Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, begins when his eighty-one-year-old father, Jay Mendelsohn, enrolls in Daniel’s undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey. From those risky beginnings, the two embark on an intellectual journey that becomes an emotional one, and then a literal one, when they take a cruise designed to retrace Odysseus’s steps through the Mediterranean. Below, Mendelsohn shares photos from that cruise. He described them to us over the phone, from Canada, as he shuffled from one book-tour event to another. —Ed.
This photo is from the day we arrived in Athens to embark on the cruise. One of the things that amused me the most about my dad was his indefatigable attachment to both his camera and his iPad, without which he never traveled. It’s funny because the opening of the Odyssey emphasizes two things about Odysseus: that he traveled far and wide, and his intellectual capacity. Odysseus wanted to know the minds of men. In a certain sense, he’s the first anthropologist in Western literature. He goes places partly because he has to, but while he’s there, he’s very interested in “the natives,” so to speak. I found my father’s indefatigable recording of everything endearing. I’m very lazy in that way when I travel—I just sort of let things wash over me—but he was constantly taking notes and taking pictures. I thought it was really funny, when we got there, that he was taking pictures and making notes about the ship. I said, Really, Dad? And he replied, Everything is part of this experience. Which was a very Odysseus-like attitude, actually. So I took a picture of him taking a picture of the boat. We hadn’t even boarded yet.
The point of the cruise was to re-create Odysseus’s homeward journey from Troy to Ithaca, so of course the first stop was Troy. My father had obviously already read the Odyssey, he’d taken my seminar, and here we were standing before the famous walls of Troy—those impregnable walls that never fell in the ten years of being besieged. And my father, he’s looking a little bit skeptical about the whole thing. In this picture, he’s about to make one of his famous sour pronouncements. This was when he said, as I quote him in my book, “Well … it’s very impressive, but the poem feels more real than the place.” I myself have often had this experience—it’s one Proust talks about—where, when you finally get to a place you’ve been thinking about for a long time, it never quite matches up to the way you’ve dreamt about it. I wrote about it in my book The Lost, when I was traveling around Eastern Europe. I’d been to Troy before, so I knew what to expect, but it was interesting to see my father having that same slight adjustment problem. Troy looks like something to an archeologist’s eye, but to a tourist’s eye, it’s three thousand years old and it’s a little battered looking. It’s just these rocks with a lot of weeds growing out of them. Of course, my father’s statement was gratifying to me as a literature person and as a writer: that the text seemed more concrete than the actual site. And it was a refrain that he would repeat wherever we went.
At the time of this photo, we were in Pylos, in the southern Peloponnese, at the site of the Mycenaean palace known as Nestor’s Palace. Nestor is the aged king and comrade of Odysseus whom Odysseus’s son Telemachus visits in book 3, on his fact-finding mission to learn what happened to his father. Like all guests in a royal palace, Telemachus is bathed (baths are very important in the Odyssey) and this tub is traditionally known as “Telemachus’s bathtub.” People were oohing and aahing, but my father didn’t think much of Telemachus, I must say, in the poem. He peered in and said, He was a small guy but he wasn’t that small. I said, Well you know, these Bronze Age people were a lot smaller than we are. It was another moment when his image of a scene was not quite what he’d expected in reality.
Here, we were in Malta about to be taken to the site of the cave of the nymph Calypso. In the Odyssey, Calypso holds Odysseus prisoner for basically seven years, because she’s so wildly in love with him. We’d stopped at a cafe and I kept teasing my father. He was a scientist and he loved his gadgets. He kept saying, You have to read the Odyssey on an iPad—books are an outmoded technology. Wherever we stopped that was even semicivilized, he would take his devices out to see if he could get a signal. I kept saying, To hell with the signal, just enjoy the cafe. But this is a picture of him squinting to see if he could get any bars on his phone so that he could send my mother an email describing where we were. When I took this picture, I was coming back from the open-air market. I’d bought a bedspread and some pillows for this little bed in my study. The bed had been where my father slept every night, every week, when he came up to take my seminar at Bard. I bought a little linen bedspread with Maltese crosses. When I got back from the trip, I put it on the little bed that had been his bed. There’s a climactic scene in my book centered around this bedspread. It happened when I got back from visiting him at the hospital on what would be the last night of his life. I looked at the bedspread and it triggered a memory. I realized something at that moment that I hadn’t understood before. This picture is very dear to me, it ties together a lot of threads.
In book 5 of the Odyssey, there’s a long description of the cave where Calypso the nymph lives and where she holds Odysseus hostage. It’s very lush, surrounded by vegetation and dense woods. There’s a cave on the island of Gozo, off the coast of Malta, which has traditionally been identified as Calypos’s cave. So we all schlepped over there. This is another big climactic scene in the book. I looked at this image, this image that you’re looking at when you see this picture, this narrow cliff that’s the entrance to the cave, and I had a panic attack. I’m extremely claustrophobic—I can’t even go in elevators let alone caves—and I turned to my father and said, I’m just not going. You go and look at the cave, and I’ll just stand here and tan for a little while. But he just wouldn’t take no for an answer. Finally, he convinced me. He held my hand all through the cave. It’s actually quite tiny and dark and I ran out—but it was a very sweet moment. He took me in there and he held my hand.
When I started writing this book, I went into my iPhoto in order to print out all the hundreds of pictures I had taken on the cruise and found that they had disappeared—vanished! I called my mother. My mother still had my father’s laptop in his study in the house where I grew up. She hadn’t touched anything after his death. I had sent my father my iPhoto folder with my pictures, and I thought they might still be on there. So I went out to Long Island. First, I had to guess my father’s password. All five of his children conferred in dozens of emails, until we figured it out. Then, I opened up both his album and my own. It was, in a way, my last little communication with my father after his death: figuring out his password, opening his laptop, and seeing my pictures appear alongside his.
Above are the pictures I took; my father took his own. It was interesting to see the differences between them. When we sailed into Turkey from Athens, through the Dardanelles, we saw the famous monument to the World War I slaughter in Gallipoli. He took a photo. He turned to me and he said, Troy, World War I—it’s always just a story about wars. And as we sailed into Malta, there was this incredible fortified harbor, and he loved that. He said, It’s like sailing into the sixteenth century. It wasn’t the classical stuff. Any historical item that touched him, he was snapping away. And he took a lot of pictures of me—me standing exhausted on the top of hills, holding a bottle of water. That was sweet to see.
Daniel Mendelsohn is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. His books include the international best seller The Lost, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. His new book, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic was published this month.