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The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity Paperback – June 20, 2000

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

When Daniel Mendelsohn was growing up, he "secretly imagined a place where all the people were other boys, and where all the stores and books and songs and movies and restaurants were by boys, about other boys. It would be a place where somehow the outside reality of the world that met your eyes and ears could finally be made to match the inner, hidden reality of what you knew yourself to be." And while he's found that place in Manhattan's Chelsea district, Mendelsohn has only one foot there--his other foot is in suburban New Jersey, where he acts as a masculine role model ("not exactly a father but a man who would be present") to the young son of a close friend. The Elusive Embrace is an elegantly written memoir that shifts effortlessly between these locales, and between the events in Mendelsohn's life and the Greek and Roman classics that are his academic specialty. Whether he's elaborating upon his earliest explorations of his sexuality or teasing out the secrets that redefine his family history, he writes with admirable grace and delicacy. --Ron Hogan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Weaving philosophical musings and discussions of Greek myths and drama with his personal experiences, Mendelsohn explores issues of identity, sexuality, fatherhood, family and history in five essays that amount to an idiosyncratic memoir. A lecturer in classics at Princeton whose literary criticism has appeared in the New Yorker and Out, he aims to understand the apparent contradictions of his life as a single gay man and a father figure to a friend's son, and as a critic and consumer of gay culture who lives amidst yet apart from his Jewish immigrant family's heterosexuality. Despite his ambition, however, Mendelsohn doesn't entirely hit his mark. The book is flawed by a style that aims to be elegantly elaborateAone sentence is 404 words longAbut comes across as pretentious (as when he employs "necropolis" instead of "cemetery" for little reason). His use of Greek myths is neither original nor insightful; a three-page sketch of the story of Antigone feels like filler. More problematic, however, is Mendelsohn's tendency not simply to generalize but to universalize from his own experience. He makes such dubious claims as this: "when men have sex with a woman they fall 'into' the woman... gay men fall through their partners back into themselves." He also frequently speaks unreflectively of all gay men as a single group, undercutting his credibility as a social observer and critic. In the end, his intense focus on the primacy of his experience and the lack of social and historical context diminishes the resonance his own experience might have for others.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage Books Ed edition (June 20, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375706976
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375706974
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,029,910 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Daniel Mendelsohn, an award-winning author, critic, and translator, is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Born on Long Island, he began a career in journalism in New York City in the early 1990s while completing his Ph.D. in Classics at Princeton. Since then, his articles, essays, reviews and translations have appeared frequently in numerous national publications, including The New York Times, Esquire, Newsweek, The Paris Review, and Travel + Leisure, where he is a contributing editor. From 2000 until 2002, he was the weekly book critic for New York magazine, for which he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Excellence in Criticism.

His books include a memoir, "The Elusive Embrace" (1999), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year; the international bestseller "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million" (2006), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Jewish Book Award, the Salon Book Award, and many other honors in the US and abroad, including the Prix Médicis in France; two collection of his essays and criticism, "How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken" (2008), a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, and "Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture" (2012); and an acclaimed two-volume translation, with Introduction and Commentary, of the Complete Poems of the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (2009), also a Publisher Weekly Best Book of the Year, which was published in 2012 as a single-volume paperback.

Daniel Mendelsohn was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012; he is also a member of the American Philosophical Society. Other honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the George Jean Nathan Prize for Dramatic Criticism. A longtime resident of New York City, he teaches literature at Bard College.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Allen Smalling TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 6, 2000
Format: Paperback
The Elusive Embrace was well written but was it worth it? This is a memory piece by a fortyish gay male who interweaves his Jewish family's history, his sexual life in New York's Chelsea district, his reminiscences of sexual coming-of-age as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia (the least graphic, and probably the most beautiful and evocative prose), and Greek mythology, at which, as a classics prof, he is expert (useful, but pedantic).
Having achieved a sort of stellar lifestyle compromise--lectureship at Princeton, sexual freedom in Manhattan, and a close relationship mentoring a baby to whom he is almost but not quite a father figure--we wonder why Mendelsohn felt compelled to write about it.
As the song goes, the author is "his own special creation." I guess all gay men are. I have a feeling, though, that Mendelsohn's life story was highly edited to make it more acceptable to a gay readership. We don't hear about what it's like teaching at an Ivy League school, and only passing reference is made to the author's heterosexual experience, or to his life as a graduate student. His life emerges as a coherent work with an awful lot of thimble-rigging, string-pulling and myth-quoting--more than would have been necessary in a more straightforward account. I agree with the earlier reviewer who said the author bit off more than he could chew. Beautifully written, but not too satisfying.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By I. Sondel VINE VOICE on January 18, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
At first I was intimidated by the customer reviews that made mention of the author's use of classical references as I am not classically educated and often find such references pretentious. However, I am happy to report that Mr. Mendelsohn's work is compelling and always easy to follow.

"The Elusive Emrace" is equal parts memoir and essay, filled with keen observations and poignant scenes from his life. I was especially moved by those involving his god son Nicholas, and the final sections dealing with ancient family secrets and myths. His prose is beautiful, and his ideas about the duplicity of identity, how we are all many things at once, are succinctly articulated.

I highly recommend this book, though I do have one caveat. On page 82 (of the paperback) the author notes that all the happy gay couples he knows have sex outside of their relationsips. He follows this observation with the gross generalization: "This is a fact of gay life." It may be a fact for some gay couples, but certainly not all. It sounds like the author is trying to justify his own suspect promiscuity by proclaiming it to be the norm. I would advise him to reference his own comments from page 38: "Knowledge may make you aware that the certainties of others are often more convenient than true, allowing those who hold them to live a coherent and sensible life, allowing their choices and their ideologies to make a kind of sense."
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Robuck on June 16, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Although the premises of Mendelsohn's fragmentary and redundant essays are always compelling, the style of this book is like reading through a haze of canvas. Some of the ideas explored involve the bipolarity of identity itself (people are and are not what they project synchronistically, partly because they cannot 'see' themselves in action -- only through interpretation); the identity of masculinity is and is not synchronistically a projection of ourselves and what we perceive as ideal masculinity (narcissism); Greek and Latin texts give us a clearer insight than any contemporary psychological treastise; fatherhood -- what males can produce and how the father was produced -- is the ultimate laboratory for masculinity. Mendelsohn's book is swamped in subjective assumptions and perceptions, which asks the reader to accept quite a lot from a total stranger. Also, Mendelsohn's love life is truly too boring and mundane as a foundation for much of anything, let alone the eye-opening discoveries that he wishes us to accept ("And then I went home with another beautiful young man...."). Written in a style that would put Henry James or Marcel Proust to sleep, the book would have made a far better essay for 'The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review,' rather than 200 pages of theory.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 7, 1999
Format: Hardcover
The author melodramatically and unrealistically describes certain events and people of his past. For example, in pp.179-181, he depicts the gay Southerners who attend parties and make out at the "Big House" as if they were hothouse highborns doomed by their decadence to gruesome deaths. "Only I survived," he writes on page 181, "I and the tall boy from the famous Richmond family." How romantic that only the author and his love interest survived. But wait a minute, only TWO survivors from this series of parties? And no women, besides the hostess, were ever in attendance? The more you consider these scenes, the more implausible you realize they are. You expect better effort than this from a Princeton lecturer who earlier in the book slights his own grandfather for employing explanations "filled with high emotion and low motives," and who purportedly attempts to construct a narrative that examines the riddle of identity.
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