Earlier this year, following a period of editorial turmoil that culminated in the abrupt departure of Silvers’s successor, Ian Buruma, the Review announced that Mendelsohn would fill the new role of editor-at-large alongside co-editors Emily Greenhouse and Gabriel Winslow-Yost. The appointment seems shrewd. Pitched in age between Silvers and the 30-something co-editors, Mendelsohn, who has contributed to the Review for almost 20 years, can presumably bridge consciousness during this time of change; respectful of the past but forward-looking, he will, it’s hoped, shepherd the Review into another half-century of intellectual combat.
What bodes well for the Review is that Mendelsohn is surely a writer who (meeting his own standards) probably knows more than most. His third essay collection, “Ecstasy and Terror,” is a master class in criticism, a rangy, perspicacious, occasionally spiky excursion into cultures both ancient and contemporary. His breadth of reference is characteristically formidable – “From the Greeks to Game of Thrones” (the book’s subtitle), “from Corneille to ‘The Crown’ ” – and put to good use. He knows that a well-chosen example, especially one that collapses traditional distinctions between high and popular culture, can be erudite, authoritative, even cool, all at once. There are dozens here. But they always feel earned; he’s done the hard work. To read Mendelsohn is to gain a synoptic view of a subject, whether it’s the novels of Ingmar Bergman, “the Sappho wars” or the unexpected relationship between robots and Homer.
His classical education, everywhere present, is perhaps most effective in his explanation of the enduring cultural weight of JFK’s assassination. “Athenian drama returns obsessively,” he writes, “to the shocking and yet seemingly inevitable spectacle of a fallen king; of power and beauty and privilege violently laid low. Many tragic plots, moreover, revolve around the ramifications of family curses, of ‘original sins’ committed by a patriarch that come back to haunt later, innocent generations.” His ability to interleave aesthetic with lived social experience gives Mendelsohn’s writing great richness.
This technique, of reading life literarily, is also a key feature of “An Odyssey,” his 2017 memoir of the semester his father spent attending his Homer classes and the Greek cruise they went on afterward. Homer’s lessons are life lessons; Mendelsohn their adept teacher. As we learn, Homer structures these lessons distinctively – often in a discursive, circular narrative style. In turn, identifying and emulating that technique, Mendelsohn finds a particularly satisfying method of demonstrating how the past bears on the present.
In a sense, this circumambulatory approach, which Mendelsohn also puts to excellent use in his essays, is just another way of burying the lead, something the word counts offered by the Review (from which seven chapters are taken) and the New Yorker (eight) provide ample latitude for. Mendelsohn rarely opens with a straightforward assessment of the work under review, instead emulating those critics he admires who “recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments.” The examined sometimes seems like an afterthought: A takedown of Joan Breton Connelly’s argument in “The Parthenon Enigma” feels secondary to Mendelsohn’s analysis of the Parthenon’s mysteries, while you’d be forgiven for almost missing that an essay on “Brideshead Revisited” was really a review of the 2008 film.
But this is all part of his critical art. In “A Critic’s Manifesto,” Mendelsohn analyzes writers he admired as a boy to distill his key prescriptions. In Andrew Porter’s music reviews, he finds a kind of structural blueprint: “the review could be half over before he got around to talking about the performance under review. But this was the point: by the time he described what he’d seen on stage, you. . .had the background necessary to appreciate (or deprecate) the performance as he had described it.”
That being said, judgment for Mendelsohn does not always pivot on straightforward appreciation/deprecation. While there are moments of enjoyable brutality (“For all its bulk, Yanagihara’s book is, essentially, a pamphlet”), he is best at parsing tension — what he elsewhere calls, recognizing how ancient Greek grammar has influenced his thinking, “the rich conflictedness of things.” Complexity is part of the fun, and, at a time when book culture risks falling prey to the same, simplistically partisan thinking that’s laying waste to the rest of the world, Mendelsohn’s commitment to nuance makes him invaluable.
“Ecstasy and Terror” offers proof of Mendelsohn’s assertion that “criticism is its own genre . . . as creative in its way as any other.” Reading him, one is convinced utterly by the “drama” of criticism. If Mendelsohn is the sentinel of both the Review and the review, their integrity is surely secure.
Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films and music.
From the Greeks to Game of Thrones
New York Review Books. 384 pp. $18.95