Early in The Dawn Watch (Penguin Press, $30), Maya Jasanoff‘s multi-faceted and beautifully written biography of Joseph Conrad, the award-winning historian throws out the arresting proposition that “history is like therapy for the present: it makes it talk about its parents.” Heart of Darkness alone would qualify Conrad as one parent of the globalized 21st century, and Jasanoff views his life and writing through his main themes —nationalism, imperialism, capitalism, and immigration. Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, was bound in the currents of history from the start. His parents were Polish nationalists fighting to free their homeland from Russia. They were sent to Ukraine for their efforts and both had died by the time Conrad was eleven. Virtually stateless and already distrustful of nationalism, Conrad went to sea. He loved sailing, and his many sea tales celebrate its special culture of “craft.” But he hated the crass steamship era that followed, and “instead of going into steam,” Jasanoff says, he “became a writer.” He wrote about his experiences as an exile and an immigrant, and Jasanoff brilliantly traces the genesis of his fiction, documenting the 1880s attacks on Britain by Fenian freedom fighters (who “wrote the script for modern terrorism”) that Conrad transformed into The Secret Agent; parallels Conrad’s outrage—indeed, his horror—at King Leopold’s Congo Free State with his depiction of it in Heart of Darkness (written in just seven weeks); and tracks the shift from British to American world dominance that Conrad captured in his most ambitious, and most prescient novel, Nostromo. “A tale of progress and its discontents,” the novel offered happy endings only to a steamship captain, a financier, and a railroad entrepreneur: “globalism’s three fates,” as Jasanoff memorably puts it.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume epic, My Struggle, astonished us with its brutal candor and self- awareness. It primarily centered on the author’s painful relationship with his father. By contrast, Autumn (Penguin Press, $27) is a slender book with beautiful illustrations by Norwegian artist Vanessa Baird. It is the first in a projected quartet, and gives us Knausgaard as a tender father speaking to his unborn daughter about everyday objects. His descriptions run about two-and-a-half pages in length, and flow in a seemingly random cascade, on subjects as diverse as doors, porpoises, vomit, and labia; buttons, apples, and chewing gum. “It is primarily for my own sake that I am doing this,” he writes, “showing you the world, little one, makes my life worth living.” In one piece he writes of a family photograph where everything about the lives has been stripped away so that what remains is “what we ourselves don’t see… that our lives are written in our faces and our bodies, but in a language so foreign we don’t even know it is a language.” Knausgaard’s perspective is compelling and razor sharp, and as in My Struggle, he makes the ordinary feel vivid again, and strange.
In the spring of 2011, Daniel Mendelsohn, a professor of classics at Bard College, taught one of his most challenging students: his father, eighty-one-year-old Jay Mendelsohn, a retired mathematician. Mendelsohn père, a man always bothered by things left half-done, joined the class to continue his long-interrupted study of the classics. He proved to be an uncompromising student, always ready to speak up, and also always ready to listen. He charmed his fellow students, making it a lively, indeed, unforgettable semester. His son’s engaging memoir, An Odyssey (Knopf, $26.95), includes many of the discussions from Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer, along with background on the epic, etymologies of key words, profiles of the characters, and an appreciation of Homer’s narrative strategies, including his use of ring composition, a series of stories that seem to wander but in fact know exactly where they are going. Mendelsohn himself employs such loops, intercutting the course’s linear progress through Homer’s poem with a series of memories, family stories, the “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise he and his father took, and reflections on his father’s final months. An Odyssey is an illuminating work of literary criticism that makes Homer’s masterpiece not just admirable but truly urgent and exciting. Mendelsohn draws on Homer’s timeless insight into fathers and sons for his evolving understanding of his own father, a man who had always stumped him, and who, with Homer’s help, teaches Mendelsohn more than he expected.