The Book of Daniel

10.12.2012

By Mike Albo

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

But you sense in his work (and in his apartment) not only a demand for order but a longing for visceral, blood-filled experience, the kind found in classical literature, when people didn’t shy away from pain or grief but rather let it inhabit them fully.

“He’s relentless in seeking and drawing himself to authenticity...to genuine emotion of all kinds,” says the writer Michael Joseph Gross, a friend. “He’s looking for the strongest thoughts and feelings that have been articulated -- in all times, in all kinds of places, even if it’s anger or abject sadness.”

Mendelsohn grew up in Old Bethpage, Long Island, one of five children by a mathemetician–scientist father and schoolteacher mother. His siblings include a photographer, a writer, and a physicist, as if the family was a Jewish version of a Wes Anderson film. In a profile in LA Weekly, his brother Eric Mendelsohn, a filmmaker, playfully described their upbringing this way: “We weren’t allowed to listen to rock music. I remember having ‘Free Bird’ playing on my clock radio, and when I heard people coming down the hall I shut the radio off, because we would get in trouble for listening to something other than Bruckner or ‘The Rite of Spring.’ ”

Mendelsohn remembers being obsessed with Ancient Egypt when he was a child, but by 12 he had turned his attention to the Greeks: “The Greeks are much sexier than the Egyptians. They make art out of Eros. Their mythology is full of stories about someone turning into an animal to seduce some girl.” From the age of 12 until he graduated high school, Mendelsohn was “building models of the Parthenon and trying to teach [himself] classical Greek.” Then he discovered the novels of Mary Renault, the author of The Persian Boy, The King Must Die, and other historical novels set in ancient Greece. Her books “had specifically gay stuff and gay boys loving each other, and that was electrifying.” (Mendelsohn recounts his long correspondence with the late author in a “Personal History” piece in The New Yorker, also out this month.)

At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he enrolled as a freshman in 1978, Mendelsohn finally mastered Greek (other languages, including Latin, French, Italian, German, and Spanish, have followed) and -- just as critically -- began to explore his sexuality. “I was so clueless when I went to college,” he recalls. “I had never been kissed. I didn’t know how to make contact.” His first relationship, with a fellow student named Greg, was both a revelation -- “Suddenly I got it; everything was Technicolor” -- and a disappointment. “He wasn’t particularly nice,” says Mendelsohn. “He was so mean and so unpleasant.” He remembers one party they attended where he felt he was being shown off as a conquest. This was before 1982, before AIDS had been codified. “I had sex once,” he recalls. “And I hate to say it, but it probably saved my life. All the guys that were at the party are now dead” -- including Greg, who died in 1988. He described this first encounter in The Elusive Embrace. The passage is affecting, and still resonates as a defining moment for him:

“There is no gay man of my generation whose first experience of desire was not a kind of affliction, that did not teach us to associate longing with shame. No matter how long ago, how many times superseded by other, more successful loves, that primal experience brands us.”

When he writes a review or piece of criticism of his contemporaries, Mendelsohn explained to me, he tries to write “as if [the author] were dead for 2,000 years.” In conversation that day, and in his work, he often uses this bracket of time. It seems to be the minimum number of years that need to elapse for history to achieve permanence and transmute to myth.

“When I was touring with The Lost, I would often have people come up to me and ask, ‘How do we keep it alive?’ ” he says with a note of exhaustion. “The Holocaust will be kept alive. Two thousand years from now, it will be a holiday, like Passover, and people will pretend to remember it. But that’s fine. That’s how culture does its work. It digests the past and uses it for the present.”

Still, Mendelsohn spent four years tracking down how and where his great-uncle Schmiel and his family were murdered by the Nazis in Eastern Europe. You get the sense that the writer wants to get things right. He wants to point out our failures in this particular moment in history, knowing that in 2,000 years, there’s a chance the events will become holidays or, worse, forgotten. And it’s that tenacity that makes him one of our most important thinkers.

“The driving impulse behind what I write is to peel back the immediacy, the in-the-momentness,” he says, his eyes looking out the window behind me. “Because you don’t know; you’re in the now.”

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