Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate, Daniel Mendelsohn 2020
This is a book that you will either love or find obtuse and frustrating, but at a slim 113 pages, it’s worth the effort to determine which reaction you’ll have.
Mendelsohn is one of my favorite writers whose essays about topics from the plays of Euripides to Mel Brooks’ The Producers and just about everything in between have been collected in ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ and ‘How Beautiful it Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken’, and they are superb. His ‘The Lost’ is one of the most powerful evocations of the Holocaust, a tale of his searches in Europe for six members of his family who had disappeared during WWII.
It was this exploration of the Holocaust that indirectly led to the writing of this book, a compilation of a named lecture series that he gave at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. After completing ‘The Lost’, he found he had a severe case of what the Greeks called aporia (lack of a path) and we would refer to as depression. In an attempt to break out of that box, he invited his father to take a cruise which traced the path of Ulysses as he returned from Troy to Ithaca after the Trojan War. It was this focus on Ulysses, his meandering digressions as he worked his way home from Troy that inspired this book, Mendelsohn’s own ‘working his way home’ from the shock of his findings in ‘The Lost’ captured in a brief story that reappears in each of the three chapters and begins “A stranger arrives in an unknown city after a long journey.”
It’s difficult to briefly capture what this book is about. It is itself a wonderful example of arriving at a distant foreign place after many meandering digressions. Mendelsohn uses many words for this phenomenon: digression, excursion, wandering, divigation, diverging, excurses. At its core, the book addresses Mendelsohn’s existential questions about the meaning of human existence and its unfolding in both a single life and in history. He contrasts two major influences on Western thought and literature: the Greek epic and the Hebrew Bible. The former is detailed, complete, optimistic. The latter is vague, opaque, open to interpretation and pessimistic. This distinction is the one made by Eric Auerbach in his 1944 classic, ‘Mimesis’ in which he explored the ways in which narrative literature attempts to portray reality and presents his theory of ‘gemeinsame Verbindung, the idea that there is a deep ‘connectedness’ among things which ‘for the optimist is sometimes detectable in history as well as in literature.’ For Mendelsohn, the core theme of his life is this search and he finds direction in Auerbach, in van Otterloo (a Dutch critic who in 1943 first described ring narration), in a 17th C French writer named Francois Fenelon, in Proust, and in W.G. Sebald for a way to connect the events of the 20th C, his life, his writing, and history.
This book is a complex, deeply researched and deeply felt attempt by one man to understand the elements of his life and the historical events that led to it. The key theme is the wandering of the immigrant displaced by war and politics. He traces this theme from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 with the move of scholars from East to West to the Holocaust with its move of scholars both East (as in Auerbach in Istanbul) and West (as in Freud and Einstein to the US). Ultimately, he returns to the earliest classic story of the wanderer, Ulysses.
I found this book to be quite wonderful, not an easy read but one that will stay with me for quite some time. Give it a try.