do know, really, where education will lead; who will be listening and, in certain cases, who will be doing the teaching.” That’s only one of the many wise lessons to be gleaned from this lovely book.