WAR MUSIC: An Account of Homer’s Iliad

By Christopher Logue

Faber and Faber (2015) h/b 341pp £20 (ISBN 9780571202188)

‘Take an industrial lift.
Pack it with men fighting each other,
Smashing each other back against its governors
So the packed cage shoots floors up, then down,
Then up again, then down, lights out, then stops,
But what does not stop are the blows,
Fists, feet, teeth, knees, the screams of triumph and of agony
As up they go, then stop, then down they go.
No place on earth without its god.’

‘Poss. Sims’ L. wrote by this, but died in 2011, and we shall never know where the simile could possibly have been placed in his account of the Iliad. But what is clear is that he had intended to finish the complete 24-book epic. Christopher Reid, the sure-footed editor of the 38-page Appendix to this volume that brings together all the fragments from books 10-24, quotes a letter that L. wrote to Paul Keegan at Faber and Faber on 12 August 2003:

‘It looks, roughly, like this:
Patrocleia / G.B.H.      written
New armour / the Shield         unwritten
Pax      written

Achilles attacks
Trojans driven back across the ditch to the Scamander
Achilles fights the Scamander            mostly written
Achilles drives the Trojans back across the plain to Troy
Hector dies outside Troy               roughly written
Achilles defiles Hector’s body, burns Patroclus’
corpse and sacrifices the 12 Trojan boys
Priam recovers Hector’s corpse
Hector’s corpse cremated after Hecuba, Andromache
and Helen have spoken.
It remains to be seen how this works out. It is rather a lot.’

Reid comments that, to judge from L.’s ring binders, it would have been more than ‘rather a lot’. To complete what L. provisionally entitled Big Men Falling a Long Way, there would also have been episodes fillings the gaps between Cold Calls and Patrocleia (Books 10-15), and further additions both at the start and end of the whole epic, including a reworking of the magnificent ‘shield’ ekphrasis in Book 18 to include scenes from modern life. L.’s amusing first shot at the love-making scene between Zeus and Hera in book 14 shows what might have been.

As it is, thanks to L.’s wife Rosemary Hill and Reid, we now have an elegantly designed single volume with all that we are going to have, including L.’s notes. L. might have thought it a real honour to survive, as so many of the ancients did, in fragments. But, fragments or not, the Iliad has spread its gravitational ripples over the fabric of our world for 2,700 years now, and L. needed no Ligo tuned to 20 thousandths of a second to pick them up. In particular, he saw that Homer did not preach. He did not virtue-signal. He did not try to manoeuvre his audience into neatly-packaged, self-satisfied responses about ‘the horrors of war’. He simply described and left it up to us what to make of it. So too does Logue.

Here is another simile designed for Book 21, as Achilles enters the fighting:

‘Alaska, 1974.
Think of the moments when
A 50-foot-high cliff of ice
Collapsed into the River Noa’tak,
And by the half-a-day it took to reach the sea,
Its flow – according to the tide-mark that it left –
Became a wave some 1500 metres high
That stripped the land on either side of it
Down to the rock.
Likewise that [. . .]’

You do not need to read Homer to see what L. has done, nor L. to see what Homer has done. But if you do, Plato’s image of a flame kindled by a leaping spark comes strongly to mind.

Peter Jones

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