There are many books in our house. They fill shelves, boxes, trunks, even drawers, and accumulate in temporary piles that can stabilise into quasi-objects of furniture for months. Occasionally, when I need to find one particular book, whereabouts unknown, the quest can become archaeological in its scope.
Today, I was looking for my copy of Heart of Darkness -- I have no idea where that has gone -- and while I was delving in a large cardboard box where I thought it might be buried I came across Christopher Logue's War Music. I instantly forgot about Conrad, and sat down to read Logue.
Over the years, I have had a lot of enthusiasms, some of which last a few weeks and fizzle out completely, while others move between the front and back of my awareness on some mysterious long-term rhythm. I lack that essential single-mindedness that marks the scholar, and am prepared to concede when I am bored with something. Most of these interests have involved the acquisition of a book or two, naturally, so a search like today's becomes a revisiting of old enthusiasms. The puzzling thing is how easy it is to forget about things that have held one's attention completely. War Music is a good example.
Christopher Logue has had a distinguished literary career, but is best known to most Brits over 40 as the man responsible for the "True Stories" and "Pseuds Corner" sections of the satirical magazine Private Eye. Somewhere back in the 1980s I was browsing the poetry shelf in a bookshop and the spine of War Music caught my attention. I hadn't known Logue was a poet, so expected something amusing. I began to read, and was immediately spell-bound.
Logue has been working on his "adaptation" of Homer's Iliad, on and off, for the last 50 years, since being asked to consider it in 1959. Since 1981, he's been publishing chunks as individual books (War Music, Kings, The Husbands, All Day Permanent Red, Cold Calls) with a cumulation of the first three also under the title War Music. It is simply magnificent, some of the most engaging writing I have ever come across.
He has brought off the difficult trick of making this ancient, familiar story of capricious gods and bloodthirsty heroes simultaneously fresh in a contemporary way and yet pleasingly strange, using anachronisms, quotations, and anything else that comes to hand. He was warned, early on, that "The Greeks are not humanistic, not Christian, not sentimental. Please try to understand that. They are musical". By Zeus, did he ever listen to that advice. This is not poetry about the pity of war.
It's hard to give the flavour of such a massive, narrative undertaking without quoting at length: his writing is something like a collaboration between Ted Hughes and John Milton. How about this:
And on the next, Ajax,
Grim underneath his tan as Rommel after 'Alamein,
Summoned the army to the common sand,
Raised his five-acre voice ...
Starred sky. Calm sky.
Only the water's luminosity
Marks the land's end.
A light is moving down the beach.
It wavers. Comes towards the fleet.
The hulls like upturned glasses made of jet.
Is it a god?
Now we can hear a drum.
There is a kind of ocean wave
Whose origin remains obscure.
Such waves are solitary, and appear
Just off the cliff-line of Antarctica
Lifting the ocean's face into the wind,
Moistening the wind that pulls, and pulls them on,
Until their height (as trees), their width
(As continents), pace that wind north for 7,000 miles.
Patroclus fought like dreaming:
His head thrown back, his mouth -- wide as a shrieking mask --
Sucked at the air to nourish his infuriated mind
And seemed to draw the Trojans onto him,
To lock them round his waist, red water, washed against his chest,
To lay their tired necks against his sword like birds.
It's gripping stuff, often brutal and lyrical in the same breath, and you'll enjoy it all the more if you know the stories of the Trojan War, and a little of the conventions of epic poetry.
But where the hell is my copy of Heart of Darkness?