Daniel Mendelsohn Makes a Powerful Case for the
Art of Digression
The Author of Three Rings talks to John Freeman About Homer, Storytelling, and More
“We all need narrative to make sense of the world,” Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in An Odyssey, his 2017 memoir about the year his father dropped in on his Homer class at Bard. The book is essentially a tribute to Homer’s epic poem and how it became a compass point Mendelsohn could share with his father in the man’s final years.
Mendelsohn’s father bursts from the page like a walking audition for an Alan Arkin role. Wisecracking and skeptical, he’s the most disruptive auditor the author ever had in class. And yet he also forces Mendelsohn—who has spent the better part of three and a half decades writing on classics and the arts—to think more clearly about how we make a narrative.
If The Odyssey was Mendelsohn’s tale on what this task meant to Homer—not to mention sons and fathers—Three Rings is the extractable lesson on what storytelling means, full stop. It’s one of the most beautiful books to give a writer, because it essentially argues storytelling is an art of association.
Drawing on the lives of three emigré writers, and Homer’s key narrative strategy, the book is a short, powerful defense of a digression. It follows an unnamed narrator through time and history, as it assembles a definition and demonstration of what Homer called the ring method of storytelling. I spoke to Mendelsohn by email and he explained to me what that means.
John Freeman: So what is the ring method of storytelling is, where it comes from?
Daniel Mendelsohn: OK. Imagine you’re telling a long story. You start telling your story—we’ll call it Tale A—and then, because you need to provide some background information that will help your listener to understand Tale A, you interrupt yourself and veer off into Tale B; and then—while you’re in Tale B, which might itself require some background explanation—you launch into yet another narrative—Tale C—that could help shed light on Tale B; and so forth. Eventually, you circle back from Tale C to Tale B to the point in Tale A where you first interrupted yourself, and then you finish your story. But of course, by this point you’ve had all this texture, all this additional information that’s been provided by what look like “digressions”—Tale B, Tale C, etc.—but, in the end, turn out to be loaded with information crucial to the audience’s understanding of the primary narrative.
“Ring composition,” as we call it in Classics, is characteristic of the kind of epic narrative you get in The Iliad and Odyssey, and is associated primarily with Homer: it’s a very useful means of conveying enormous amounts of interconnected information in a highly entertaining way. The most famous example occurs in The Odyssey, actually—itself a text that revels in digressions, wanderings, circularity—in a suspenseful passage in Book 19 where Odysseus, finally returned home after 20 years, is recognized by his old nurse, who sees a tell-tale scar on his leg; at which point the whole scene grinds to a halt while Homer gives you the story of the scar, which eventually spirals all the way back to Odysseus’s infancy; only then does the narrative return, gradually, to the moment of the nurse’s recognition of the scar.“I am acutely aware that far more classical literature has disappeared than has survived—a fact that, first, is poignant, and second, should put readers on guard.”
That’s a very sophisticated and literary example of ring composition, but when you think about it the technique is clearly just a highly stylized version of something that’s very natural to oral narrative, which is a kind of meaningful digressive circularity. “So I caught this amazingly big fish but nobody witnessed it!—well, I’d gone off fishing by myself because I had a fight with my boyfriend and needed to clear my head—yeah, we’d had a fight because he insisted that his folks stay with us but I wanted them to stay in a hotel—anyway, so there I was, fishing alone, when suddenly this HUGE…” etc etc.
My grandfather, about whom I’ve written a lot, told stories in exactly that way, and so those narrative rhythms worked themselves into my consciousness at a very early age and seemed very natural to me when, many years later, when I was in graduate school, I realized that it was a “thing”—!
JF: You first encountered this technique reading Homer as an undergraduate—but describe how you didn’t fully appreciate how to use it until recently, when you got lost in the middle of writing your memoir, An Odyssey. Why do you think it remained simply information—dormant knowledge….rather than wisdom? I’m curious if you think appreciation of the ring structure as a method involves having had some experience with time, of knowing how it bends? I think for example of the difference of say Cavafy’s notion of desire and a young poet’s poems of desire.
DM: The first part of Three Rings is, in fact, the story of my big blunder when I was writing my 2017 memoir An Odyssey, about the last year of my late father’s life, which was oddly refracted through The Odyssey—he took my undergraduate seminar at Bard, then we went on this cruise that recreated Odysseus’ voyages, and so forth; and then he fell ill and died. But when I finished the first draft it just wasn’t working: I was telling the whole story in the order it happened, the classroom, then the cruise, then the hospital, and it was just not coming alive. And then an editor friend of mine suggested that I convolute the narrative: that I make the progression of the seminar over the course of the semester as the primary narrative—Tale A—and then find a way to fold in the rest as digressions, flashbacks, flash-forwards. In other words, to restructure the book as one giant ring composition. And then it all suddenly jelled. And I laughed, because here I’d been writing a whole book about Homer, and The Odyssey, and epic narrative, and my whole academic life I’d known about ring composition, of course; and yet I hadn’t internalized its lessons.
So yes, that is itself a story about belated recognition—the way in which you can’t know something until, in a way, you’re ready to know it. And recognition, over time, is of course the great theme of the Odyssey itself. I’m glad you brought up this issue of time—the ironies of time, I would say—which is one of the great subjects of some of my own favorite authors: Proust, Mann, Cavafy. It’s something that preoccupies me more and more as I myself get older. And Three Rings, which in many ways is about uncanny overlappings of life histories and storytelling, is definitely preoccupied with time, because time is the element in which not only life, but narrative, occurs—there are certain things you just can’t “get” (to come to your point about Cavafy vs. a young poet) until time has passed. Certain works that I particularly love themselves have to “take time” in order to make this point: Proust is the obvious example, since often for a certain moment to have meaning, for a certain reveal to work, you need to have experienced vast swathes of the narrative first.
In Three Rings I tried to achieve this effect in a far more concentrated way. (It’s by far my shortest book.) There are characters, motifs, events, even just words that appear, disappear, then resurface—authors, famous buildings, works of literature, even animals and trees—and which turn out to be linked in remarkable ways which the reader can only appreciate at the very end of each big narrative “ring,” really.
JF: Your book is full of capsule biographies of people who essentially lived out ring structures, from the Renaissance Greek emigré scholar Chalkokondyles to Eric Auerbach, a 20th-century emigré scholar, as they attempted to rescue knowledge from being lost to time. Across their lives I see a portrait developing of knowledge as essentially ring-structured itself—am I off-base here? And speaking of “lost to time,” can you talk to me about what’s contained in the word lost for you—what people contained lost forever to time, like some of your relatives, but what works “lost” to time mean, as in: what they mean in the framework of human knowledge?
DM: I’m very moved by stories of writers and scholars who are clinging to precious bits of the past and trying desperately to preserve them for a future which they can’t even imagine: an obvious example, if you’re a Classicist, is those Byzantine monks who painstakingly copied out by hand the crumbling manuscripts of Greek texts that were passed on to them by earlier generations of monks, to whose efforts we owe the survival—sometimes in a single manuscript—of these great literary works representing an entire civilization. (In the century leading up to the moment when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, in 1453, hordes of Greek scholars were fleeing to Italy with their precious manuscripts, which, among other things, helped kick-start the Renaissance.)
I’m sure that, at the deepest psychological level, this feeling I have springs from my family history—from my awareness, as I grew up, of these ghosts, as it were, that were hovering in the house, the ghosts of my relatives who disappeared in the Holocaust and about whom we had just the tiniest fragments left: a few letters, a handful of pictures. I think that childhood experience influenced me—it acquainted me at a very early age with the fragility of civilization, with how easily things get “lost.” That awareness colored my work later in life—indeed, may have unconsciously led me to study what I ended up studying. As a classicist, for example, I am acutely aware that far more classical literature has disappeared than has survived—a fact that, first, is poignant, and second, should put readers on guard. (A thousand tragedies were composed and performed at Athens in the “golden age”: 33 have survived. And yet from that 3.3 percent we generalize about “Greek tragedy”—!!).
A consciousness of what’s lost has been a very powerful motor for me as a writer and also as a literary critic. How to reconstitute the whole from the part? How can we base an image of the past on the fragments that survived to the present? These are questions not only about history, but about narrative: about the nature of the relationship between the raw material of events to the representation of those events. It’s something I worried a lot about particularly in The Lost—because the whole problem of representation is so famously vexed with respect to the Holocaust. But it’s something I was already turning over in my first book, The Elusive Embrace, which worries about how family stories—whether true or false—influence one’s self-understanding, and something I’m still worrying about in Three Rings, which puts narrative and its attendant questions front and center for the first time.
So “lost” is a word that has powerful resonances for me, both personal and intellectual. It is, after all, the word I chose as the title of the book I eventually wrote about my search, in the early 2000s, for information about my murdered relatives. Oddly enough, the resonance of “lost” for me isn’t wholly pessimistic: even as it gestures to the tragic aspect of existence (so much has disappeared that we’ll never get back) it acknowledges, implicitly, the comic: we must try to recover what we can, and sometimes we succeed, and even the smallest such success is meaningful. I find the word infinitely tantalizing.
JF: I was very moved by Auerbach’s biography, which is a small part of this book, but a potent one, to think of him working through the war on his magisterial study of Western literature, Mimesis, while the world was going through such convulsions, putting him in more and more seemingly surreal situations. In the context of his biography, his appreciation for the historical context of works is, well, heroic. It’s also deeply out of fashion today—in the sense that he is not reading what he wished the past would or should be, but simply trying to appreciate “the mind map” which produced it. You’re a teacher: how do you address this in class?
DM: Yes, Auerbach was a complicated case. As I discuss in the new book, on the one hand he was the great exponent of German philology—the rigorous study of literature in its historical context. All texts are produced by specific persons in specific cultural and historical circumstances: the philologist’s question is, What did these texts means to the people who produced and first received them? In order to answer that question, you naturally have to have a fantastically profound, textured, and fine-grained grasp of the culture in question.“If artistic meaning were wholly bound by cultural specificity, all these great books and great art we love to talk about could have no possible relevance for the present.”
I’ll whip up a playful example. Imagine some graduate student in the year 4020 is writing a thesis about, say, “Political Humor in the Early 21st-Century Television.” And right now she’s working on the chapter about how SNL responded to the 2016 election; but—maybe because this student is interested in TV but had no great interest in 20th-century popular music—she’s unfamiliar with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” That gap is going to be a problem for her discussion of the SNL broadcast of November 12, 2016. The true philologist would have spent weeks working up a knowledge of Cohen, the song, the lyrics, its cultural resonances, and so forth. Of course, it could also be the case that “Hallelujah” disappeared from the historical record some time in the 3200s, and so the graduate student had no way of knowing anything about it. (Borges has a fabulous short story about this challenge, “Averroes’ Search”: he imagines the great 12th-century Arab philosopher Averroes working on a commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics, but because Averroes’ own culture doesn’t have live theatrical performance, his effort is doomed from the start.)
So there’s the dream of being able to reconstitute, as best one can, the context that produced the texts: philology. And yet Auerbach also wrote about—dreamed of—what he called “the general connectedness of cultures,” a commonality of human experience across cultures that links them all: a notion that pushes against the specificity that philology insists on. Perhaps it’s an insoluble problem. On the one hand, it’s crucial to honor the distinctiveness of individual cultures and see how their art and literature reflect that distinctiveness; on the other hand, if artistic meaning were wholly bound by cultural specificity, all these great books and great art we love to talk about could have no possible relevance for the present.
JF: Is history a digression?
DM: What I like to think about is contingency: why do things happen the way they happen? Sometimes history looks like it “happens” because of a plan—what you might call a “plot”: Napoleon wants to invade Russia, Hillary Clinton decides she wants to run for president, the Germans invade eastern Poland in the summer of 1941. But of course, other stuff happens, too: accidentally, fortuitously, coincidentally. Those are the “digressions.” The winter of 1812 was unusually (or usually) severe, or in the 1980s a guy named Barack Obama decides to apply to Harvard Law School, or whatever. In Eastern Poland in 1943 my mother’s uncle and cousin were hiding in a Polish schoolteacher’s fruit cellar; every few nights the cousin’s beau, whose father was a butcher, would bring them packages of food. (The plan; the plot.) One day a neighbor suddenly wondered why this boy, the butcher’s son, was always coming down the street with a paper-wrapped package; so the neighbor called the Gestapo, who came and hauled my relatives out of their hiding place and shot them. I think about that all the time: why on that day the neighbor got to wondering—the chance “digression.” You could write a story about just that.
Obviously I thought about this a lot while I was writing The Lost—the interplay between the intentional and the accidental in history. But that got me thinking, in turn, about writing: about the relationship between events and the way you package them, about the necessary illusion, in a certain kind of writing, that there is chance, and possibility—the characters “choose” to do this or that—but the whole time the author is of course pulling the strings. That’s what Three Rings is really “about,” I would say. I take these stories—Auerbach’s Fénelon’s, Sebald’s, the story of my struggles with writing An Odyssey—and, ostensibly, “tell” them. But as you proceed through them—and the seeming digressions that spring from or lead to them—you realize that there are all these startling connections among the tales. The question is, are the connections “real”—i.e., did these amazing events really occur that miraculously link all my tales—or am I, the author, manufacturing them? Or (more likely) am I telling them in a way that, while not fictionalizing in any way, nonetheless “manufactures” the connections that were there in a manner that makes them more salient, more striking—more “literary”?
So it’s a book that’s about a certain kind of narrative—ring composition, which so improbably connects an array of ostensibly unrelated tales—while actually enacting that particular kind of narrative, using the actual events that happened to real people in real historical time to create the links in the chain, the “rings,” the remarkable connections. Which is more digressive, which more random, which more intentional—history or literature? I wonder.
JF: Throughout this book a refrain of a man arriving in an unknown city resets the narrative to now, and then elaborates a new circle of sorts, drawing on the details of recently told aspects of history—the fall of Byzantium, the migration of European Jews to America. It’s an extraordinary device because in each iteration, the narrative repeats the same words but is enriched by the precious circle. This seems to demonstrate the ring method to me, but what’s unusual is that there’s no stable hero or protagonist, if you will. In The Odyssey, the rings bring us back to Odysseus: here you return us to, well, anyone who has had to travel to survive. Why did you eschew (an even fictional) solo protagonist here?
DM: It’s funny, because that recurring refrain, which takes the form of a small paragraph beginning, “A stranger arrives in an unknown city after a long voyage,” just sort of lodged itself in my mind when I sat down to write this book. I knew, of course, that I was writing about three writers who fled, or were forced to flee, their homes—Auerbach, Fénelon, Sebald; and I knew, furthermore, that their stories are all connected, in one way or another, to The Odyssey, the work I was writing my own book about. And there just came into my head this image, which I leave purposefully vague and parabolic: a man, a long journey, a new city; the wife and child off somewhere he can’t get to, or has just escaped from. When I first started writing, I was actually thinking of a way to describe Odysseus without naming him, but as I kept writing I realized that this short paragraph describes all the book’s heroes.
Because the real subject of this book is narrative itself, I didn’t want any of the figures I write about—my three exiled writers, myself, along with a bunch of other authors whose lives and work enter the story (Racine, Proust, Dan Jacobson, Homer, Yûsuf Kâmil Pasha)—to be central. I’d say each one is a prism that refracts the central preoccupation: what’s the connection between the vagaries of the lives we lead and the ways in which we narrate those lives? The question has been haunting me since my first book 25 years ago, and I don’t expect it will let me go any time soon.
Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings is available now from University of Virginia Press. Featured painting, Ulysses and the Sirens, by John William Waterhouse, 1891.