Review: Carmel Birdon Daniel Mendelsohn

How Literature Makes Reality Feel

In so many ways, Daniel Mendelsohn’s life affects his books, and his books affect his life. It has been good to read Three Rings in the time of lockdown, not only because it is a great joy in itself, but because of the variety and richness of its references. There is no real need, when reading it, to keep rushing to your bookshelf to take down your copy of Homer or Proust or Boccaccio, but it is a great temptation. I resisted the first time round, but on the second reading of Three Rings, I had beside me a small pile of dear old books. I spent weeks re-reading parts of some, all of others, lost in that thrilling world of discovering what it was about them that I knew and loved, what had brought them into the orbit of Three Rings. Because I was reading in a time of lockdown, I decided not to try to get the supplementary books from anywhere but my own bookshelves, so there are some works discussed in Three Rings that I didn’t have on my desk for reference. Google was allowed.

You might say that I could have re-read the other books without reading Three Rings, but in one way you would be wrong. For Mendelsohn’s book has gathered into its net, in a way that is both smooth and sharp, many of the great books across time, and has given them a new significance in a fresh and dazzling context.

I have long delighted in Daniel Mendelsohn’s personal and critical writing in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. In particular, I treasure an essay on his correspondence, begun as a teenager, with the great Mary Renault. It is one of the tenderest things I have ever read, and when I read it, I weep. I admire and love his collection of essays How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken (2008), and The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (2006), and An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic (2017). The Lost is a personal investigation into the lives and deaths of six members of Mendelsohn’s family who perished in the Holocaust. The title eloquently lays out the whole matter of thinking and writing about the Holocaust. The slaughter is vast, but every life in one family is also of a vast significance. A shared fate is also a personal fate. The eyewitness accounts often beggar human imagination in their savage and relentless cruelty. No Holocaust museum, he suggests, can have the power and effect of the words of a letter, a diary from a witness.

An Odyssey is a moving account of a cruise that Mendelsohn took with his father in the steps of Odysseus, and a vivid and illuminating revisiting of Homer. The structure of Mendelsohn’s work is never simple, yet the very complexities are always part of the meaning itself, part of the truths with which he challenges his reader’s understanding. The reader is swept up in the old and new relationships between the two men, the father and son. Poignant moments evoke tender emotions, while the sagas of the ancient world, the magnificence of Homer, sweep across the narrative.

Those two books, The Lost and An Odyssey, are actively present in Three Rings, are part of the fabric and the meaning of the new work. And if all this begins to sound rather grand and solemn, well, it is; but Mendelsohn is also relaxed and sometimes wry.

Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate – how the title rings and sings with promise. The book is a reflection on the composition of its own text, a confessional memoir, a conscious performance of a literary device, a memorial to a family destroyed in the Holocaust, and a journey through literature that concentrates, among a wealth of others, on three exiled and wandering authors: Erich Auerbach, François Fénelon and W.G. Sebald. ‘Wandering’ is a word that crops up only ten times in the text, but it is in fact a key not only to the lives of those three writers, but to the whole narrative. This luxurious mixture is deftly controlled by the device of the ‘ring construction’, on which the works of Homer depend. Among many other things, Mendelsohn is a classical scholar, and it is in his deep fascination with Greek literature that this new book finds its bedrock.

I confess that the first time I saw the title Three Rings, ignoring the sub-title at my peril, it suggested a circus. Well, it isn’t exactly a circus with clowns, but it is a performance of considerable magic. The epigraph is from Dante; the first paragraph is from Boccaccio. So it is clear to any reader from the beginning that a certain erudition and historic seriousness are going to guide the narrative. The piece from the Decameron is from the story of a rich man whose most prized possession was a precious ring. In his will, he wrote that when he died the son to whom he left the ring would be his heir, and so the inheritance would continue down the generations. However, there came a time when the head of the family had three sons, each equally beloved and worthy. So the patriarch had a jeweller make two more identical rings, such that no-one could tell which was the original. On his death, the three sons went to law over the matter, but the case has never been decided. No resolution. So, three rings.

My old copy of the Decameron is bound in cheap dark blue imitation leather stamped with golden decorations that look more Arabic than Italian. It was published in Spain in 1986. I had forgotten that the narrative begins:

In the year of our Lord 1348, there happened at Florence, the finest city in all Italy, a most terrible plague – which, whether owing to the influence of the planets, or that it was sent from God as a just punishment for our sins, had broken out some years before in the Levant.

I suggest readers might like to read the two following pages for themselves – and déjà vu. 

And of course the text of the Decameron is a glorious example of ring composition, which is a principal interest of Mendelsohn’s book. He notes that the most famous example of ring composition is in Book 19 of the Odyssey where the wandering Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, and planning to kill his wife’s suitors, is bathed by a nurse, a slave, who knew Odysseus years before. She recognises the scar on his thigh, and sees through his disguise. The narrative then spirals back to a boar hunt, during which Odysseus had received the wound that resulted in the scar. This circle then coils back to the birth and naming of Odysseus from which events it returns to the scene with the beggar and the nurse. So the identity of Odysseus (whose name is derived from a word for ‘pain’), lying at the centre of the concentric circles, is the key to the whole epic. He suffers pain and he causes suffering, but the final mood of the Odyssey is one of optimism.

Part of the pleasure of moving from Three Rings to my own copy of the Odyssey was the fact that this copy was a high school prize for writing, so I was briefly plunged into the sweet balm of memory. It is a first edition, published in 1952 by Oxford University Press. The great epic poem is retold by Barbara Leonie Picard in very pleasing prose, and claims to be the first retelling ‘for young people’. So it is serious, but certainly not scholarly. The short Preface ends by saying that after the Trojan war Odysseus returned home, and the Odyssey is ‘the story of his eventful voyage’. Eventful, yes. I have always loved the vigorous black and white illustrations by Joan Kiddell-Monroe, reminiscent of the figures on a Grecian urn. Some of these pictures are enhanced with a beautiful sky blue. Alas, I have lost the paper jacket, but I remember the delight of my first sight of its beautiful blue, black, and white design when it was handed to me, in my white Speech Night dress, on the stage at the Albert Hall in Launceston.

I have meandered away from Three Rings, somewhat in the manner, I like to think, of the ring construction itself. Mendelsohn uses a great galaxy of words for his own circling technique. Some of these are: whirl, twist, weave, spin, spiral, twine, entangle, involute, digress, elaborate. It sounds like a mighty powerful dance. And so it is.

An important feature of the ring construction is the placing of a recurring paragraph signalling to the reader that the narrative is circling back on itself. This paragraph, in Three Rings, appears three times, in slightly different forms, and it concerns the wanderings of a refugee. After the little piece from the Decameron, comes this:

A stranger arrives at an unknown city after a long voyage. He has been separated from his family for some time; somewhere there is a wife, perhaps a child. The journey has been a troubled one, and the stranger is tired. He stops before the building that is to be his home and then begins walking toward it: the final short leg of the improbably meandering way that has led him here. Slowly, he makes his way through the arch that yawns before him, soon growing indistinguishable from its darkness, like a character in a myth disappearing into the jaws of some fabulous monster, or into the barren sea. He moves with difficulty, his shoulders hunched by the weight of the bags he is carrying. The contents are everything he owns, now. He has had to pack quickly. What do they contain? Why has he come?

The first six lines are repeated twelve pages later, where the remainder of the paragraph is significantly, although not very, different. When the paragraph reappears for the third time, it clearly identifies the refugee as Erich Auerbach, who is escaping the dangers of Germany to the safety of Istanbul in 1936. But in a wider sense he is every refugee. The last time the paragraph appears there is a longer meditation on the stranger’s identity. He could be Mendelsohn himself, in 2006, despairing as he tries to construct the text of Three Rings, hoping he will not have to tell ‘any more of the terrible stories he once had to tell’. He speaks here of himself in the third person. Or the stranger could be Sebald who exiled himself from Germany to England and, in the 1960s, found himself ‘standing before the door of the Department of European Literature of the University of East Anglia’, where he would write his magnificent books, such as The Rings of Saturn, exploring the hearts and minds of emigrants and exiles. He could be one of the thousands of Jews and Muslims who fled Spain for Istanbul after the Alhambra Edict in 1492. Or he could be one of the Greek scholars, such as Janus Lascaris or the Chalkondyles brothers, who fled west after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Or he could be François Fénelon, once a great favourite at the court of Louis XIV, falling from grace in Versailles into effective exile as Archbishop of Cambrai in 1698.

In the gloriously convoluted fabric of the book, Mendelsohn frequently enters the intimate realm of memory. In fact, at the end of the first ‘stranger’ paragraph, the narrative breaks at the sentence ‘Why has he come?’ and the author proceeds to discuss how he wrote The Lost. He travelled to different parts of the globe to interview survivors from Bolechow, where those six members of his own family died in the Holocaust. ‘The only way to get to the centre of my story was by means of elaborate detours to distant peripheries.’ Each ring ‘turns out to require another’. I have used the word ‘magic’ to describe this book, and it occurs to me again that there is a spell at work here, an incantation as old as time, as fresh as a splash of clear water. Here are the stories of the world, he says; here is my story; here is theirs; here is yours. And they are all spinning together. Pay attention, for these distractions are not distractions; they are the substance of the story of everything. ‘There is an almost super-connectedness between events.’

So, the first refugee to emerge is Erich Auerbach. He arrives with his heavy bags at the University of Istanbul in ‘the late summer of 1936’. His has been on a ‘winding, wearying’ journey for he, a Jewish scholar of literature, has fled his university post in Hitler’s Germany. In Istanbul, he will write his great Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, published in 1946, dealing, broadly, with the idea of ‘how literature makes reality feel’. This, I realised after a while, had to be the title for my own thoughts on reading Three Rings.

The title of the first chapter of Mimesis is ‘Odysseus’s Scar’. Here the Greek and the biblical approaches to storytelling are both examined. Greek takes an optimistic view; Old Testament biblical is pessimistic. In Three Rings, Mendelsohn frequently draws attention to these differences. Auerbach, like Odysseus bears a scar. Auerbach’s is from a wound in the First World War, wars as well as exile being a critical motif in Three Rings. As a boy, Auerbach was a student, with many other Jewish children, at the Berlin Lycée Français, which was founded in 1689 for the families of persecuted Protestants exiled from France for their beliefs. In 1938, Jewish pupils and teachers were excluded from the school. It gives its name to the title of the first section of Three Rings. From 1947 until his death in 1957, Auerbach lived and taught in the United States, where he was a professor of Romance Philology at Yale. He is a magnificent refugee, for he was carrying not just those heavy bags, but a head ablaze with priceless knowledge and luminous ideas. And, like Odysseus, a wound.

The text swirls off into five pages of personal memoir, moving from vivid details of the author’s childhood, to the time he and his father visited Calypso’s cave on the cruise, and ending with recollections of being inside the Ukrainian cellar, eight feet below ground, where his relatives had hidden in terror, stillness and silence. Then, back to Calypso. Mendelsohn suffers from claustrophobia, a condition that could be inherited, research suggests, from the experiences of the family during the late summer of 1941. There is a wonderful comparison between the surroundings of Calypso’s cave as seen in the Odyssey and the real-life location in 2005. One is surrounded by trees inhabited by nocturnal birds, the landscape watered by streams that ‘crisscross meadows filled with violets and parsley’, a scene of ‘extravagant, wild beauty’. Even the gods admire it. The other, in reality, is a ‘yellow-brown rockscape parched by the unrelenting sun’. Calypso’s cave is tiny, the entrance a two-foot wide ‘gash in the face of the rock’. ‘Gash’ seems to reference ‘scar’.

The text moves on to showcase the next refugee, the banished Archbishop Francois Fénelon, who wrote a novel, The Adventures of Telemachus, Son of Ulysses, begun in 1693 and published in full in 1699, following the author’s exile to Cambrai, some 68 kilometres north of Versailles. For a long time, he was tutor to the young Duke of Burgundy, heir to the throne. The King’s secret, ‘pious, morganatic wife’, Madame de Maintenon, consulted Fénelon on matters at her school Saint-Cyr, where Huguenot girls received a corrective Catholic education. The second section of Three Rings is titled ‘The Education of Young Girls’. The substantial epigraph here is from a 1799 German play, Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Lessing, which is a dramatic plea for religious tolerance.

The text considers Fénelon immediately after the description of Calypso’s cave. Fénelon’s novel, which was a huge success, opens with a reference to Calypso. But it was dangerous. The Edict of Nantes, signed in 1598, granted civil rights to Protestants in Catholic France; Louis XIV revoked the Edict in 1685. Many Protestants fled to Prussia where Duke Friedrich Wilhelm established for them the Lycée Français, where Erich Auerbach went to school nearly 300 years later. The novel contains material on ‘good kingship’, criticising kings for pride, vanity, expensive wars, luxuries. Louis XIV was clearly being described, and his response was to exile Fénelon to Cambrai in the chilly north of France, allowing him no further access to Versailles. The Enlightenment philosophers greatly admired the novel; it foreshadowed the Revolution of 1789 and it has continued to be not just popular but beloved. Proust frequently pays homage to it.

Fénelon and Proust, Mendelsohn says, are writers who employ the ring construction, showing the ‘optimistic possibilities of narrative’ or ‘the possibility of infinite digressions within an existing story, of a potentially endless series of smaller concentric circles nested within a larger one’. This statement leads to a long discussion of the construction of Proust’s work, with the two ‘ways’, Swann and Guermantes, that ultimately may not be on opposite sides of a line, but two arcs of the same circle, ‘components of a ring that circumnavigates the town’. Proust, of course, was neither a refugee nor an exile, but his opus, as a fascinating example of ring construction, sits eloquently within the text of Three Rings.

Proust’s novel, boxed in its three huge Penguin paperbacks, translated by Moncrieff and Kilmartin, printed in 1984, usually sits in a bookshelf beside my bed. The spines are cracked, and the yellowing pages are falling out. Reading this version of the text is quite difficult, as everything is squashed up to get it all into the three whopping volumes. I believe there are 1,267,069 words for a reader to deal with. Once long ago I read it all, but this time I just looked at a few pages here and there. Way back when, I didn’t know about ring composition, but now I see it at work. And you can see the resemblance of the names: Proust’s Combray and Fénelon’s Cambrai. One lovely thing was that I discovered three old Christmas cards, from different friends, being used as bookmarks inside the three volumes.

There was a rather thrilling (and frivolous) re-reading experience that came out of my reading of Three Rings. I didn’t have a copy of Fénelon’s novel, so I turned to Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King, a lavish coffee table book filled with marvellous full colour plates. It is a first edition, throughout which I have written many little notes in pencil – occasionally in telltale red ink. There is a full page reproduction in monochrome of the portrait of Fénelon painted by Joseph Vivien, housed in Altepinakotech, Munich. I went online to see how this image was in colour, and lamented the fact that it wasn’t coloured in The Sun King, for a very great deal is lost in the monochrome. Yes, the face is wise and kind, the ecclesiastical robes soft and graceful in both versions. So much of the mood resides in the soft russet background, echoed in the details of sleeve and collar. The soft silvery grey of the principal robe falls in watery folds, occupying the greater part of the picture. The viewer’s eye is constantly drawn to the slightly rambling vertical line of bobbly red buttons marching like tiny shiny cherries down the front of the garment. The Archbishop’s large severe brown pectoral cross occupies the centre of the portrait. It is altogether a lovely thing. The tale Mitford tells of the events covered in Three Rings is juicy and racy. In 1986, she was described in The Christian Science Monitor as a ‘wickedly witty femme de lettres’. Yes, I can recommend The Sun King. Fénelon’s novel had ‘an enormous impact upon the mind of Europe’, from the Enlightenment thinkers to Marcel Proust.

And so to the serious matter of the third and final section of Three Rings, where the self-exile Winifried Georg Sebald comes forward with his ring composition, The Rings of Saturn. The section is titled ‘The Temple’, meaning the magnificent but doomed Great Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. It begins with two epigraphs meditating on the transformation of the city of Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul. It becomes clear in this section that the ‘stranger’ of the key paragraphs that move through the text is, in spite of who he might be, Erich Auerbach, for his life, work, and spirit ripple through so many of the lives, works and spirits of the other key figures. Paradoxically, he is the one who mistrusts the ring composition, who wishes not to see the shapes and coincidences that seem to knit the shattered world together by so many means, in so many ways. Auerbach’s narrative mode is pessimistic, Hebrew, biblical, in apparent opposition to Homer’s Grecian optimism.

Sebald is a man prone to melancholy, whose novels, composed in ever turning circles, lead, with a particularly Sebaldian dreamlike melody, to the troubling yet mysteriously satisfying conclusions of darkest obscurity, to ‘locked doors’, to ‘paralyzing horror’. His rings ‘confuse and entangle’ and the narrative of Rings of Saturn is ‘shadowed’ by a motif of ‘the failure of narrative’. The futility of trying to reach into the past, to re-create the past in words or stone, the tragedy of the temporality of people, of things, are the subjects of one of the final rings in The Rings of Saturn. In the course of his wandering, the narrator visits a man who has spent twenty years constructing a precise model of the Temple of Jerusalem, which was twice destroyed, leaving only the Wailing Wall, a melancholy statement, reflecting, enshrining sorrow and pessimism. The model maker feels the profound futility of his project. Mendelsohn is particularly captivated by this story, which is based in truth, because he himself spent many years delicately constructing models of ancient buildings. It was with immense pleasure that I re-read The Rings of Saturn with the eye-opening new awareness of the ring construction. Of the three copies on my bookshelf, I chose a lovely pristine hardback in which there were no pencil marks at all, and I am proud (in fact amazed) to say I didn’t deface it this time. This novel is Mendelsohn’s favourite Sebald; mine is Austerlitz, so I re-read that too. Reading Three Rings was for me one of the richest reading experiences I have had for a while. I mentally cycle back to the epigraph from Boccaccio, a paragraph that caused me to open the Decameron, in this time of lockdown, only to be immediately confronted by a description of the plague in Florence.

And so Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate, concludes, with a final complex whirl through some of the galaxies of myth and literary history, ending at the coastline, the turquoise Sea of Marmara that divides Europe from Asia, where ‘all the myths began’. The wandering German exile Erich Auerbach, with his heavy bags, is at the door of the ‘elaborate old mansion where the literature faculty of the University of Istanbul’ is housed. He is about to write Mimesis.