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.
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...
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...
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.