Sunday, 26 June 2011

War Music

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:

Nine days.
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 ...



or:

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?

No details

Yet.

Now we can hear a drum.



or:

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.



or:

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?

12 comments:

Martin H. said...

Thanks for flagging up Logue, Mike. I'll keep an eye open for War Music.

Tony_C said...

Aha! Just as I said (re “manspace”, elsewhere herein): piles of books everywhere!

I have almost exactly the same problem living in a bedsit, with just a narrow corridor through piles of books (and other “collectible” kibble*) the only floorspace visible. There is a Great Plan to move all books into a garage (where most of them in fact are), but each time I start to sift through the piles in the flat, I end up sitting around reading one of them till I run out of spare time.

Of course the other part of the Great Plan is to find a friendly librarian to Dewey-index the lot, so that I can find any book I want almost immediately. Knowing that you, a librarian, can’t even find your own books makes it seem so much less likely than I had hoped. Still, maybe when my nephew finishes his Librarianship post-grad?

If I come across my copy of Heart of Darkness, I’ll let you know.

*This word, as you may know, coined by Philip K. Dicke in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

Mike C. said...

Tony_C,

To be honest, if you're going to store books in a garage, you might as well pass them on to Oxfam -- they'll be unusable within a very short time. Any paperback more than ten years old is doomed, anyway, but damp and mould will accelerate the process.

If you think I would even contemplate indexing books/CDs at home I've obviously changed even more than I thought. I recoil when I visit someone's home and find everything neatly arranged A-Z...

H of D found, now, btw -- you can all relax.

Mike

Martyn Cornell said...

I don't arrange the books alphabetically, but I DO arrange them thematically or I couldn't survive. Heart of Darkness - paperback novels, bookcase in the loft conversion. Daughter doing a project on the Black Death - historical atlases, back room ground floor, right hand bottom side of bookshelves; books covering medieval history in Britain/Europe, front room ground floor, bookshelf by window, bottom left-hand side. Sad: possibly. Fit for purpose: reasonably.

Mike C. said...

Martyn,

Not sad at all -- I think this "topographical" approach is the only way forward once chaos has ensued...

I take this into three dimensions, though -- the books from last year's Rilke enthusiasm are beneath the stack of bills extracted for my partner's tax return in the large cardboard box under the stack of plastic crates behind the wooden trunk which is under the table that is inaccessible because of the two kitchen cabinets (removed when the kitchen was redone last year) on the floor in the so-called "dining room".

Sometimes I just can't summon the energy to extract things, and have been known to buy a second copy instead...

Mike

Tony_C said...

"you might as well pass them on to Oxfam"

Where do you think I got them?

Mike C. said...

Tony,

Ha! That's all right, I'm sure they won't mind recycling them yet again.

I always have to be quite careful about not buying back my own books in Oxfam by mistake. Not too difficult these days, as they've started to overprice, I notice. I think they've started looking everything up on abebooks.


Mike

Tony_C said...

"I'm sure they won't mind recycling them yet again."

Do you reckon Oxfam would be pleased to see the books they chuck in the skip coming back in the front door, then? Could be amusing to capture on camera...

"I recall [etc.]"

Is it a distaste for order in the home, or for the work involved? I've got my LPs arranged alpha by artist and I can usually find the one I want.

[Checkword: frapha - wasn't frapping something we stonies used to do in the seventies?]

Ed said...

reCOIL, not reCALL

[Checkword: squingsk - doesn't it just?]

Mike C. said...

"Is it a distaste for order in the home, or for the work involved?"

All of the above.

"I've got my LPs arranged alpha by artist and I can usually find the one I want."

I think the elegant, low-input solution is only to buy records by artists beginning with "A", and books by authors beginning with "B". Sorted!

"Frapping" is what sailors do with a rope (no, not that).

Mike

Tony_C said...

What, no ZZ Top?!

Frapping. If you say so. I thought I remembered it being used as "chatting earnestly while stoned" (or summink), but that might have been "rapping".

I wonder if "frappucino" is related?

Ed said...

"all of the above"

I think you mean "both"

[Checkword: gashippo - hmmm..]