Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones, Daniel Mendelsohn 2019

Daniel Mendelsohn is a classics scholar and one of today’s best literary and cultural critics.  In this  collection of twenty superb essays, he puts into practice his concept of the role of the critic:  “In the end the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, and make it mean something.”  And in his third collection of essays, Mendelsohn does just that, from the classic (a new translation of the Aeneid, Euripides’ The Bacchae (the source of the title), Antigone, and Sappho) to the contemporary (Game of Thrones, Bergman movies, and a set of critical essays about modern authors from Waugh to John Williams).  This is criticism at its best—broadly informed, opinionated but with strong arguments, and fluidly written (keep a dictionary app handy to keep up with this erudite writer).  I’ve enjoyed his previous books, and this one is a worthy successor.  His final section, labelled Personals, has a wonderful essay about his correspondence and relationship with the  historical novelist Mary Renault who helped him understand both the classics and his nascent homosexuality when he began to write to her while in high school.  This correspondence continued until Renault’s death in 1983.  Some years after Renault died Mendelsohn made a trip to South Africa at the invitation of the last of her remaining friends—a moving tribute to the importance of mentorship.  This is a fine book.

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