Thu, Apr 14, 2016 - Page 11 News List

Book review: Fragments of war

Christopher Logue’s poems based on Homer’s extremely violent the ‘Iliad’ are an achievement of quirky material and verbal intensity

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

WAR MUSIC: An Account of Homer’s Iliad, by Christopher Logue.

Christopher Logue, who died in 2011, but had been afflicted by dementia since 2005, was a British journalist and poet. He was closely involved with the founding of the satirical weekly Private Eye (still going strong), and was the first poet to issue his poems on posters, subsequently fly-posted around the city.

In the second half of his life, however, he became more classically inclined, and he began to issue poems based on Homer’s Iliad under the general title War Music. The plan was eventually to cover the whole poem, but Logue never lived to complete it. So what we have now is all his work on the project collected into one volume — the completed parts, some additional fragments, and his notes. Incomplete as it is, War Music has been widely hailed as among the 20th century’s greatest verse epics.

What’s it like? Well, the first thing to say is that it isn’t a straightforward translation. Logue couldn’t read classical Greek, but then nor could Keats. Then there are references to modern wars, and a great deal of slang and colloquial speech not normally associated with Homeric heroes. But it’s gripping from the very start, and never lets up. Its hallmarks are indeed its verbal intensity and its pervasive violence. Logue, who’d been in World War II, was a committed pacifist, and, like all wars, this one is no laughing matter.

This, in other words, is a rough and ready version, though apparently endlessly polished and revised. It’s paint thrown at a canvas rather than meticulously applied. The result is hyper-real, combining extreme savagery of battle with giggling gods awaiting their next offering of a thousand slaughtered oxen.

Publication Notes

WAR MUSIC: An Account of Homer’s Iliad

By Christopher Logue

341 pages


hardback: UK

As for colloquialisms, you have phrases like “Not as per usual”, “Hold on,” and (referring to Diomed, a Greek warrior) “Not your day, Dio, not your day.” There are references to “quadrophonic ox-horns”, “blood like a car-wash” and “power-station outflow cables,” and there’s a character called Bubblegum.

Someone else has had 50 stitches on his face and now has a scar you could “strike a match on.” Achilles has redcurrant-colored hair, Hector is 267cm tall and Agamemnon says “Never forget that we are born to kill.”

Slightly more soberly, someone’s breasts were so lovely they envied each other, arrows pass “close as a layer of paint,” the dead when you tread on them “sigh and ooze like moss,” something happens “as fast as a viper over bathroom tiles” and you spurn vampires with garlic, but “ignorance with thought.”

And then there are the gods. They speak in terms like these: “Darling daddy, here we are.” “How do I look?” “Who cares a toss?” “They put it out in color. Right?” “Try not to play the thankless bitch,” and “I had her half an hour before she reached the altar rails. Quite a day.” The goddess Aphrodite wears snakeskin flip-flops, and others use wrinkle cream.

As for modern references, you have Okinawa, Stalingrad, Iwo Jima, dry ice, nectarine jelly, binoculars, “300,000 tons of aircraft carrier” and things as numerous as “microphones on politicians’ stands.”

How much did Logue complete? The story of the Iliad is, very briefly, that Achilles argues with the Greek leader, Agamemnon, over access to a war-bride and refuses to carry on fighting. He only relents when his comrade Patroclus is killed. Then he goes out and kills Hector, Troy’s top warrior and King Priam’s son, and drags his body through the dirt round the city walls. Priam comes to Achilles and begs for his son’s body, which Achilles gives him. Interestingly, the story of the wooden horse doesn’t appear in the Iliad.

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