Unknown Cities: On Daniel Mendelsohn’s “Three Rings”

By Jehanne DubrowJanuary 23, 2021

Unknown Cities: On Daniel Mendelsohn’s “Three Rings”

Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate by Daniel Mendelsohn

“A STRANGER ARRIVES in an unknown city after a long voyage.” So begins Three Rings, a slender, dense book that was originally constructed as a series of three public lectures titled A Digression: Narrative Afterlives of The Odyssey, which Daniel Mendelsohn delivered at the University of Virginia in 2019. All of the text’s essential components are contained in this opening sentence: the anonymity of the exile, the strangeness of a new landscape, and the end of a difficult journey. With slight variations, this sentence appears throughout the rest of the book, Mendelsohn reminding us that the question of who is exiled depends on the particular historical moment, and on where and when we are in the world. “He could be so many people,” continues Mendelsohn, “the Spaniard or the Jew, the Muslim or the Greek”; exile is also a universal experience shared by people across eras and geographies.

And because Mendelsohn is a trained classicist, we begin — as we so often do in his books — with the Greeks, and with an impassioned close reading of text. Three Rings is divided into three sections. The first focuses on the figure of Erich Auerbach, the German Jewish philologist who wrote his most famous book, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, while he was living and teaching in Istanbul, having been removed from his position at the University of Marburg in 1936 by the Nazis. As a philologist, he was concerned with “the common connectedness of all cultures.” And while Auerbach’s project was limited by his access to resources, by the fact that the book was crafted during war and in a city without access to European studies, Mimesis draws humanistic connections across languages and nation-states to address the question of how writers represent reality on the page.

Mimesis begins with an examination of Book 19 of the Odyssey, that moment when Odysseus, returned from 20 years of war and wandering, is recognized by his childhood nursemaid Eurycleia. As she bathes the hero-in-disguise, the old woman sees the scar on Odysseus’ thigh and, in a lengthy, intricate flashback, Homer takes readers to the source of that injury. The poet shows us how Odysseus was wounded in a boar hunt decades ago, before circling deeper into memory, to the birth of the king. After this, Homer spins the narrative forward into the present. This circular structure, Mendelsohn explains, is known as ring composition:

In ring composition, the narrative appears to meander away into a digression […] although the digression, the ostensible straying, turns out in the end to be a circle, since the narration will return to the precise point in the action from which it had strayed, that return marked by the repetition of the very formulaic line or scene that had indicated the point of departure.

It is ring composition that lies at the center of Mendelsohn’s book, not only providing a title for the text but also suggesting a way to understand the experience of exile. Mendelsohn reminds us that Odysseus is often described as “polytropos; that is ‘of many turns.’” Much like its protagonist, the Odyssey is a book filled with turns, story lines that appear to meander but that finally bring the hero back to Ithaca. More importantly, Mendelsohn uses ring composition to explain the writing process itself, arguing that a writer’s journey can be circular and twisting, often spiraling through uncertainty, until a book’s form is eventually revealed to its author.

In Mimesis, Auerbach contrasts the scene of Odysseus’s scar with Genesis, the passage in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Homer leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination, using dialogue and evocative description to place us inside Odysseus’ vivid past and present. We see the hounds tracking the scent of the wild animal. We see the boar’s sharp tusk. We see the bright spear flying through the air. Conversely, the Biblical passage offers readers little insight into Abraham’s five senses, what he perceives or feels. We are shown only the bare outlines of the morning, a knife in the father’s hand as he stands above his bound son. All is ambiguity and interpretation. While “Auerbach finds the narrative inscrutability in the text of Genesis persuasively realistic,” Mendelsohn characterizes the Homeric technique as “optimistic” and the Biblical method as “pessimistic.” The former strategy is like “a brilliant light, flattening out shadows and contours, putting everything on the same level.” The latter is “densely shadowed,” demonstrating that “like God himself, creation is never knowable.”

Mendelsohn explains that he reread Mimesis during a time when he felt disoriented as a writer. After completing his acclaimed, prize-winning memoir, The Lost, Mendelsohn struggled to identify the right structure for a new manuscript, what would later become his book An Odyssey, which is about reading, teaching, and retracing the steps of Homer’s epic poem. Only once Mendelsohn employed ring composition did the pieces of the manuscript begin to fit together. And even though Mendelsohn doesn’t seem entirely convinced by Auerbach’s preference for the mysteries of Biblical narrative, he recognizes why an exile might choose the so-called pessimistic technique over the optimistic:

If the refugee German Jew found Homer’s all-illuminating device to be inconsistent with the inscrutable mechanics of real life, if he preferred the inexplicable omissions and gaps that characterize the narrative style of the Hebrew Bible, a style that refuses to reveal, as ring composition insists on doing, connections between things, inside and outside, motivations and actions, past and present, well, who could blame him?

Who indeed could blame the scholar? It’s difficult to judge Auerbach for believing that “the only remaining connectedness among cultures was a negative one: the common experience of annihilation.” In his analysis of the philologist’s work, Mendelsohn offers a powerful observation: that our notion of the real might be shaped by the era in which we find ourselves, that depending on our circumstances, our placement or displacement, we might believe a text replete with omissions and obscurities is the truest reflection of our world.

The second section of Three Rings moves from Auerbach to François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon, the 17th-century archbishop whose novel The Adventures of Telemachus led to the writer’s “catastrophic fall from grace at Versailles.” The Adventures of Telemachus is a retelling of the Odyssey and serves as a thinly disguised critique of Louis XIV; it focuses on the education of Odysseus’ son, offering lessons “on good kingship.” No wonder that Fénelon’s book resulted in his banishment from court. Shortly after its publication, he was sent to Northern France, a region the archbishop described glumly as “more Germany than France.”

And from Fénelon, we then hurry forward into the 20th century to W. G. Sebald. In the third part of the book, Mendelsohn characterizes the German writer as one who wanted to escape “a past for which he [was] not responsible but by which he [felt] tainted.” Sebald’s “claustrophobic shame” compelled him to leave his homeland and spend much of his adult life in England, writing, in elliptical books rich with silences and shadows, about the history he left behind. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, for instance, uses ring composition, though not in the Homeric way, to clarify or to cast light on every corner of recollection. Rather, as Mendelsohn explicates, Sebald’s circular narrative is “designed to confuse, entangling his characters in meanderings from which they cannot extricate themselves and which have no clear destination.” In a world post-Auschwitz, Sebald’s work “embraces a void.” His storytelling neither provides illumination of the journey nor offers a resolution. “[A]s in some version of Zeno’s paradox,” Mendelsohn explains, “no amount of writing can deliver us.”

At a crucial moment in his analysis of The Rings of Saturn, Mendelsohn connects Sebald’s novel to Penelope’s efforts to hold off the suitors in Book Two of the Odyssey:

Because weaving often features in Greek literature as a symbol for storytelling, for “plotting” (in both senses of that word), it is possible to take the story of Penelope’s tactic as a dark parable about a kind of narrative barely imaginable in the epic: about the disquieting possibility that there are stories that can have no ending, that merely spin on pointlessly. […] It is as if there, at the beginning of the Odyssey, Homer were dreaming of Sebald.

Based on Mendelsohn’s close reading, it seems likely that Erich Auerbach might have found in Sebald’s narrative the same compelling form of realism that he identified in Genesis 22, one punctured with holes and disquieting gaps.

Despite its title, Mendelsohn’s book involves a fourth ring, that of his circular journey as a writer. Perplexed and disoriented by the uncooperative draft of An Odyssey, he looks to the models provided by Auerbach, Fénelon, and Sebald. He finds in them the common experiences of exiles — separated from their home cultures, removed from familiar landmarks and people — but also a concern with nonlinear narrative structures. In many ways, Three Rings reads like a natural extension of the work Mendelsohn has done throughout his career, writing books that have so often contained journeys. The Elusive Embrace begins notably with a winding walk from the author’s front door on New York’s Eighth Avenue, which Mendelsohn calls “the Main Street of the gayest enclave of the gayest city in the world.” And The Lost can be seen as a passage through the geography of the Shoah; the text was a tremendous literary achievement and, if we trust the account offered in Three Rings, its completion left Mendelsohn feeling lost, exiled from his voice. Mendelsohn links his terror of small spaces to the holes and enclosures in which several of his relatives hid during the Shoah, underscoring that inherited trauma is also a narrative ring that loops through the generations.

The war refugee escaping persecution. The political critic banished by an aggrieved ruler. The self-imposed exile who can’t get away from his homeland’s genocidal history. As a Jew, as a gay man, as an intellectual in a country that increasingly disdains the intellect, Mendelsohn demonstrates a kind of fellow feeling for these outcasts. But, as we face climate change and the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world, shouldn’t we all be asking if we might become the next exiles? Expelled from our homes and from own identities, what texts will we select as the most “realistic” forms of representation? Like Auerbach, perhaps we will connect with the story of Abraham, a story made powerful by what it omits. Or maybe we will come to believe that it’s the abundant, carefully drawn world of Homer that most accurately reflects our reality. Or maybe Auerbach’s binary no longer serves, our lives now a mixture of obscurity and bright clarity, a curving, bounded landscape that leads us back to ourselves.


Jehanne Dubrow is the author of nine poetry collections and a book of creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in PoetryNew England Review, and The Southern Review. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.

LARB Contributor

Jehanne Dubrow is the author of seven poetry collections and a book of creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Poetry, New England Review, and The Southern Review. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas. Photo by Cedric Terrel.


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