Virginia Festival of the Book: Daniel Mendelsohn’s own “Odyssey”

University alumnus explores his Jewish roots in personal narrative

Daniel Mendelsohn, a University alumnus, author and essayist, visited the Harrison Institute last Thursday to promote his new book, “An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and as Epic,” in conjunction with the Virginia Festival of the Book.

Mendelsohn began traveling in 2001 in an attempt to trace his family lineage among Holocaust survivors. His initial goal was to construct an article for The New York Times, but in February of the next year, he received a life-changing phone call.

The caller had an unmistakable Bolechow accent — the Ukranian town where much of Mendelsohn’s family is from. The caller’s name was Jack Greene and he was calling from Sydney, Australia. Greene had “heard through the grapevine” about Mendelsohn’s search, and implored him to come to Sydney to discuss possible connections to Shmiel, Mendelsohn’s great-uncle.

At this moment, Mendelsohn knew the stagnant phase of his research had come to an end, and the research was more fruitful than would fit into any single newspaper article.

Mendelsohn’s third book, “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” published in 2006, follows the lives of six family members. Mendelsohn explained his coming to terms with his inability to ever fully understand his family’s history.

“It’s only the tip of the iceberg and you’ll never be able to look at the rest of the iceberg,” he said. “Now take this and multiply it by one million and that’s the beginning of a book about the Holocaust.”

Mendelsohn’s resolve to delve deeper into his relationship with his father inspired him to sign the two of them up for a cruise “in the footsteps of Odysseus,” tracing the mythical Greek route from Troy to Ithaca. He recounts this experience, and the backstory of his relationship with his father in “An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic.”

Mendelsohn’s enthusiastic yet soothing reading from the book brought his story to life.

“The coolest thing was the ability to hear the inflection in his reading, because his sentences are very long and lyrical,” second-year College student Peter Hartwig said. “He taught a good lesson on how to read the structure of his beautifully constructed sentences.”

Hartwig, a Classics major, found Mendelsohn’s inclusion of Greek mythology particularly enticing.

“[Mendelsohn’s] use of classical mythology is not just informative, but he’s always interpreting it and giving it a different meaning,” Hartwig said.

Mendelsohn was a Classics major himself while at the University.

English Prof. Caroline Rody, presentation mediator, further explained Mendelsohn’s technique of intertwining classical allusions.

“Mendelsohn’s narrative often uses some form of ring structure, which is common in ancient Greek works, and which is particularly good for drawing broad associations around a central topic,” she said.

Students, professors and other audience members seemed to share this mutual appreciation for Mendelsohn’s expressive storytelling — finding his passion and enthusiasm infectious.

“He’s a model of ethical, intellectual and emotional dedication — of willingness to search the world for the answers one longs for,” Rody said. “Plus, he’s as great a talker as he is a writer — charismatic, digressive and funny.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million” was Mendelsohn’s first novel. It was his third book, and it is a work of non-fiction.

Published March 23, 2014 in Arts and Entertainment, tableau

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