NPR - A Father And Son Go On Their Last 'Odyssey' Together
Author Daniel Mendelsohn, below left, and his father, Jay, went on a cruise that retraced the mythic journey of Odysseus. Shortly after they returned, Jay passed away. It's a touching story - and the context of the cruise is also fascinating.
Author Daniel Mendelsohn, left, and his father, Jay, on the Odysseus-inspired cruise.
April 15, 2012
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.
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.
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,'"
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
"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.
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
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.
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
Coincidentally, Daniel was sunbathing on the deck when he noticed a Dutch man with a scar on his leg and an extraordinary story.
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.
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.
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."