Book of Daniel | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
Pin It
Favorite

Book of Daniel 

Daniel Mendelsohn in the living room of his apartment on the Bard campus. - JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
  • Daniel Mendelsohn in the living room of his apartment on the Bard campus.


A young boy walks into a room, and his elderly relatives burst into tears. The reason—usually offered in Yiddish—is that he resembles his great-uncle Shmiel, who, along with his wife and four beautiful daughters, was killed by the Nazis.

This piece of family lore was repeated, with great displays of emotion and precious few details, throughout Daniel Mendelsohn’s childhood. After recounting it in his 1999 memoir The Elusive Embrace, the author set out to discover exactly what happened to Shmiel and his family, tracking down relatives and surviving witnesses on several continents. The resulting book, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, was a runaway bestseller, garnering literary respect while selling like hot cakes in 12 different countries.

So what do you do for an encore? When Mendelsohn isn’t writing about himself or his family, he reviews books, plays, and films for the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and other A-list periodicals. “Being a critic is what I am,” he declares on a sunny afternoon in his Bard College apartment. After spending “a solid five years” on The Lost, he decided to collect his critical writings, “to have that part of my personality between covers.” How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, forthcoming from HarperCollins, has already won praise from Publishers Weekly and Booklist.

Mendelsohn’s clearly enjoying his life. He just turned in a manuscript he’s been polishing for 10 years—a translation of C. P. Cavafy’s complete poems, to be released by Knopf in April 2009—and he’s about to fly to Capri; a packed red suitcase sits on the rug. It’s enough to swell anyone’s head, but Mendelsohn hasn’t forgotten his roots. When he finished his PhD and moved to New York in 1994, he wrote freelance magazine fluff like “Food Courts of Las Vegas.” “I lived on ramen noodles for three years. I knew every CVS that sold them for five for a dollar instead of four for a dollar.” He grins. “I am not one of those people who pretends to be blasé about having an international bestseller.”

That grin flashes often; a slightly skewed tooth lends it a Mephistophelean air. Mendelsohn’s head is neatly shaved, his light-blue eyes rendered even more striking by high, arching brows. In repose, his gaze is intense, even challenging; one senses that nothing gets past him without being noticed. He wears his erudition lightly, with a vocabulary that swoops from “meretricious” to “nutty,” sometimes in the same sentence. His coffee table displays books in several languages; his sink displays Believe in God breath spray and Oy Vey body detergent. There seem to be a lot of Daniel Mendelsohns.

This, indeed, is the theme of his extraordinary memoir. Subtitled “Desire and the Riddle of Identity,” The Elusive Embrace examines the multiple lives one person may lead, opening with “For a long time I have lived in two places.” One is the New Jersey suburb where Mendelsohn lives part-time with a woman and child while teaching classics at Princeton. The other is a studio apartment near Chelsea’s “gay ghetto,” the epicenter of a cruising life he describes with startling frankness.

Mendelsohn’s route to fatherhood was nontraditional. In 1996, when a friend was unpartnered and pregnant, he went with her to the delivery room. The depth of his bond with her son astonished him. He started staying with them several nights a week, at first because it was close to his teaching job, later because it was part of the complex geography of “home.” Four years later, she adopted a second son; Mendelsohn calls the boys, in print and in person, “my kids.”

Since that time, “home” has expanded to a third address, at Bard, not to mention a plethora of hotels. “It’s easy to get caught up in this endless schlepping around promoting your book,” he says. At one point Mendelsohn flew to France four times in three months. “I’m huge in France,” adding, “There’s a different response in Europe because it happened in Europe. People come up to you afterwards and tell their stories, their family’s stories. It’s not theoretical.”

His own family’s response to The Lost was “very emotional.” Mendelsohn’s four siblings joined him on many research trips to Eastern European villages and to Auschwitz; his brother Matt’s photographs appear throughout the book. “My mother had the hardest time—she had nightmares every night.” (Marlene Mendelsohn’s only request as her son wrote the manuscript was a plaintive “Did you put that I had nice legs?”) Publication was “a big thrill for everyone,” Mendelsohn says. “My father’s so cute—every day he checks my Amazon rating. This is two years after the book came out.”

Speaking of...

  • Soul Music at the Woodstock Bookfest
  • Soul Music at the Woodstock Bookfest

    Our correspondent's report from the Woodstock Bookfest, which took place this past weekend (April 27-30), at locations around Woodstock.
    • May 3, 2017
  • Short Takes
  • Short Takes

    January marks the start of a new year‚ calling to mind change and reflection. These selections explore the passing of time.
    • Jan 1, 2017
  • On the Cover: Laura Battle
  • On the Cover: Laura Battle

    Laura Battle's drawing Antonyms .
    • Oct 1, 2016
  • More »
Pin It
Favorite

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

Hudson Valley Events

submit event
Monica Bill Barnes & Company @ PS21: Performance Spaces for the 21st Century

Monica Bill Barnes & Company

Fri., Aug. 18, 8-10 p.m. and Sat., Aug. 19, 8-10 p.m. — With wit and heart, Monica Bill Barnes & Company create and produce...

Valley Artisans Market Seconds Sale

Sat., Aug. 19 and Sun., Aug. 20 — Pottery Seconds, Overstock and Experimental Work Sale: customers will find outstanding bargains...

View all of today's events

Latest in Books & Authors

  • Book Review: The Dark Dark: Stories
  • Book Review: The Dark Dark: Stories

    Carolyn Quimby reviews Samantha Hunt's The Dark Dark: Stories.
    • Aug 1, 2017
  • Jonathan Lerner: Memoirs of a Revolution
  • Jonathan Lerner: Memoirs of a Revolution

    Sparrow interviews ex-Weatherman Jonathan Lerner about his new memoir detailing his days as a young, gay activist in the clandestine radical group the Weather Underground in the 1960s and '70s.
    • Aug 1, 2017
  • Short Takes: August 2017
  • Short Takes: August 2017

    Short reviews of Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, Who Did You Say the Father Was?, Mad Monk: Improper Parables, The Suffragents, and Savage Joy.
    • Aug 1, 2017
  • More »

More by Nina Shengold

Hudson Valley Tweets