In keeping with my recent grammar–centric posts, this piece was initially going to be about long sentences. While researching a possible angle, I poured over celebrated sentences from Faulkner, Woolf, David Foster Wallace, sentences that span paragraphs, winding through all the light and dark spaces these writers inhabited. These are epic sentences, I thought, and their scale immediately transported me to the months I spent teaching The Odyssey in my 9th grade English classes.
Every year I taught, I opened our Odyssey unit with the same joke. On that first day, usually in the beginning of December when the Boston winter was starting to arrive in earnest, I lay my increasingly fragmented copy of The Odyssey onto the desk in front of me. Each year, the spine of my book deteriorated, chunks of pages slipping from the binding. With the epic in pieces in front of me, I addressed the class, “Our study of The Odyssey will be an odyssey in and of itself.” When I made this joke for a fifth consecutive year, listening to the exaggerated laughs of the handful of students who thought humoring me would earn them an ‘A,’ I realized that I was becoming a caricature of myself.
I embarked on a different sort of odyssey, trying to tie Homer’s epic verses to the allure of long sentences. With Google, one simple search can turn into a ten-year-journey home. Eventually, I landed on a personal essay in the most recent New Yorker, “A Father’s Final Odyssey,” by Daniel Mendelsohn, a classics scholar and award-winning memoirist. In the piece, Mendelsohn recounts his elderly father’s participation in a college seminar he taught on The Odyssey and an eventual trip the two took retracing Odysseus’ famed route on a Mediterranean cruise. Over the course of this seminar and their journey, Mendelsohn comes to see his father through a new lens, one their shared study of The Odyssey affords him. The essay spans the last year of his father’s life, the subject of Mendelsohn’s new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, which will be published in September.
Alongside The Odyssey on my 9th grade syllabus was Jane Eyre. Somehow, after winding our way through Odysseus’ journey, we found ourselves in 19th century England. I needed help with this leap.
Jane Eyre was my mother’s favorite book. She had read it annually, her hardcover copy braced against her knees on a beach chair, while I spent my summers tearing through glossy Tom Clancy novels about spies and submarines and atomic bombs. I didn’t read Jane Eyre until the week before I was supposed to teach it to my 9th grade classes. In spite of the book being my mother’s favorite, I had harbored some absurd belief, still at twenty-three, that there were girl books and boy books. BOY BOOK: Hemmingway, war, bull fighting, muscular prose. GIRL BOOK: Bronte sisters, Victorian romance, flowery prose. I don’t know why I had let this ridiculous bias affect what I chose to read.
I fell for Jane Eyre immediately. I remember, after my first read, calling my mother to tell her – I get it now – before gushing about the language, the Gothic setting, the haunted feel of Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield, the shadowy fog that hangs off every page. She pointed me to some of her favorite lines, passages that have become my favorite too, like Rochester’s description of the pain of parting with Jane.
I have a strange feeling with regard to you. As if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you. And if you were to leave I’m afraid that cord of communion would snap. And I have a notion that I’d take to bleeding inwardly.
I used the echoes of my conversations with my mother in my teaching. Together, we tackled how Jane uses the little agency she has to strive for some control in a world aligned to subjugate and diminish her. We discussed Bronte’s stated goal, to create a heroine unremarkable for her physical beauty, and how I would approach this aim in class. Teaching Jane Eyre became a highlight every year.
I remember, over the phone, my mother intoning lines from the novel, the iconic, reader I married him, punctuating our conversations about her favorite book, conversations she had waited twenty-three years to have with me. Jane Eyre became a cord between us, a shared love, something to return to when everything else seemed in flux.
After my mother died, my sister began the gargantuan task of distributing her books. There are too many to imagine. They teetered in stacks next to our parents’ bed, on the counter of her bathroom sink, next to her favorite chair in the family room. She had amassed a library, spending many of her quiet moments with a novel shading her face.
I sat cross-legged at the foot of our parents’ bed while my sister put books into piles. The first one she handed to me was our mother’s copy of Jane Eyre. I recognized it immediately, even though all I saw was the dark spine, the book’s jacket discarded years ago.
My mother’s name isn’t in the front cover. There are no notes in the margins, dog-eared pages, or highlighted passages. There are no secret messages buried in our favorite scenes.
But it’s enough. It’s enough to hold this book we shared, to hear the binding crack when I cradle it in my hands.
Image via Pinterest.
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café Américain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.