Somewhat of a Review: Daniel Mendelsohn’s THREE RINGS: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate

Three_RingsIn “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” In Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings, based on lectures he gave at the University of Virginia in 2019, the eponymous “rings” refer to the narrative construction of Homer’s Odyssey, as Mendelsohn defines and understands it, and to both the construction of his narrative and the pattern that helped him escape from a stasis in his life’s journey.

When the narrative opens, Mendelsohn tells us he was in a state of what the Greeks called “aporia,” (a kind of, from my weak demotic Greek, “unknowingness”), “a helpless, immobilized confusion, a lack of resources to find one’s way out of a problem … I was, in the Greek way of thinking, pathless — the adjective, as it happens, that, in the Odyssey, is used to describe the sea, the terrifying blank nothingness from which Odysseus must extricate himself, literally and figuratively, in order to claim his identity and find his way home”.

After writing two “big” books (one a years-long attempt to uncover how six family members were lost in the Holocaust; the other recounting his teaching of Homer’s Odyssey and relationship with his father, a text and story inundated with fathers, sons, and occurrences of separation and connection) and enduring his father’s loss, being emotional journeys as much as intellectual ones, Mendelsohn found himself, like Dante at the opening of “Inferno”: “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark,/For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” Mendelsohn then tells the story of three men, emblematic of the central figure of our time and place, the wanderer, the exile, the DP, Berger’s “seventh man,”: first, Erich Auerbach, author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature; then, an eighteenth-century French archbishop, François Fénelon, author of The Adventures of Telemachus (a telling that centres the Homeric narrative on fils over père); and, lastly, W. G. Sebald, the German writer who lived in East Anglia, and wrote strange hybrid tales of memory, history, haunting photography, and journey-logues. Continue reading