Editorial #92

Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost was a worldwide bestseller, an immediate Classic. This book – the story, told by a child of survivors, of some members of his family who disappeared in the Holocaust (the complete title of the book is “The Lost. A Search for Six of Six Million”) – became the matrix of a genre in itself, repeated a hundred times since but never equaled. The book creates a narrative of exceptional scope: simultaneously the odyssey of an American who returns to the scene of European crime; an investigation that ventures into the labyrinth of a family biography; a vertiginous self-commentary on the reasons for such a work of writing; a reflection on a chapter of history that draws from the sources of universal history and in particular from the great Hebrew texts and ancient Greece. Because, let’s remember, Daniel Mendelsohn is first of all a Hellenist, the author of a thesis on Euripides, an academic who has just re-translated Homer into English. A writer for whom, immediately, history and myths consonate. Déborah Bucchi and Adrien Zirah, themselves Hellenists, spoke with him at length. They talk about The Lost but not only, about his other books where autofiction is always translated into reflective literary essays. 

Published this summer as a series of installments, this interview was worthy of being published in a single issue. The first episode is devoted to the singularity of a style with multiple influences: Jewish, Gay, American, and linked to Europe. Identity, exile, but also philology: it is through these themes that the reflection on Daniel Mendelsohn’s work continues in a second episode where the most contemporary political questions are also addressed. In the last part of the interview, he surveys the politics of our period: the rise of populism in the United States and Europe, the resurgence of antisemitism in the West, and Israel’s status as bastion. He also discusses the current war in Ukraine, a country that he knows intimately — he often traveled there in the course of writing The Lost.

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’s books are associated with the genre of ‘autofiction’. However, the richness of the subtexts that irrigate them, coming from the Ancient Greek and Jewish traditions, complicates the scheme of the self-narrative. To the representation of a multiple identity – Jewish, Gay and American, attached to Europe and to Ancient cultures – corresponds the variety and fluidity of an oral style. In this first episode, Daniel Mendelsohn discusses his writing style, his literary project and the genre of his work.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s writing style is a skilful blend of personal narratives and evocations of classical literary works; of the intimate and the intellectual. What is the origin of Daniel Mendelsohn’s attraction to philology? What does it have to do with his family background made of tragedies and exiles, with the fact of being Jewish and gay? These are the questions that Daniel Mendelsohn explores with us in this second episode of our interview.

We see in the books of Daniel Mendelsohn how the  convulsions of geopolitics forever intrude on the intimate lives of his characters. How does Mendelsohn feel about the tumult of our own times? He comments on topics ranging from the Trump presidency to the current war in Ukraine to the state of Israel, in this last installment of our interview focusing on the author’s political vision.

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Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.