You are here

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

Prix du Meilleur Livre étranger - essais, Prix de Meilleur (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

As always, the author’s voice blends authority with considerable warmth and charm, luring readers into his complex intellectual enthusiasms. Mr. Mendelsohn has honed a prose style that is nuanced yet clear, without a hint of pedantry, and one is always glad to learn what he has to teach.... Three Rings, a short but profoundly moving work, clings with tenacity to a belief in the regenerative power of literature.

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."

The National Review of Books ("Hot Books of the Week")

This slim vol­ume swirls with Daniel Mendelsohn’s sub­lime reflec­tions on his­to­ry, archi­tec­ture, religion, the­ater, lit­er­a­ture, schol­ar­ship, and on his own life. To read it 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.

The Jewish Book Council Review

In book after book, he confirms his status on the cultural scene as the successor of the late lamented George Steiner.

Livres Hebdo (France)

Mendelsohn is a natural story-teller and he has managed to turn a multi-century saga of literary criticism and history into an immensely entertaining, readable, and short(!) book..if only more literary criticism (and scholarship, in general) were delivered this way, it would have a much greater audience and impact... Three Rings is a book you must read for yourself, to witness Mendelsohn as he unravels and lays bare the connections between Homer, Auerbach, Fénélon, Sebald, and others. In a way, it’s ironic that Mendelsohn relates so intimately with those who believe in the "irretrievability of the past," because for him the stories of the past are vital to understanding the present. What he transmits so magically in Three Rings is his infectious passion for learning and sharing with others.

Terry Pitts · Vertigo

Perhaps, like Mendelsohn, we love to be carried by these waves of circling narratives because they dare us to hope in this interconnectedness of things.

Literary Hub

[A] unique book... Mendelsohn holds firm to his narrative optimism as this artful book—full of its own digressions, peripheries, and doubts—wends its way to its own moving conclusion.

World Literature Today

[E}xquisite... Three Rings digresses from its digressions, whirling with elegiac elegance from the 'Odyssey,' which itself veers away from the main tale only to wind home again... Ornate and oneiric, the results are well worth circling and circling back to.

New York Times Book Review

[A] slender, dense book... Mendelsohn offers a powerful observation: that our notion of the real might be shaped by the era in which we find ourselves.

Los Angeles Review of Books

Spectacular... The reader feels the flow of a strong narrative, trusts the author’s seafaring skills and embarks on a brilliant journey.... Three Rings is a glorious celebration of multiplicity, diversity, journeys, transformations and our commonhumanity.

Times Literary Supplement

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.

Interested in this topic?
Stay updated with our newsletters:

Related Books