Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn (I): In Search of the “Genre Called Mendelsohn”

Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn – Part I

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.


‘Piles of books’, Hercules Seghers, c.1615 – c.1630, wikiart


Déborah Bucchi: Your work includes a trilogy – The Elusive Embrace; An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic – that is in the wake of modern, European self-writing. Your writings are often referred to as “autofiction”.

Daniel Mendelsohn: I think “autofiction” is now becoming more used in American literary-critical circle, although we tend still to talk about “memoir”. But I think autofiction is something quite different from memoir. And the difference between the two raises interesting questions about genre, narrative, narrativity, truth and verisimilitude, obviously…

D.B.: Perhaps it is reductive to reduce your work to a single genre. Indeed, you push the fusion of genres quite far. Three Rings is at the same time a critical essay on comparative literature, an account of lives (those of Auerbach, Fénelon and Sebald) and an autobiographical account (you talk about your own work as a writer). Beyond the question of mixing genres, there is also the question of mixing tonalities, particularly striking in The Elusive Embrace, your first book. The fusion between the gravity, the pain of the stories you describe, the depth of the interpretative knowledge of the Greek and biblical texts that you insert in the narrative and the levity, the superficiality, even the kitsch character of certain motifs. One might think of Susan Sontag and what she says about camp aesthetics in her Notes on Camp. Aesthetics that she defines, to put it in a word, as the love of kitsch. Would you say for example that there is camp in your work?

D.M.: I myself would not think of either kitsch or camp as being modalities in my own work. To my mind, if I’m understanding you correctly, the way to explain my style, which moves among different registers and modalities, the Greek, the Hebrew, high, low, scholarly, conversations –and it’s a style I use in my criticism as well as in my books – I would describe it as an oral style, and a kind of a conversational style that allows one to express oneself in all of one’s complexity, because this is what we normally do in our lives as we live them. One isn’t only “serious” or only “light.” We experience our lives in a way that combines these different registers. From the very beginning in my career as a writer—this was before I wrote my first book, when I was still just beginning as a literary critic—I used to think: why do I have to restrict myself to one tone in my writing? Because when I’m talking, I don’t restrain myself to one tone. So, to my mind, it’s about a question of orality. People always talk about the rhythm of my prose as having a certain quality, and I think it’s because I write the way I talk, basically.

But honestly, I don’t think kitsch or camp are modes of my writing. Certainly, in The Elusive Embrace, I’m already flagging the fact that I’m interested in tragedy, which is of course an extreme form, especially Greek tragedy; and it could well be the case that my interest in tragedy and extremes of emotion is parallel to, let’s say, or perhaps even derives from the same psychological and cultural sources as, a certain kind of traditional gay sensibility that includes kitsch or camp. The taste for the dramatic gesture, let’s call it. And I think one of the things that I’m interrogating in The Elusive Embrace is precisely the origins of that taste. Why would a little boy be attracted to narratives of extreme drama and, indeed, death? One of the things I’m trying to do in that book is to make a double account from my own taste. I’m interested in Greek tragedy and drama more generally—as you may know also, here in America I have done a lot of theatre criticism. Of course, there’s this sort of cliché about theatricality as a component of a certain kind of gay male culture –although not so much anymore, I think. So, as I said, in that book I’m trying to give a kind of genealogy of my own taste for drama. Which turns out, as everything does in my work, to have two roots, not one. One is obviously classical, the tradition of classical tragedy, but there is also a Jewish root as well, in my case, which I explore in that book—the family legend about my great aunt who died a week before her wedding, which fascinated me as a boy. So yes, there is the allure of certain kind of dramatic narrative.

I have often talked over the years about la narration [In French during the conversation]. Why are people interested in telling stories? It’s very clear in The Lost, which among other things recounts the origins of my own storytelling mode, in terms both of style and content. The source of that was my grandfather, a marvellous raconteur and yet a person who had no education, unlike me, and unlike you. So, what is it to be a good storyteller? Obviously, it’s not necessarily that you’re educated. That actually has nothing to do with it. I think this idea in my mind was formed very early, that there were these “amazing” stories that happened in real life, that one knows about from family lore, and what one wants to do is to tell these tales in a way that recreates not only the content but also the amazing quality. Take the case I discuss in The Elusive Embrace: the fact that you are a “bride of death”, that you die at the moment of your wedding, is so dramatic. How could one resist it? Of course, as you both know, as classicists, this idea of the “bride of death” turns out be a very strong motif in Greek tragedy. So, there’s a remarkable coincidence—my Jewish family history has a story that turns out to be a very important motif of classical Greek tragedy. It’s almost too good to be true!

And yet, to return to your original questions, I would avoid the idea of kitsch or camp. I’m a great admirer of Susan Sontag, and certainly Notes of Camp is one of her greatest essays, there’s no question. I think the difference—and here I’m sort of theorizing on the fly, I’m afraid it’s impossible to say this without sounding horribly pretentious—but the difference between what I do and camp or kitsch, the reason it can’t be kitsch or camp in my work, is that everything is overshadowed by the Shoah. Hence it can never be as fun as camp is, since an awareness of the great catastrophe shadows a lot of my memoir-writing, even if it’s not patent. If you read The Elusive Embrace carefully, for instance, it becomes clear that the horrible premature death of my grandfather’s elder sister, my “bride of death” grand aunt, is a prelude to all the other terrible deaths, the first great tragedy of this generation of the family. For my great aunt Ray, Ruchele, the one who died a week before the wedding, was the sister of Shmiel, my great uncle who was killed in the Holocaust, who in fact named his third daughter after his dead sister, Ruchele. And that second Ruchele, who was supposed to have perpetuated the memory of her prematurely dead aunt, herself was killed at sixteen in the first Aktion in Bolechow. For this reason, I would be careful about using “camp.” I love camp, don’t get me wrong. But I think in my story the overwhelming shadow of the Shoah makes it impossible to indulge just in camp, if you see what I mean. I may be misunderstanding camp. I like camp, I enjoy it, but I wouldn’t go in that direction in analysing my own work.

I always say being Jewish and being gay was the best training to be a critic because you’re always looking for the hidden message.

D.B.: Your work is not deducible to camp, that is quite certain. What one might think of when reading your work, in comparison with Susan Sontag’s essay, is those aesthetic strategies of resistance to forms of domination. Sontag talks about the homosexual minority in New York resisting a form of oppression through the camp, which she compares to the aesthetic strategies of resistance of the Jewish minority. Do you see your writing as having anything to do with such reactions?

D.M.: Oh, I see what you mean…Yes, this is a question I thought about a lot in my critical work—there was a period I use to write about this quite often, when I first began as a writer and as a critic. This is an interesting question. Yes, there is camp as a form of resistance to a dominant mode of discourse. It’s clearly what Sontag is interested in, and it’s of great interest to me personally. Remember, I belong to not one but two subcultures, Jewish and gay, and so I am particularly sensitive to the tensions and the ironies, I would call them, of being a member of a subculture. One of the very first things that I wrote about as a journalist—this is 35 five years ago, at the beginning of the Nineties when it looked like gays were achieving a degree of political and social success unimaginable previously—was the inevitable irony that arises when a subculture, any subculture, attends a degree of political success. This is true both for gays and for Jews. In many cases, what comes to define a subculture is, often, oppression: the subculture responds to oppression with a “subversive” or “evasive” mode which comes to be associated with the subculture: The characteristic Jewish sensibility, the irony, the fatalism, for instance, or the sardonic wit associated with gay culture, the “knowingness,” too, the sense always of being aware that there is something going on beneath the surface. I wondered often, in my early writing—and it’s in The Elusive Embrace, too—how authentic those clichés of gay and Jewish culture could remain once political success was achieved. As I put it in an article many years ago, if you are a gay guy and can be legally married to your husband, and living in a coop on Park Avenue, what do you have to be ironic about?

Which is to say, once the subculture achieves its political goals—recognition, acceptance—can it legitimately maintain its identity? And that to me is a fascinating question. I think it’s a more pronounced question in America, where to a great degree everyone is always split between two identities. There is no such thing as being “American.” (Unless, of course, you are Native American.) You’re something-American, with a hyphen. You’re Italian-American, Jewish-American, because of the way this country happened. So yes, I do think there’s a kind of a mode of discourse that one could identify in my work which is distinctly the product of a subcultural identity. It’s not accidental that most of my autofictions take the form of search narratives. The idea that there is a hidden truth that one has to get at, that the story that you’re being told is not the real story, I think that’s very much both a Jewish thing and a gay thing, and I think it motivates a lot of my work…I have probably gone off on a terrible digression, but I think that may be what you’re feeling in my work. I talk a lot about this when I give interviews about my criticism, because here in the States I’m better known as a critic than I am in France and other places, I always say being Jewish and being gay was the best training to be a critic because you’re always looking for the hidden message. You’re trained very early on to disbelieve the official narrative, and to try to penetrate what the secret codes are, that will allow you to succeed. And I think that’s a very good education for a critic.

Adrien Zirah: As we think about your style and its roots, there is one writer who immediately comes to mind, and whom you seem to particularly appreciate, when one thinks of the relationship between gay and Jewish identities, and that is Proust. Do you feel close to the way these two issues are articulated in Proust, or does the fact that you are American change the issue completely? And has the autofiction that Proust also practices influenced your writing?

D.M.: Let me answer the second question first, since questions of « influence » are always so fascinating and subtle. The way that one writer can « influence » another is not necessarily direct—it’s not the case that Writer B mimics Writer A, so to speak, or that it’s even possible to find elements of Writer A’s work in the work of Writer B. And often the relationship is not even conscious—if you’re a writer who loves the work of Proust, it’s not as if you say to yourself one day, « Ah yes, now I’ll enter my Proustian phase! » It is, rather, a case of showing what is possible. Proust showed that certain things were possible—not least, I might mention, being how ring composition can be adapted on the largest possible scale in the novel. And once something has been shown to be possible, a writer might take that and run with it—expand on that, do it his own way.

As for feeling close to Proust’s manner of treating the gay and the Jewish material: I actually think I don’t feel very close to it, since I’m the product of a culture a century later than the one that produced Proust. Being Jewish is not vexed in the same way for an American in the 1970s and 1980s as it was for a Frenchman in the 1880s and 1890s. This is even more the case for sexuality. My generation was perhaps the first generation of gay people to come of age fully in the post-Stonewall era; when I was in my twenties, in the 1980s, being gay was starting to be visible and accepted in ways unimaginable to Proust. And inevitably, my formation as both a Jew and as a gay person, both conditioned by specific historical circumstances, influenced how I treat those issues in my work. This isn’t to say, obviously, that anti-Semitism and homophobia aren’t common to the late nineteenth and the late twentieth centuries: of course, they are. But the whole surround is different, and so my orientation to those subjects as a writer is going to be different.

The Stonewall Inn today. Wikimedia commons.

A.Z.: Nevertheless, you have a special relationship with French culture and French literature, especially classic French literature. Where does this interest come from? Does the place that Jews have held in France since the Revolution also play a role in your opinion?

D.M.: I wish I could say « Yes », but honestly, I don’t think the place of Jews in French intellectual culture had anything to do with my own intense orientation to French culture. It’s always difficult to reconstruct the genealogies of one’s intellectual enthusiasms, but to me it seems rather that France represented to me—I’m talking about when I was a child, and hence about the kind of impressions one gets as a child—a kind of cultural sophistication that seemed very glamorous to me, who grew up in a very dull suburb. So there was that. But perhaps most of all there was the language and the literature, and as I look back now I would say that what appealed to me was the côté rationnel [the rational side. In French during the conversation], the Latinate, highly-structure, classicizing element of French literature and culture that spoke to me, for the same reasons that the Greek and Roman classics spoke to me : there was something about the order, the structure, the symmetry—of the language itself as well as the culture overall—that spoke to me. It’s perhaps not accidental that the two languages in which I am most comfortable are Greek and French, both of them highly structured, with particularly elaborate and subtle grammars. Nothing excites me as much as a pluperfect subjunctive! And it’s no accident either that the first aspect of French civilization that attracted me was le siècle classique [The Classic Century (French 17th century). In French during the conversation]: already in high school I was reading Racine and Mme de Sévigné, thanks to a brilliant French teacher who had a great influence on me.

I would say further, on reflection, that the tremendous allure that classicism had for me, whether ancient or French, had to do in some way with my being gay and (back then) closeted. The idea that a rigorous form, a highly stylized structure, could somehow contain unruly passions naturally appealed to me then. There was a reason that figures like Phèdre appealed to me. Anyway, it’s interesting to speculate.

Europe is both the great model of civilization, but it is also the great model of destruction. And so how do you reconcile those two things?

D.B.: This hidden truth – what lies behind what we first see – one could say that there are two ways of apprehending it in your work: the Jewish way and the Greek way. On the one hand, there is the representation of the unfathomable, that is the Jewish way, and, as if to relativize its effect, there is the Greek way, which is more on the side of the multiplication of images, invisible forms, metamorphoses; the Greek way appears to show that there is still something behind the unfathomable. Your work is energized by the hybridization of these two ways of perceiving reality, Jewish and Greek, one monotheistic, the other polytheistic. The Greek world seems to have played the role, to say it in Greek, of eidolon, that is to say of double, of your own Jewish culture: it is a sort of sieve, a filter through which you can look again at your history, and Jewish history. And conversely, Jewish culture plays this role with the Greek tradition. But by superimposing these readings, you recreate, thanks to autofiction, a sort of new myth of Europe. At the end of Three Rings, for example, your most recent work, we move through an enlarged European space-time, which goes from Antiquity to the contemporary world, extends to Turkey, and thus integrates Islam. So, Europe, which could be a cemetery of the lost, of corpses, of exiles, this cimetière (cemetery), you transform it into a berceau (cradle). You are rewriting the classical, humanist myth of Europe. Is it wrong to see this as a literary project?

Daniel Mendelsohn: I love this idea of the cimetière [cimetery] and the berceau [cradle], the cemetery and the cradle. I’m going to have to answer this question by going back to distant beginnings. Two thoughts occur to me. The first is… I know particularly in French from the critical reception of my work, people always talk about the European formation [Education. In French during the conversation] that’s evident in my work, and especially French, obviously. But I think my work is deeply American and I’m going to relate this to your very interesting theory. Some of this I dealt with in The Elusive Embrace. What’s hard for people to understand who not American are is that precisely because there is, for many tens of millions of us, a kind of essential crisis of American identity—the hyphenation crisis, so to speak—to be “American” means both nothing and everything. One is at once American – I had a very normal American childhood, growing up in the suburbs, outside the city – and always haunted by the European past, especially if, like me, you are grandchildren of immigrants. And I remind you that this is not just a Jewish thing. All my friends were like this. Some were Italian-American, Greek-American, some were… Whatever, German-American, this, that, or the other. The sense that Europe always hovers in the background, even if you are a normal American child as I was. So, one could deal with that paradox in two ways. You could either not care, and just say, “Here we are, we are American, and who gives a fuck about Europe? That was the past, and this is the present”. Or like me, if you have an interesting grandfather, you become interested in the European past, and what it represents. And I think you’re onto something very interesting that I have not considered which is… I think one can describe my work as a struggle between the cimetière and the berceau. On the one hand, Europe was more interesting than my life as a suburban teenager, where everything was so boring and there was no culture, and the culture was so banal and commercial. Europe always seemed more interesting. Europe is where there was art, there was literature, there was music. There was interest, you know. So that became a kind of eidôlon. And yet one was also aware that Europe was the great cemetery, that this was also the place where all the terrible things happened.

Thomas Cole, ‘The Course of Empire Destruction’, 1836. Wikimedia commons.

This paradox is, to sum it up: on the one hand, there was my grandfather when I was growing up. He would come to visit and would tell me these wonderful stories about growing up in the shtetl, and the different characters – you know, it was very Isaac Bashevis Singer, the personalities, the town drunk, the Ukrainian maid Lulka, all of it. You have to remember, my grandfather came to the States in the 1920’s, so his memories of the shtetl were happy memories. So that narrative of the old country was rich, was exotic, was much more interesting, I thought, than the life I had, as a boring suburban person. And yet I also knew, simultaneously, that it was also the place where all these people had been murdered— the place that everyone was escaping from, even in the 1920’s, before the Shoah. There was a reason they all came to America, right?  Obviously, something was not so happy and adorable.

That paradox, I think, structures a lot of my work. Europe is both the great model (to use another metaphor from Three Rings) of civilization, but it is also the great model of destruction. And so how do you reconcile those two things? Look, it’s not accidental that even a lot of my writing as critic is about European literature. It’s a literature whose sensibility has always made more sense to me than a lot of American literature. But I’m deeply aware that this place, Europe, represents two opposite elements: civilization and destruction. And I think a lot of my work is trying to figure it out. Look at Three Rings, which I think is my most explicit statement about this problem. One of the themes that keep circling around in that book is exile, displacement: all these characters, Auerbach, Fénelon, Sebald, the Byzantine scholars running from Constantinople in 1453, the Jews running from Spain to Constantinople in 1492, the Jews running from Germany in 1936.  And it’s almost always because of religious persecutions. It’s this cycle of endless oppression…and yet the oppression, as I make clear in Three Rings, is also the source of great creation. The Italian Renaissance, some of the main elements of Italian Renaissance, are the result of the fall of Constantinople and the influx of Byzantine scholars into Italy. Suddenly people were reading Greek again; suddenly Plato was front and centre again.

What is the relationship between destruction and creation? For me, the European past, both cultural but also personal and familial, is the perfect object to contemplate if one is haunted by theses narratives about both great allure and great horror. I think it makes perfect sense that I would end up writing about all of this. Look, I’m a classicist, I’m a literary critic: I believe in the enduring value of what European civilization has bequeathed to us. That belief is, of course, not uncritical: one has to be aware as well of the defects—and indeed, to contemplate European civilization critically is to be confronted with the central paradox: the awareness of Europe as this marvellous place of civilization but also simultaneously the terrible place of annihilation. And I might add here that when I say “annihilation,” I’m not just referring to the Holocaust. That is the point, in many ways, of Three Rings: the whole continent has been expelling and murdering Jews for a thousand years. The Holocaust is different in size and scope, but the project has been ongoing since the Middle Ages. The Holocaust is a culmination, not an aberration.

I think what I wanted to do was to see if you could create a text that incorporated its own commentary at the same time. So, I think my books are deeply reflective of something for which both of these traditions, the Greek or the classical tradition, and the Hebrew tradition, are particularly well known: the richness of their commentaries.

Adrien Zirah: We will talk again about your relationship with the United States and with Europe, but I would like to extend the question of the relationship between Judaism and Hellenism. You mentioned your grandfather, but in An Odyssey, we realize that your interest in Greece and Rome also comes from your father. There is a striking scene where he speaks at the end of one of your seminars, to say that you got this interest from him. In other words, the Greek tradition also comes from your family, as does the Jewish descent. These two paths – Greek and Jewish – intersect in a certain way, since you are first and foremost a philologist, heir to a philological tradition in which the Jews have played an important role. One can think of Jacob Bernays in Germany or Salomon Reinach in France at the end of the nineteenth century, and then, among others, of Moses Finley, Arnaldo Momigliano, Jean Bollack, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, etc. in the twentieth century. In your case, your two “mentors” as you call them in An Odyssey, are the two great American philologists Froma Zeitlin and Jenny Strauss Clay, two Hellenists of Jewish origin. So even from the point of view of your inscription in a filiation of Hellenistic philologists, there is a Jewish element. Is this an aspect that seems important to you?

D.M.: At one level, there’s a kind of obvious response, which is that both cultures that formed me, the classical and the Jewish, have great traditions of scholarship and commentary – commentary in particular. And this is something I talk about in Three Rings, the idea that every text is a puzzle that requires an infinite amount of commentary to solve. (And of course, is never solved, in the case of a great text.) I had never thought of it in this particular light, but that tradition of commentary on the text, the creation of the text that is almost simultaneously the analysis and interrogation of the text, surely accounts for this very idiosyncratic feature of my narrative style, which is the entrelacement [intertwining. In French during the conversation] of personal narrative and exégèse philologique [philological exegesis. In French during the conversation], right? It’s already in The Elusive Embrace, where I was first sort of figuring it out, and where my personal story, the story of my experiences as a gay man who becomes a father, alternates with readings in Sappho, Catullus, Sophocles. And then it’s present in The Lost, in which the search narrative, the story of how I learned the truth of how my relatives perished in the Shoah, is interwoven with exegeses of passages from Genesis. In An Odyssey, the whole book is both a narrative and a commentary in the same time. And now Three Rings does the same thing as it twines readings in Auerbach and Fénelon and Sebald with an account of a writer’s crisis I faced when writing An Odyssey. Interviewers are always saying to me, “Well, how do you classify your books? Is it memoir? Is it literary criticism?” And I always make the same joke: “It is the genre called Mendelsohn”. I don’t know how else to describe it. I think what I wanted to do was to see if you could create a text that incorporated its own commentary at the same time.

So, I think my books are deeply reflective of something for which both of these traditions, the Greek or the classical tradition, and the Hebrew tradition, are particularly well known: the richness of their commentaries. That’s why I want to keep using this word “commentary” instead of “philology.” If I might revert to something you said about kitsch and camp, all this can be connected, perhaps, to an almost funny tradition in Jewish culture—the endless argument. The fact that you can argue about anything. So that’s a kind of a humorous expression of a cultural trait, the need to interpret. But it takes a serious form, one can say, in the tradition of rabbinical commentary. This is something I go into in The Lost, where I talk about certain of these famous rabbinical interpretations, and where I actually juxtapose, in the exegeses of Genesis, the interpretations of two different rabbis—my way of  acknowledging that the conversation (or argument) that you are having about the text is just the latest, the most recent item in infinitely long genealogy of arguments that goes all the way back to the beginning of the text. This double filiation, the Classical and the Hebrew, is once again expressed in the very particular form that my books take, which is: two genres collapsed into one. There is the narrative, the personal or family story, which happens to be true, but which has that oral, somewhat novelistic quality. (People occasionally tell me, “Oh you know it’s romanesque [worthy of a novel. In French during the conversation], it’s like a novel! And interviewers often ask, “Why don’t you write a novel?” To which I always say “I did!” Just because it’s not fiction doesn’t mean it can’t be an artful narrative, right?) So on the one hand you have that – and we will use our Proustian metaphor here – that côté [Side. In French during the conversation], the côté of the romanesque, and on the other you have the côté of the commentaire [In French during the conversation]. And, if I may say, just as in Proust you’ll find out that these two ways turn out to be one big circle. You can’t separate them; they don’t lead in separate directions. They enclose the one text.

This kind of writing that incorporates commentary, usually with a classical inflection (but not always, as The Lost shows)— the first time I did that was in The Elusive Embrace. I was writing the book and it was meant to be just a kind of a memoir of this period of my life, balancing entre le côté gay et le côté familial [Comment. In French during the conversation], and all of that. But I kept finding myself irresistibly thinking, while I was writing, of these different classical texts, that could illuminate the events that I was writing about in my memoir. And there was that one moment, I think it’s early on, maybe in the first part when I’m talking about gay guys, looking at themselves in the mirror of gay bars. And I thought: “I would really love to write about Ovid here, his Echo and Narcissus story, which has such a fascinating discourse about identity and reflection and desire”. So, I called my agent – this is a true story – and I said: “You know I’m writing my memoir, but I really want to put in the analysis of this passage from the Metamorphoses. Am I allowed to do that?” And she laughed and said: “It’s your book, you can do whatever you want!”. That was really the beginning of my writing style.  I thought to myself, “Ok, I’m just going to put it in there”. People who have read my work often talk about this entrelacement [intertwining. In French during the conversation], or this quality of being tissé ensemble [Woven together. In French during the conversation], and that’s how it started.

D.B.: But aren’t there tensions between the Jewish and the Greek material that you mobilize? Doesn’t the polytheistic way of representing the world ever come into conflict with the monotheistic way?

D. M.: As with so many other things I’m interested in, it’s not that either one of these côtés is stronger than the other, or more useful than the other. It’s that they’re perfectly deconstructive of each other: they work in an inextricable harmony. It’s like two suns revolving around each other. They are useful to think about only inasmuch as they are both equally powerful. It’s that constant tension between all of these different poles, Greek and Hebrew, the past and the present, the Jewish and the gay, etc. They are always in a kind of conversation with each other. As soon as one begins to feel too comfortable, the other one pulls me away. Again, I think that back-and-forth generates a productive tension in my work. You can never get too comfortable with any one of those identities, and they are useful precisely because they are always working against each other equally, if that makes any sense. And that returns us really where we began: it’s not, ‘is it a cradle or is it a cemetery?’ The challenge, for me, is, how can it be both a cradle and a cemetery at the same time? That’s the interesting question. Here I’ll refer to something my father, the mathematician, used to say, which I wrote about in An Odyssey: “x is x, and y is y.” But for me, it’s not X or Y, it’s X and Y.

Déborah Bucchi et Adrien Zirah

Next week, part 2 of the interview with Daniel Mendelsohn: Philology, identity and exile.

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.

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