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The Wanderers

Daniel Mendelsohn’s genre-bending critical lectures gathered in the new ‘Three Rings’ looks at the Odyssean exiles of Erich Auerbach, Francois Fénelon, and W.G. Sebald, and their characters

Michael S. Roth
January 04, 2021
Nicolas Guerin/Contour by Getty Images
Daniel Mendelsohn, 2009Nicolas Guerin/Contour by Getty Images
Nicolas Guerin/Contour by Getty Images
Daniel Mendelsohn, 2009Nicolas Guerin/Contour by Getty Images

“A stranger arrives in an unknown city after a long voyage.” So begins Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate, his study of three disparate writers who shared a commitment to mining literary traditions even as they redefined the genres in which they worked. The three writers, Erich Auerbach, Francois Fénelon, and W.G. Sebald, left their homes for different reasons, but they had in common a desire to use narrative to explore the possibilities of and obstacles against homecoming. The voyaging stranger of the opening sentence is the great literary critic Erich Auerbach, who has fled Nazi Germany for the relative safety of Istanbul. Fénelon would be banished from the court of Louis XIV for penning a novel that would inspire anti-absolutism for centuries. Sebald couldn’t abide life in post-World War II Germany, and in his novels characters meander across Europe in search of paths home that would not be poisoned by the past. Mendelsohn shows that the three share a commitment to a form of narrative, ring construction, that uses apparent digressions and seemingly contingent connections to evoke Odyssean journeys that portend possible homecomings. His own critical projects are infused with this same commitment to interrupt arguments or stories with new intellectual paths seemingly destined to come back together.

Mendelsohn’s intellectual journey—from classics professor to Holocaust chronicler to “editor-at-large” at the New York Review of Books—took him back in 2019 to his alma mater, the University of Virginia, where he delivered the lectures that comprise this slim volume. Those talks, one might say, were a sort of homecoming for the author, as he came full circle (or, at least circled back) to the university where he began his original, multifaceted study of classic texts and the lives from which they emerged. Mendelsohn is a critic who weaves his own autobiography into his writings about literature, ancient and modern. His early work, The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity (1999) moves from a discussion of the “middle voice” in ancient Greek, to an exploration of forging an identity as a scholar and a gay man in contemporary New York. What remains hidden even within ornate personal expression, and how does the self come to appear? Similarly, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (2006) is concerned with unveiling a family mystery with historical implications, and it is written as a memoir interwoven with deep historical research. It’s not hard to see why Mendelsohn circles back again and again to issues of representation and disappearance, of exile and homecoming. After all, as a child his relatives burst into tears when he walked into a family gathering: He apparently bore a striking resemblance to a relative murdered during the Holocaust. “Oy er zett oys zeyer eynlikh Shmiel!” Oh, he looks so much like Shmiel! The brother of the author’s grandfather, Shmiel, his wife and four daughters, were murdered by the Nazis. How to construct one’s own identity in the face of a history that is so overwhelming? This is a theme he returns to again and again, as he comes to terms with his family’s history and his place in it. In An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic (2017) Mendelsohn tells of a journey of discovery he takes with his 80-year-old father. First, through reading Homer together with Bard undergraduates, and then on a trip on which the two visit the sites on Odysseus’ long journey home. On their voyage, son and father find ways to discover one another, but the patriarch dies before the book is completed. One doesn’t always get to close the circle.

Circles and rings are drawn again and again in these lectures, and Three Rings combines personal memoir with erudite readings of classic texts—from Homer to Sebald. Mendelsohn weaves in and out of literature and loss across centuries of Western writing. “The only way to get to the center of my story,” he tells us, “was by means of elaborate detours to distant peripheries.” Weaving and circling sound like happy, homey, virtues, but for Mendelsohn we are also making our rings around loss. The subtitle of Three Rings is “A Tale of Exile, Narrative and Fate.” Mendelsohn frequently returns to the ways that constructing an identity may feel like a return from a kind of exile—from a banishment from oneself, one’s family or one’s people. In these lectures, he returns to his long-term interest in how one tells the story of that return, of that acknowledgment of who one is, to whom one is connected, and who one loves. Mendelsohn is drawn to the idea of fate, or at least to the literary construction of life as fated. There are patterns in our stories, and they help give our tales the feeling of reality. Even when so much is lost, writers can create a sense that still things cohere. There is solace and sometimes pleasure in making life’s circles visible—or just constructing them after the fact. Sometimes the forces of disorder, or of cynicism, deconstruct the rings of coherence, unravel those patterns. Yet, the Odyssey’s Penelope reminds us that unraveling can be its own creativity, its own patterning. Strange, although the word “unravel” is so common, the word “ravel” is hardly ever used in American English. In any case, the meaning of the two words is practically the same. Mendelsohn likes to pull on a string, to be sure, and this is one of the meanings of “unravel” (and of “ravel”), but I’d say that he is more of a weaver, someone who winds together disparate threads. Others might find him a bit of a circus master of the “three rings.” Look folks, over here, another great author!

The three writers at the center of Three Rings all experience long detours in their lives—digressions, it seems from what might have been their linear fates. Auerbach puts exile and return at the heart of his exploration of Western literature, and Fénelon uses exile and the potential of homecoming as a device to criticize the political structures of his time. Sebald’s characters feel lost much of the time, and their meanderings bespeak an exile that might be without end. Mendelsohn is interested in how these writers use digressive journeys to teach their readers about narrative’s intersection with life, as his own life has been nourished by the combination of literary or historical analysis and memoir. He performs digression even in this slim volume, and he does so with grace and power. In other words, he provokes readers to ponder our own lives even as he instructs us in the narrative traditions we might use to make sense of ourselves.

“A stranger arrives in an unknown city after a long voyage.” This is a sentence Mendelsohn repeats in his lectures. The first voyaging stranger is Erich Auerbach, who has fled Nazi Germany for the relative safety of Istanbul, where has taken a post at Istanbul University, and where he would soon compose without access to the library he left behind, his classic Mimesis, a study about the patterns of representation woven, like a red thread, through the fabric of Western literature from Homer to Virginia Woolf. It was 1936, and Auerbach didn’t expect to stay long in that great house overlooking the sea—just enough time to ride out what he expected to be a brief spate of right-wing violence in Germany. But soon his wife and son would join him, and Turkey would be their home for more than a decade. They were beginning a new chapter, but in Mimesis Auerbach was looking back at the ways Western literature had represented reality, had created a sense of the real. With the onset of modernism, and with the world fighting against a Nazi movement that claimed to be the opposite of everything that had hitherto existed, the fabric representing the reality one knew was unraveling, and Auerbach wanted to grab hold of the threads before they were torn to shreds or went up in smoke.

Mendelsohn is drawn to Auerbach’s combination of painstaking philological analysis with an aspiration to uncover die gemeinsame Verbindung der Kulturen, “the common connectedness of all cultures.” Like our author, Auerbach believed that the smallest details in an individual’s life or story can be connected to themes that resonate across borders of time and space. In Mimesis, he contrasted the Hebrew Bible’s “pessimistic” insistence on God’s inscrutability (no full understanding is possible) with the Greek’s “optimistic” view that we can find ways of illuminating and knowing the world. Auerbach used the tension between these two modalities to organize this history of Western literature in Mimesis, and he would return to them in essays on both secular and religious writings. Mendelsohn, too, finds these broad themes throughout literature, but where Auerbach finds dialectical tensions he prefers rings and circles. Mendelsohn wonders “whether the pessimistic and optimistic styles are not, after all, opposites so much as complements … not so much points at opposite ends of a line as arcs of a continuous circle.”

He is drawn to Auerbach both because of his extraordinary appetite for Western traditions as a whole, and because the German Jewish critic could not escape a tension with these traditions. Auerbach wrote about those, like Dante, who endured exile and turned their experience into literature. He described himself as a Prussian of the Mosaic faith, and turned his own alienation into scholarship at the highest level. Edward Said, who knew something about exile, noted how painful distance created new conditions for cultural understanding. Mimesis was “a massive reaffirmation of the Western cultural tradition,” Said wrote, “but also a work built upon a critically important alienation from it, a work whose conditions and circumstances of existence are not immediately derived from the culture it describes with such extraordinary insight and brilliance but built rather on an agonizing distance from it.”

Mendelsohn has made the space of this “agonizing distance” his own, seeing it has a creative space for forging identities and for making culture. Of Auerbach he writes: “Liberated, as Dante had been, by his exile, he is now able to surrender himself to memories of his intellectual and cultural home.” This is the liberation of exile as a forced digression, with the comforts of memory and the anticipation of homecoming.

After introducing exile and delayed homecoming through Auerbach, digression and ring construction, Mendelsohn’s second chapter explores the 17th-century French writer Francois Fénelon’s efforts to instruct his compatriots about the dangers of absolutism, even if that meant banishment from the center of power. Fénelon grew up as part of an impoverished noble family in the French provinces and entered the Church to make his career. By the 1670s, he would establish a name for himself in Paris with his Treatise on the Education of Young Girls, and also as a gifted orator. With the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Fénelon was sent to preach Catholicism to Protestants in the countryside, and then later brought back to the capital as the tutor for the duke of Burgundy (then second in line to the throne). Court intrigue and his own heterodox religious views threatened to undermine Fénelon’s position, but he was respected as an effective tutor even by his enemies. However, when in The Adventures of Telemachus the priest used the narrative scaffolding of the Odyssey as a basis for his own novel of education and politics, he was sent to “internal exile” at his diocese in the North.

“Calypso was inconsolable after the departure of Odysseus.” So begins Fénelon’s tale. In the Odyssey, Calypso is the immortal nymph who seduces and then imprisons Odysseus in a cave on the island of Gozo. She weaves and she sings, promising her lover immortality if only he would stay with her on the island. But Odysseus wants to go home, perilous though the journey will be. Homer tells us little about the goddess, but in Fénelon’s book Calypso is racked with sadness when the gods force her to surrender Odysseus—to allow him to leave the cave in which she had imprisoned her lover. She stops singing and finds only sorrow in her immortality.

Fénelon’s novel follows the travels of Telemachus, the son of Penelope and Odysseus, who the French novelist imagines washing up on the shores of Calypso’s island not long after his father departed. Like his father, Telemachus is a wanderer and a wily adventurer. He narrowly escapes being killed by Trojan refugees on Sicily, and faces captivity in Phoenicia and on Cyprus. The young man meets a terrible king, Idoménée, and narrowly escapes with his life. But the main character in Fénelon’s tale is Mentor the tutor (who is actually the goddess Minerva in disguise). The book is built around Mentor’s didactic speeches against war, egoism and tyranny. Mentor sings the praises of benevolence and envisions a world of cooperation. The novel was taken to be a critique of the military and courtly extravagances of Louis XIV, and became a touchstone for the critique of absolutism. The plot has Telemachus flee Calypso and her cave, as his father had done, and he eventually learns “a king is worthy of commanding and is happy in his power only inasmuch as he subjects it to reason.” Fénelon’s novel has Telemachus return to Ithaca, where he will recognize his father in the same spot that Homer describes in the Odyssey.

In his reading of The Adventures of Telemachus, Mendelsohn threads his own past with Fénelon’s story, finding places where their narrative arcs or circles intersect. For example, the mention of Calypso’s cave gives rise to the critic’s memories of his trip with his father to Gozo’s grottos and to his own fears of enclosed spaces. Caves are important to Mendelsohn—they are the sites of his deepest fears. Enclosures remind him not of love but of death, of places in which, panicked, he has found himself unable to breathe, and places where his relatives had to hide from the Nazis. “Anyone could kill us. … You weren’t a person anymore,” a family member told him. He recalls exploring the underground chambers in which his relatives were forced to be still, perfectly still. Indeed, Mendelsohn’s characterization of the Telemachus similarly applies to Auerbach’s work and to his own: “Fénelon’s text manages to display an allegiance to ‘home,’” the critic explains, “while meandering far from it, the allegiance showcasing his literary erudition even as the meanderings constitute a tribute to his creative inventiveness.” As in the Odyssey, the digressions are meant to circle back to the core themes of a peaceful and triumphant homecoming, but, as Mendelsohn notes, Fénelon’s inventiveness did not bring him peace and recognition. While Telemachus may return to Ithaca and his father at the end of the novel, Fénelon remains exiled from the court of his most important reader, the affronted Sun King.

Even if its author was restricted to Cambrai in the North of France, The Adventures of Telemachus did end up finding many other homes: In Europe, the novel proved to be enormously popular throughout the 18th century. Translated and republished around the world, its threads raveled and woven into an Enlightenment tapestry that embraced an anti-authoritarian “universal brotherhood.” Mendelsohn reports that in the 1780s the novel was taken to be “a prescient forecast of the Revolution,” and in the 19th century romantics and realists alike admired it. Marcel Proust, an author to whom Mendelsohn returns again and again, features Fénelon as a touchstone of education in the early 20th century. In the last section of his discussion of Telemachus, Mendelsohn compares Fénelon’s narrative style with Proust’s. Both, we are told, are “optimistic” insofar as their digressions, even the most tangential, can be brought together in a final homecoming. Marcel, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, re-collects the shards of the past into the whole that is the novel itself. Over the course of several volumes he pieces together these shards, he reweaves the threads of his past, recognizing that the apparently divergent paths from his family home in Combray (note the resonance with Fénelon’s Cambrai) “are not vectors but rather arcs of a circle, components of a ring.” Telemachus’ adventures end in recognition and homecoming, and the final volume of Proust’s novel is titled Time Regained. Proust discovered that divergent paths, at least in recollection, actually curled back to one another. Memory circles homeward in fictive coherence, though Proust warned against confusing stories with the realities they depict. Auerbach would have understood this warning well. The great discoverer of literary patterns of “common connectedness” would die not at home in Central Europe, but at a nursing home in Central Connecticut. Circles aren’t always unbroken.

While Mendelsohn finds solace and instruction in Fénelon’s digressions and admirable humanistic ambition in Auerbach’s aspiration for connectedness, he argues that with W.G. Sebald we are presented with a world in which wandering does not end with homecoming but with rootlessness in the face of the horrors of modernity. Sebald, who is at the core of the book’s third chapter, had arrived in Britain in the late 1960s, mostly remaining in a self-imposed exile, an exile prompted by what Mendelsohn calls a sense of “claustrophobic shame.” Sebald’s father served in the German army and was released from a prisoner of war camp two years after the Nazi surrender, but like many of his generation he refused to discuss his military experiences. The horrors of the Nazi period could not be referred to, but somehow the silence never really held. As Sebald matured as a writer he recognized that there was no return to a world not marked by the shadow of trauma. For him, the past did not provide a foundation, but just an instigation to wander. In Austerlitz the main character discovers that he was sent as a young child to the relative safety of England from Prague in the Kindertransport of 1939. He has no real memory of this, although he has always felt away from home. But the discovery solves nothing. “It was obviously of little use that I had discovered the sources of my distress and, looking back over all the past years, could now see myself with the utmost clarity as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings: reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed, and which was now breaking through the walls of its confinement.” The past leaks through, escapes silence and obscurity, but it offers no comfort.

W.G. Sebald made an art of indirection, having committed to the notion that the devastation of the 20th century could only be approached obliquely.

The shadows of horror linger over nearly all of Sebald’s writings: While teaching literature at the University of East Anglia from 1970 until his death in a car accident in 2001, he composed four meditative, mournful novels that circle around the disasters that people carry with them in their personal lives. He called them “documentary fictions,” avoiding anything like direct autobiography. Indeed, Sebald made an art of indirection, having committed to the notion that the devastation of the 20th century could only be approached obliquely.

Like Fénelon, Sebald defied genre, but unlike the French priest, he eschewed any moral teachings. He writes not to deliver lessons but to explore an atmosphere of ambiguity. Punctuating his prose are sets of often hazy photographs, and his fictions are infused with the biographies of people who are, as James Wood put is, “wounded into storytelling by historical trauma.” His novels are usually structured around ruminative journeys; his narrators are wanderers without precise destination. Mendelsohn notes that in Sebald’s Austerlitz the main character carries around a book, Dan Jacobson’s Heshel’s Kingdom, in which the author searches for his Jewish roots on a journey through post-Holocaust Eastern Europe, as Mendelsohn would later do in The Lost. Always looking for serendipitous connections, he notes that one of his closest friends in graduate school was Jacobson’s nephew, who often spoke of his uncle’s work. Our author takes pleasure in these looping coincidences, seeing in them echoes of both Sebald and the ring construction one finds in the Odyssey, in Auerbach and in Fénelon. In the circles and sense of fatedness that permeate almost all of Sebald’s fiction, Mendelsohn, argues, we find a refashioning of the Odyssey—but with one important difference: There is no return home—there is no closure at the end of the narrative.

Like Homer, Sebald uses ring composition to great effect. But unlike the narrative rings, circles, digressions, and wandering that we find in Homer, which seemed design both to illuminate and to enact a hidden unity in things, the ones we find in Sebald seem design to confuse, entangling his characters in meanderings from which they cannot extricate themselves and which have no clear destination.

One of Sebald’s characters tells of Flaubert’s writing paralysis because of his “fear of the false,” while another just can’t summon the energy and concentration to look at the traces of his family’s history. Mendelsohn sums it up with a sentence in italics: “Everything is left in obscurity,” recalling what Auerbach called the Hebraic principle of inscrutability.

For Sebald, the homeland was poisoned, and although it could never be fully left behind, celebratory return was impossible; The unraveling was beyond repair. Sebald’s characters do wander in circles, but the rings they trace offer no sense of fit or closure. Unlike the traditions of optimistic coherence and homecoming explored in the first two lectures, in the final chapter Mendelsohn is interested in how the German novelist’s circling provides only exhaustion not revelation. In The Rings of Saturn the narrator describes the views of a 17th-century doctor and polymath, Thomas Browne: “For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.” For Browne, Sebald writes, “on every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation.”

The same could be said of Sebald, Mendelsohn tells us: “If Proust’s ring appears to us a container, filled with all of human experience, Sebald’s embraces a void: a destination to which … no amount of writing can deliver us.” As one of his characters sadly concludes, “There is no antidote against the opium of time.” And ultimately Mendelsohn thinks Sebald is right. Inscrutability will not be eliminated, even if one optimistically illuminates the circular patterns that seem to link things together. Too much confidence in our discoveries may just lead us back to where we started—journeys do not necessarily end with a homecoming or revelation; in fact, if we are so certain that either is our fate, then perhaps we aren’t paying enough attention to the details of what’s happening around us. As Auerbach, reminded us of “the virutes of blanks and opacity,” Mendelsohn notes, Sebald reminds that wandering may only lead to rootless drifting and not to the recognition of home.

The satisfactions of ring construction—of finding it, of enacting it—keep Mendelsohn’s own narrative from simply opening with Auerbach’s understanding of happy Homeric digressions and concluding with Sebald’s pessimistic portrayal of digressions that defy a destination. His lectures don’t just build in a linear fashion, but like authors he admires, he digresses into personal stories and circles round the enduring attractions and perils of departures and arrivals. Like Auerbach, he notes that while “history is manifested through catastrophic events and ruptures,” the telling of these catastrophes and ruptures can be productive in their own right. The act of narration can mend, if not fully heal. There is so much sorrow in the authors with whom Mendelsohn journeys, but there is great pleasure in circling their work with him. Most readers won’t know the texts half as well as this critic does, and that can lead to a feeling of being somewhat lost. But the insights come with circling back to coherence with our gifted guide.

Commenting on the many editions of Telemachus, and near the close of his final lecture, Mendelsohn tells the story of Yusuf Kamil Pasha’s translation of Fénelon’s novel into Turkish. It was an extraordinary success, becoming an official example of wisdom literature for the Ottoman Empire. It also helped make Kamil Pasha a very rich man. When he died in 1863, the philanthropist left part of his estate to Istanbul University, including a great house overlooking the sea that the university would use for distinguished guests. Decades later, a stranger arrived at that house after a long voyage.

Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, was the curator of the Library of Congress exhibition Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture. His most recent book is Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness on College Campuses.