The Delight of Daniel Mendelsohn
James K.A. Smith on the Radical Interconnectedness of Three Rings
A stranger. A voyage. A return. Fathers and sons. Shipwreck and temptation. Hiddenness and unveiling. Detour upon detour. The stuff of a million stories, whether quest or exile, that wend and spiral and fold upon themselves, weaving a narrative path that tracks with the wanderings of our protagonist. Our eyes are peeled for the horizon of homecoming even as we hope it never ends.
The most engrossing of such stories don’t just travel in circles, Daniel Mendelsohn wants us to notice. They take us into a labyrinth of time created by a device called “ring composition,” a narrative tactic you start to recognize everywhere, from Homer to Seinfeld. In ring composition, Mendelsohn notes, “the narrative appears to meander away into a digression.” But when we stay on the ride, we learn that “the digression, the ostensible straying, turns out to be a circle, since the narration will return to the precise point in the action from which it strayed.” Just as one narrative builds steam, a memory triggers a second story layer, taking us back in time to a scene that haunts the present. Caught up in the drama of this new story, an event triggers a third circuit, pitching us forward in time to learn of someone’s fate. In the hands of master storytellers, the twists and turns bring us back to where we started. But now we, too, have changed, because we’ve journeyed to these other worlds in the meantime.
What do we love when we love to be carried along by such stories? Whence our delight in the wandering? What is that unique joy of being borne in circles by a narrator?
Daniel Mendelsohn began answering these questions in his celebrated 2017 book, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic, which was his own enactment of this Homeric literary device. Mendelsohn notes that the very first thing we learn about Odysseus, in the first line, is that he is a polytropos man—“the man of twists and turns” (in Fagles translation). What follows is “a 12,000-line poem about a journey home.” That journey not only twists and turns, it intentionally moves in circles. The Greek technique of ring composition plays with time and place in ways that are familiar to us because the same technique is now embedded in contemporary literature and film. Ring composition, Mendelsohn summarizes, “which might at first glance appear to be a digression, reveals itself as an efficient means for a story to embrace the past and the present and sometimes even the future—since some ‘rings’ can loop forward, anticipating events that take place after the conclusion of the main story. In this way a single narrative, even a single moment, can contain a character’s entire biography.”
There is a hint here of what we might love in such circuitous narratives: the delight of digression, which carries just a hint of transgression, a kind of narrative naughtiness. It’s what we love about the animated storyteller in a New Orleans bar and it’s what stirs us in Homer. The stories within stories tease us with the possibility that this story could go on forever, which is what we’re hoping when we’ve entrusted ourselves to a master of the craft.
Mendelsohn proves himself such a master in An Odyssey. The story of a father who is a stranger is told in rings: we circle back and forth, round and round, from their shared encounter with Homer’s Odyssey when his eighty-one-year old father enrolls in his seminar at Bard; across the wine-dark sea as they take a cruise that treks Odysseus’s perilous route; to a hospital room and homecoming—the moment of recognition—in the harrowing journey through illness and death. The refusal of linearity and chronology does its own work of illumination. The turns and bends and jolts feel like living.You can feel Mendelsohn’s own delight in how this project gives him license to wander and roam, indulging in following the hints and signs of connection embedded in the biographies of these exiles.
In his new book, Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate, Mendelsohn returns to ring composition, both as topic and performance. Beginning with the backstory to An Odyssey, he spirals forward into the journeys of three exiled writers who circled these themes of storytelling: Erich Auerbach, the Jewish émigré from Germany who would land at the University of Istanbul and there, on the cusp of the Orient, write Mimesis, his masterpiece on European literature; François Fénelon, the 17th-century French archbishop who achieved worldwide fame as the author of a bit of Homeric fan fiction, The Adventures of Telemachus, a “sequel” to the Odyssey, which led to his banishment by Louis XIV; and W.G. Sebald, who fled Germany after World War II, settling in East Anglia, where he would write meandering novels grappling with displacement, guilt, and the weight of memory. (I found myself imagining a chapter on Stefan Zweig that could have easily fit into this little book.)
You can feel Mendelsohn’s own delight in how this project gives him license to wander and roam, indulging in following the hints and signs of connection embedded in the biographies of these exiles. You half start to expect the digressions, and part of the game becomes guessing them in advance. When we learn that Fénelon wrote an influential Treatise on the Education of Young Women, you can hardly resist thinking about Proust’s budding grove, in the shadow of young girls in flower. Then sure enough, Mendelsohn circles into Proust in a stunning piece of criticism that not only reminds us of the appearance of Fénelon in In Search of Lost Time, but that Proust’s fiction is its own refusal of philosophical linearity for a mode of inference that is more like music. The narrator of a ring composition is, of course, a composer.
Indeed, maybe one of the delights of entrusting ourselves to such storytellers is that we like being played. The reader who gives herself to a ring composer isn’t just “following along;” she surfs. You know that curious feeling that makes your eyes smile while reading? Maybe a smirk, even, which is half admiration for the virtuosity of the narrator, and half sheer delight at the turn or connection you didn’t see coming. And then the return to the earlier narrative feels like its own little homecoming that we experience as a kind of narrative comfort.
But Three Rings is not just a continuation of An Odyssey, a mere expansion on a theme. Something has changed in the new book. You might say that between An Odyssey and Three Rings, the question of ring composition shifts from a literary concern to a metaphysical one. The stakes in this new book have been raised: this isn’t just about the mechanics of storytelling but the fabric of the cosmos.
Auerbach’s Mimesis gives Mendelsohn the frame. The first chapter of this storied book is called “Odysseus’ Scar” and revisits a particularly illustrative example of ring composition in Book 19 of the Odyssey, in which the hero is recognized by an aged nurse because of the scar on his thigh. From the moment of this recognition, Homer circles back to how Odysseus got the scar in a boar hunt, which circles back to a story about his grandfather, then gradually resurfaces in the moment where this all began: the nurse’s recognition of the scar which will be occasion for the unveiling of the stranger.
Auerbach did not share Mendelsohn’s enthusiasm for ring composition. He saw in this Greek device a misguided effort at exhaustion, leaving nothing in obscurity. For Auerbach, if the goal of literature is mimesis, a representation of reality that yields understanding—a fiction that is true—such narratives actually depend on a certain degree of obscurity because, in reality, things hide. For Auerbach, this was the contrast between the Greek and the Hebrew, between Homer’s exhaustive circles and the mysterious ellipses of the Torah. The opacities of the biblical narrative, Auerbach thought, did their own work of illumination. The “very lack of detailed illumination,” as Mendelsohn summarizes, is “productive, since it forces the reader to probe further, to think harder about the characters, their motivations, their interior lives.” It is “the narrative inscrutability in the text of Genesis” that Auerbach finds “persuasively realistic.”
Mendelsohn proposes a revision of the Greek/Hebrew taxonomy—and in many ways the book hinges on this proposal. Think of the Greek technique, he suggests, as the “optimistic” style: “Like a brilliant light, flattening our shadows and contours, putting everything on the same level, past and present, history and legend, it implies that everything can be known, explained, accounted for.” In contrast, the “densely shadowed Hebrew style” is the “pessimistic” way “with its acknowledgement that, like God himself, creation is never knowable, but can (as Auerbach went on to argue) only be subject to interpretation.”
We are no longer merely on the terrain of literary device; now this is a question of how things are. Despite his admiration for Auerbach, Mendelsohn’s revelry in rings signals his sympathy with the “optimistic” way. For Mendelsohn, that digressions find their way home is evidence for “that deep connectedness among things which, for the optimist at least, is sometimes detectable in history as well as literature.” The suggestion, which is its own remarkable act of hope, is that the intertwining connectedness of things isn’t just imposed on reality—a proverbial story we tell ourselves in order to live—but a discovery about reality.
What if we love to be carried along by such wending narratives, not because the author has us running in circles, but because the masterful composition of these rings gets us hoping there is a song at the heart of the cosmos? What if the swirls of such stories tantalize us because they give rise to the hope that their tapestry is a map to home?
As the author of Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Mendelsohn is all too aware of the audacity, even madness, of such a hope. Indeed, he expresses sympathy for Auerbach’s resistance: “It is not difficult to understand Erich Auerbach’s distrust of ring composition and the sense it can give you that there is a profound, almost supernatural connectedness between events. If the refugee German Jew found Homer’s all-illuminating device to be inconsistent with the inscrutable mechanics of real life, if he preferred the inexplicable omissions and gaps that characterize the Hebrew Bible, a style that refuses to reveal, as ring composition insists on doing, connections between things, inside and outside, motivations and actions, past and present, well, who could blame him?”
But even when Mendelsohn ends the book with a forgiving sympathy for Auerbach’s resistance, his own hope otherwise keeps peeking from behind the veil. We end with the Jewish exile in Istanbul, about to begin Mimesis, “a book that will begin with an account of a technique that is as old as Homer, known as ring composition; a wandering technique that yet always finds its way home, a technique which, with its sunny Mediterranean assumption that there is indeed a connection between all things, the German Jew Erich Auerbach—no doubt forgivably just now, given the awful and twisted route that has brought him here, the dark road which yet, as he will one day finally admit, made his book possible—considers a little too good to be true.
This closing sentence is its own wending path, and there is a world of possibility hidden in that “just now,” especially when coupled with that spiral into the future where Auerbach writes Mimesis, it is intimated, because he was exiled to Istanbul. Here is Mendelsohn playing Fénelon to Auerbach’s Homer, writing the sequel, of sorts, to Mimesis, circling back to Homer’s ring composition having passed through the horror of the Shoah, thereby imploding the too-tidy distinction between Greek and Hebrew, delighting in the braids of history, those happy coincidences we might have once ascribed to Providence, surprised to find himself wondering whether these are a sign of “a profound, almost supernatural connectedness” between things.
Perhaps, like Mendelsohn, we love to be carried by these waves of circling narratives because they dare us to hope in this interconnectedness of things, dare us to hope that the good could be true.