Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Nar­ra­tive, and Fate

  • Review
By – September 10, 2020

What makes a good sto­ry? Daniel Mendel­sohn agrees with Aris­to­tle: it’s not a series of events retold in the order in which they occurred. Great epics like the Odyssey repeat­ed­ly digress, adding many rumi­na­tions and details before com­ing back to the plot.

In Three Rings, Mendel­sohn finds that pat­tern in life as well as in lit­er­a­ture, specif­i­cal­ly with three exiled writ­ers. One is the schol­ar Erich Auer­bach, a Ger­man Jew who in 1936 found refuge at a uni­ver­si­ty in Istan­bul. His mas­ter­work of com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture, Mime­sis, express­es doubts about the abil­i­ty of the detail-sat­u­rat­ed style of the Greek epics to rep­re­sent real­i­ty com­pared to the spare style of the Hebrew Bible.

A few cen­turies ear­li­er, the French priest François Fénélon jux­ta­posed the Odyssey with Chris­tian­i­ty, offer­ing moral instruc­tion to Catholic chil­dren through adven­ture sto­ries he invent­ed about Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. Those sto­ries jump off from, and final­ly return to, a spe­cif­ic point in the Odysseys nar­ra­tive, almost as if Fénélon’s Telemachus tales had been a long digres­sion by Homer himself.

Fénélon was exiled because his sto­ries offend­ed France’s king. He, too, had a con­nec­tion with Istan­bul, where the adven­tures of Telemachus became the most famous French book in the Ottoman Empire, even more so when it was trans­lat­ed into Turkish.

The third fig­ure, W. G. Sebald, grew up in Ger­many in the post­war years. As a young man he vol­un­tar­i­ly exiled him­self to Nor­wich, Eng­land. One of his impres­sion­is­tic books was in fact called The Emi­grants, but Mendel­sohn is more tak­en with The Rings of Sat­urn, rings” being also a way of describ­ing lit­er­ary digres­sions which cir­cle back to the point where they began, as did Fénélon’s Telemachus sto­ries. Such rings bind togeth­er these three exiles.

Mar­cel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time makes men­tion of Fénélon’s The Adven­tures of Telemachus. Daniel Mendel­sohn sees Proust’s 4,000-page mas­ter­piece itself as a fan­tas­ti­cal­ly elab­o­rat­ed series of nar­ra­tions and digres­sions.” Proust’s rings” may be the most intri­cate illus­tra­tion of how ideas, his­to­ry, and lit­er­a­ture are inter­re­lat­ed. In his uni­verse, coin­ci­dences are a sign of order, not ran­dom chance.

Ring” com­po­si­tion, writes Mendel­sohn, can give you the sense that there is a pro­found, almost super­nat­ur­al con­nect­ed­ness between events.” A search for con­nect­ed­ness can be found in much of his own writ­ing, start­ing with his ear­ly mem­oir, The Elu­sive Embrace. He makes new, unex­pect­ed con­nec­tions with his eighty-one-year-old father as they study Homer togeth­er in the more recent mem­oir, An Odyssey. In The Lost, he trav­els to East­ern Europe to con­nect with his forebears.

This slim vol­ume swirls with Daniel Mendelsohn’s sub­lime reflec­tions on his­to­ry, archi­tec­ture, reli­gion, the­ater, lit­er­a­ture, schol­ar­ship, and on his own life. To read it is like spend­ing a few hours with a bril­liant, cap­ti­vat­ing con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist whose ardor for his sub­jects is con­ta­gious. It’s an intel­lec­tu­al adven­ture, and a bril­liant achievement.

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