ALFRED A. KNOPF, 1999
THE ELUSIVE EMBRACE:
DESIRE AND THE RIDDLE OF IDENTITY
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR
A LOS ANGELES TIMES BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
BESTSELLER IN FRANCE (L’ÉTREINTE FUGITIVE, Flammarion 2009)
Hailed for its searing emotional insights, and for the astonishing originality with which it weaves together personal history, cultural essay, and readings of classical texts by Sophocles, Ovid, Euripides, and Sappho, The Elusive Embrace is a profound exploration of the mysteries of identity—a meditation in which the author uses his own divided life to investigate the “rich conflictedness of things,” the double lives all of us lead. In his first book, Daniel Mendelsohn recalls the deceptively quiet suburb where he grew up, torn between his mathematician father’s pursuit of scientific truth and the exquisite lies spun by his Orthodox Jewish grandfather; the streets of Manhattan’s newest gay ghetto, where “desire for love” competes with “love of desire;” and the quiet moonlit house where a close friend’s small son teaches him the meaning of fatherhood. And, finally, in a neglected Jewish cemetery, the author uncovers a family secret that reveals the universal need for storytelling, for inventing myths of the self. The book that Hilton Als called “equal to Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself.’”
PRAISE and REVIEWS
Brainy and beautiful…A meditation on the double lives all of us, to some extent, live…Mendelsohn brings an unpolemical intelligence and astonishing erudition to his task…The pleasure of this book is the pleasure of following an original mind making connections and discoveries previously unarticulated…He writes with such elegant Apollonian style and bracing honesty that even his most Dionysian recollections steer clear of self-indulgence. It’s a one-of-a-kind book—wise, startling and wonderfully unclassifiable.
The Elusive Embrace is that rare thing, a genuinely beautiful essay: a musing meditation on gay culture, on Greek language and myth, on his own family life, that is not so much written as braided.
A literary achievement of the first rank…astonishing…the book defies categorization. Mendelsohn has attained a degree of self-knowledge worthy of those ancient Greeks who inspired him. The Greeks knew how to give a universal significance to individual experience. So does Daniel Mendelsohn.
In this symphonic meditation on identity, an autobiography only for lack of a richer word, Mendelsohn uses the grammatical peculiarity of the ‘middle voice’ in Greek, which he describes as a sort of shimmering synthesis of not quite compatible conditions, as a metaphor for the levels of self within him…Mendelsohn reads himself and the widening spiral around him—of family, friends, lovers, society, culture—as a vast and complex text. Aggressively honest, deeply perceptive and quite beautiful.”
Mendelsohn’s sophisticated inquiry into homosexuality, identity, and language is so lovingly integrated into this memoir that intellectual explorations seem to be as much a part of his life as his family and lovers are…His etymological investigations and his readings of Catullus and Sappho are curiously tender, and make the memories—of a college love for a beautiful swim-team boy, for instance, or of a trickster grandfather—even more affecting.
A startling, intimate and original work…A remarkable tapestry, weaving family and personal memoir, ancient mythology, and a meditation on the meaning of self…Unapologetic, honest and revealing. Mendelsohn’s language is exquisite, and deserves to be savored, word by word, page by page.
A brilliant tale of personal discovery.