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Three Rings

A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate
Daniel Mendelsohn

BUY Cloth · 128 pp. · 5 × 8 · ISBN 9780813944661 · $19.95 · Sep 2020
BUY Ebook · 128 pp. · ISBN 9780813944678 · $19.95 · Sep 2020

In this genre-defying book, best-selling memoirist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn explores the mysterious links between the randomness of the lives we lead and the artfulness of the stories we tell.

Combining memoir, biography, history, and literary criticism, Three Rings weaves together the stories of three exiled writers who turned to the classics of the past to create masterpieces of their own—works that pondered the nature of narrative itself. Erich Auerbach, the Jewish philologist who fled Hitler’s Germany and wrote his classic study of Western literature, Mimesis, in Istanbul... François Fénelon, the seventeenth-century French archbishop whose ingenious sequel to the Odyssey, The Adventures of Telemachus—a veiled critique of the Sun King and the best-selling book in Europe for one hundred years—resulted in his banishment... and the German novelist W. G. Sebald, self-exiled to England, whose distinctively meandering narratives explore Odyssean themes of displacement, nostalgia, and separation from home.

Intertwined with these tales of exile and artistic crisis is an account of Mendelsohn’s struggles to write two of his own books—a family saga of the Holocaust and a memoir about reading the Odyssey with his elderly father—that are haunted by tales of oppression and wandering. As Three Rings moves to its startling conclusion, a climactic revelation about the way in which the lives of its three heroes were linked across borders, languages, and centuries forces the reader to reconsider the relationship between narrative and history, art and life.


Classicist, historian, memoirist, cultural critic, wit—with consummate skill and the sharp, sympathetic eye of the poet, Daniel Mendelsohn brilliantly combines these roles. Three Rings is a masterly exegesis and demonstration of digression as a high art.

Joyce Carol Oates

Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings is erudition, essayism, and memoir, made to dance together like a visible clockworks—or literary scholarship such as Ricky Jay might have practiced it onstage. This little book is ruminative, humane, and gorgeously precise.

Jonathan Lethem

An astounding Borgesian document of clarity and brilliance. A book about telling stories that wanders down the seeming two roads of the Hebrew tradition and the classical, which, like Proust’s two ways, might turn out to be one way after all. Three Rings has the keeled force of a long poem.

Sebastian Barry

Three Rings is a marvel, confirming Mendelsohn's position as one of the most important and original American writers of our time. Mendelsohn does something more commonly found in the most ingenious writers of fiction; his thought-provoking examination of  the reworking of stories of wandering and exile, beginning with Homer, ending with Sebald, makes this exceptional work indispensable at a time when it is no longer possible to say "It couldn't happen here, now, again."

Helen DeWitt

This luminous narrative, in which the tales of each of Mendelsohn’s three chosen exiled writers appealingly intertwine, is about many things—memory, literature, family, immigration, and religion—and it ends where it began, with a "wanderer" entering "an unknown city after a long voyage."

This slender, exquisite book rewards on many levels.

Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Mendelsohn’s talent with descriptive detail brings his work alive, such as repeated descriptions of Auerbach, while exiled in Istanbul, gazing through a palace window over the turquoise Sea of Marmara. Mendelsohn never fails to entertain as he takes the reader across thousands of years’ worth of literature and lives.

Publishers Weekly

This essay ought to become a beloved handbook for writing Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm was in its time.... [Mendelsohn] performs [the ring method] with a piece of fabulist writing which is a thrilling new mode in a career made of dramatic shifts in register, from fire breathing reviewer to meditative memoirist on desire (The Elusive Embrace, to mournful Sebaldian archivist in the face of the Holocaust (The Lost).... The ring structure allows him to be all things at once. The way this book feels so expansive in a space so small, you don’t even have to ask if the ring structure applies to things other than writing.

Literary Hub

Contained in the interwoven circles of this slim, labyrinthine book is a vision that encompasses the world. Part dirge, part memoir, part exegesis, all rhapsody -- Mendelsohn's anatomy of literature's subtlest pleasures is itself that subtlest of literary pleasures: a masterpiece.

Ayad Akhtar, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Homeland Elegies

'Three Rings,' a short but profoundly moving work, clings with the same tenacity to a belief in the regenerative power of literature. Companionably and creatively, it reaches back through eras of wars and plagues and cataclysms to offer readers a reassuringly long view of the vigor of the 'Odyssey,' the book that launched a thousand books.

Wall Street Journal

Memoirist and critic (and T&C contributor) Daniel Mendelsohn takes an erudite approach to the writer's dilemma in this new book, which examines the lives and work of three of history's greatest authors as well as Mendelsohn's own experience with a life of letters.

Town & Country

In his supple, slender book Mendelsohn links three exiled writers... [he] ingeniously turns his straying into the end of the circle, the point from which it had strayed. More than a master class in literary analysis, Three Rings is Mendelsohn’s distinctive, genre-defying inspiration.

National Book Review

To read Three Rings is like spend­ing a few hours with a bril­liant, cap­ti­vat­ing con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist whose ardor for his sub­jects is con­ta­gious. It’s an intel­lec­tu­al adven­ture, and a bril­liant achievement. "

Jewish Book Council

About the Author(s): 

Daniel Mendelsohn is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, where he is Editor-at-Large. His books include the memoirs An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic and The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million as well as three collections of essays and criticism, most recently Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones. He teaches literature at Bard College.

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