Daniel Mendelsohn: The Persistence of the Myths, Woes and Lives of Europe

Starting this week, K. is publishing in several installments a long interview with Daniel Mendelsohn. The great American writer, who became famous with The Lost, is the author of a rich body of work in which various traditions (classical, Jewish and American traditions, among others) intersect and the art of storytelling fuses with scholarly analysis. Déborah Bucchi and Adrien Zirah, who conducted the interview, examine some of the most singular and ambitious elements of Mendelsohn’s oeuvre in this introduction. Bucchi and Zirah situate his work at the crossroads between auto-fiction and mythic dialogue.


Daniel Mendelsohn © Matt Mendelsohn


There are myths that, like certain pains, do not go away. Those that record the fate of particular beings, struck by universal and violent phenomena: hatred, self-destruction, war, exile. Their stories are part of the exhaustion of unending suffering, of irremediable loss: loss of the past, loss of loved ones, loss of the social status one enjoyed before exile, loss of a native land. Literature has the power to transform these experiences by interpolating them with myths. One can then inscribe the history of an individual or a small group into a cosmic history, transmute petite histoire into grande histoire; process, through the act of recounting, the destructive event…

Persistence of Myths

The myths which appear in the work of Daniel Mendelsohn belong under this rubric, products of Hellenic and Jewish traditions that have become in turn part of a general European and Western patrimony. One can relate through these myths the violence of the ancient and modern, drawing a line from the classical Greece of the 4th century BC to our recent 20th century.

Daniel Mendelsohn is attached to the Greek tradition as a Hellenist by training, his teaching of this literary canon at university, and his taste for classical culture. He is tied to the Jewish past through the facts of his biography, and in a more abstract sense, via the exegetical predilection that Hellenism and Judaism share.

Mendelsohn incorporates the ancient imaginary, Jew and Ancient Greek, into a narration of his own life and that of his family. His work reveals a set of interrelated lives, which exist across different species of times, perhaps outside of time: that of his family, exiled or obliterated by the Holocaust, that of the religious or social community (the Jewish and homosexual groups in the United States), that of European culture seen from an America riven by conflicts over identity. He weaves the threads of Jewish and Greek tradition into a story that is both personal and mythical. He thus creates a hodgepodge genre: his works are situated between autofiction and the comparative essay, between biography and history. These compositions turn in on themselves, in a mode of narration recalling the ancient classics. Time is not linear, and man has for perpetual companions the trauma, pain, and loss that only fables can salve. His stories prove reminiscent of his grandfather’s, which he mentions at several points, attesting to an inextinguishable will to live.

On the one hand, there are descriptions of the quotidian, of the drama of life in its pure banality. In The Elusive Embrace, for example, the question of homosexuality is the occasion to develop the narrative of amorous encounters representing the impossible fusion between oneself and the other, the projection of the ideal on the other, the desire to become the object of the other’s gaze or to make the other his object. The myth of Narcissus makes it possible to articulate in biographical terms this sublime drama of the everyday, the idealization necessary for desire, the illusion enabling the banal violence of life. But there are also stories whose violence is breathtaking, such as that of great-aunt Ray, who died “a week before her wedding,” the event of her death having become a way of naming her. It is then the myth of Antigone, one of those young girls who could be added to the list of “brides of death” studied by Daniel Mendelsohn in his academic work, who appears in the text to sublimate the tragic story of one of his family’s disappeared.

On the other hand, we find in the novels erudite digressions, moments where the consummate raconteur appears, drawing on philology, literature, linguistics and more to carry his story. The digression, the passage from autobiographical or biographical narration to exegetical asides, or even to a discursive register close to that of the essay, signals that the text is not only turned inward, animated only by the need for biographical reconstitution. These hermeneutic digressions (there is both exegesis of Jewish and Greek texts, but also exegesis of the narrative in the process of being made, since the text gives its keys of interpretation in this way) are also ways of transmitting culture.

Between Two Lands

The image of the loop, magnificently deployed in the circular composition of An Odyssey (subtitled “A Father, A Son, An Epic”) runs through and structures his work. It dissolves the distinction between beginning and end. It suggests the permanence of the links that weave lives together. To close is to unite two points. It is not drawing a line along a straight line, but forming a circle. It is to suggest through the description of this circle the whole of the stories which it is possible to tie to reform it, the whole of its repetitions to come. The circle of the circular composition is also spatial: the making of such links describes a Mediterranean universe. This also describes the hybrid, comparative dimension of the works of Daniel Mendelsohn, which ties back to to the humanist and classical tradition. Demonstrating the links between the Greek world and the Jewish world, but also, in the case of The Three Rings, between Western Europe and Turkey – that part of Europe that borders on Asia – is a means of reformulating the question of origins in order to free oneself from the illusions that it always risks producing. By blurring and redrawing the spatio-temporal limits of a Europe influenced by the dual Greek and Jewish traditions, Daniel Mendelsohn’s texts undermine the antisemitism and racism that sometimes seeps into a certain image of the classic heritage. The comparative method becomes salvific. By connecting Athens and Jerusalem, Daniel Mendelsohn allows the common culture of an enlarged Europe appear. Europe then recovers what its name means, literally its “wide view.” Thus the story of oneself becomes a founding story.

Jewish Scholar or American Writer?

In his academic work as well as in his auto-fictional writing, Daniel Mendelsohn seems to keep unraveling the same questions. Thus in his dissertation published in 2002[1], which is a seminal work in the academic world, the Greek tragedy scholar tackled two plays by Euripides that have often received bad press within classical studies for their supposed formal and aesthetic inconsistencies, namely the Suppliants and the Children of Heracles. In the latter, the children of Heracles wander after the death of their father, pursued by the king of Argos, Eurystheus, and finally find refuge with the king of Athens, Demophon. The latter agrees to go to war against Argos to save the supplicants, but an oracle orders him to sacrifice to Korè a young virgin from a noble family. While Demophon refuses to sacrifice an Athenian, a daughter of Heracles, whose name will not even be known, offers herself in sacrifice. Exiles, peregrinations, the presence of a “wife of death,” these themes dear to Daniel Mendelsohn were already scrutinized with impeccable erudition.

Although he still teaches classical literature at Bard College, an activity he recounts in memorable scenes from An Odyssey, he has now ceased most academic activity to devote himself to his work as a writer and literary critic for the New York Review of Books. This choice, in itself, raises questions. As a student of Froma Zeitlin, a great specialist in Greek tragedy who appears at several key moments in The Lost, and of Jenny Strauss Clay, a great specialist in Homer and the adopted daughter of Leo Strauss, Daniel Mendelsohn can be linked to that long line of Jewish scholars who have contributed, since the nineteenth century, to the development of classical studies – a tradition which has also had its share of exiles. Jacob Bernays was among the first to embody this “modern synthesis (…) between the Judaic heritage and the surrounding European culture.”[2]” The son of an eminent Talmudist who passed on his knowledge of Hebrew literature, Jacob Bernays would make Germany, until 1933, the center of classical studies. However, until 1919, Jewish scholars had to convert to Christianity in order to enter the German university. Many then took the path of exile, such as Emmanuel Loewy in Rome, E.A. Lowe in Oxford and then Princeton, or Henri Weil in Paris[3], carrying in their luggage German philological methods. France, for its part, had produced its own tradition of classical studies, more attached to the elegance of “Belles Lettres” than to the rigors of German science, as the philologist Jean Bollack[4] See the opening chapters of his collection La Grèce de personne: les mots sous le mythe, 1997.</footnote>. Again, Jews played a prominent role, such as the Reinach brothers, Gustave Glotz, Henri Lévy-Bruhl or Jacqueline Worms de Romilly (née David).

This tradition of Jewish scholars impregnated with classical culture, without disappearing, would be durably altered, in the following generation, by the Second World War. In Italy, the historian Arnaldo Momigliano, from a family of rabbis and Talmudists, had to leave his post in Turin in 1938 before finding refuge in London; his monumental work addresses both ancient classical history and Jewish history[5].

In France, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, whose parents died in Auschwitz, contributed to the renewal of studies on classical Athens alongside Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Detienne. He who said he was an atheist and completely ignorant of Judaism, would be led to address the Jewish question more and more often: from the fierce struggle against the Holocaust deniers to his work on the ancient historian Flavius Josephus, Roman, Jewish, Greek-speaking, which allowed him to “reconcile in [himself] the Greeks and the Jews, the Ancients and the Moderns[6]

Classical studies were thus, for nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jews, a route to integration into European society and culture – and a means, no doubt, of pursuing Jewish studies by other means. Thus, their near disappearance from the curricula of the elite in recent decades can be interpreted as a sign not only of the transformation of European culture, but also of its relationship with its Jewish component. In his own way, and from an American point of view, Daniel Mendelsohn’s work teaches us a lot about this metamorphosis, which he never ceases to evoke- as the figure of the German philologist Erich Auerbach attests to in his latest book, Three Rings.

“It is the genre called Mendelsohn”

Nevertheless, in order to grasp the specificity of Daniel Mendelsohn’s writing, should we turn instead to the “tradition” of American Jewish writers, from Saul Bellow to Joshua Cohen, via Philip Roth? In a recent interview, when he was asked the question, he seemed dubious. Rejecting any identity that is too simple, any belonging that is too adhesive, his multiple filiations and identities overlap and intermingle without ever amounting to a totality. As in endless commentaries and exegesis, there is always more to say and more to invent with one’s own identity. “It is the genre called Mendelsohn,” he replies to those who seek absolutely to classify his writings. A name, therefore, is perhaps one of the only sure beacons to hold on to – and the search for names plays a considerable role in Daniel Mendelsohn’s investigations, in The Elusive Embrace as well as in The Lost.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s gaze is therefore wide, projected toward two continents that he never ceases to question, one through the other, and one in relation to the other, as if the very nature of the American perspective he claims was to thwart in advance any deleterious form of rootedness. What a pain, then, to see this essentialist and reactionary relationship to the native land revived on both sides of the Atlantic, including in a country like the United States, where almost the entire population is made up of immigrants or descendants of immigrants. As if reality was catching up with the nightmares that Daniel Mendelsohn has constantly confronted in his writings.

Déborah Bucchi et Adrien Zirah

Déborah Bucchi is a professor of classics and a doctoral student at the ANHIMA and LIPO research centers. Her work focuses on ancient and contemporary experiences of the divine in theater.

Adrien Zirah is a professor of classics and a doctoral student in ancient history at the EHESS. His work focuses on the early linguistic reflections in classical Athens.


1 Daniel Mendelsohn, Gender and the City in Euripides’ Political Plays, Oxford, 2002.
2 J. Glucker and A. Laks, “Préface” to Jacob Bernays. Un philologue juif, Presses universitaires du Septentrion, Villeneuve d’Ascq, 1996, p. I.
3 See Arnaldo Momigliano, “Jews in Classical Scholarship,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1974.
4 has strikingly analyzed.
5 See his Essays on Ancient and Modern Judaism, Chicago/London, 1994.
6 Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Mémoires, Volume 2, Le trouble et la lumière, 1995, p. 276. On Flavius Josephus, see La guerre des Juifs, preceded by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, “Du bon usage de la trahison,” Les éditions de Minuit, 1977.

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