The Book of Daniel

10.12.2012

By Mike Albo

Why this iconoclastic writer thinks the past belongs in the past.

Photography by Elizabeth Weinberg

My plan for interviewing Daniel Mendelsohn was to start off easy-breezy. I would ask the award-winning author, essayist, and classics scholar fun things at first (“Which Greek god do you think Matt Bomer most resembles?”) just so I didn’t get in over my head.

This did not happen. Almost immediately after entering his apartment in the classy London Terrace complex in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, we were talking intensely about big subjects and personal matters -- how culture warps history to suit itself, why Susan Sontag was so closety, and the increasing complications of gay sex and the Internet.

“Look, I hook up online; I’m not superior. But it does dehumanize,” Mendelsohn says, sitting down and folding his leg under him in his chair. He is tanned, dressed casually in cargo shorts and a black polo. He sits down across from me, facing the windows. He has icy blue eyes, and the sunlight is reflected in them. “What you are doing is turning yourself into a product, and then you get treated like a product. This cannot be good for the human fabric of the so-called gay community.”

This Internetting of our sexual lives is, to Mendelsohn, just another symptom of our strange contemporary culture that wants to access, eat, or have sex with everything -- even the past. “All this Facebooky Googling stuff is part of this weird psychosis that doesn’t let the past rest. Now we have the technology of proliferation and we can maintain the past. I think the past should be in the past,” he explains.

Talking to Mendelsohn is like reading his work -- it flows easily and is always engaging. You would think such a brilliant scholar would be impenetrable, but you coast along in Mendelsohn’s work, reading about Sappho or The Iliad or Phillip Glass’s operas, and think: Why isn’t this boring to me like it was freshman year?

Mendelsohn is the author of six books, including the National Book Award–winning Holocaust memoir The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million; a translation of the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy; and, out this month, Waiting for the Barbarians, a collection of his razor-sharp essays. In them, you feel the author has hit his stride. Mendelsohn calls upon the entire breadth of human civilization to investigate every subject, even if it’s Spider-Man. He goes deep. It’s almost as if he can’t stop himself.

“I think it’s because it’s alive in him,” says his sister, Jennifer Mendelsohn, also a writer. “He knows the classics intimately. It’s so inexorably linked in his DNA -- he lives and breathes those things.”

Mendelsohn has been living in New York City most of his adult life. He moved to London Terrace in 2010 from the Upper West Side, where he had been living since 1997. He lived in Chelsea before that, in the mid-’90s, when the area had only a handful of restaurants and there was no little app called Grindr. “If you wanted to pick up cute boys, you had to actually go to a specific geographical place,” he says. “Coming back here as a middle-aged person is kind of amazing. I can barely stay up till 9:30.”

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