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War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad by Christopher Logue review – a life’s work

Inspired by Homer’s Iliad, this unfinished epic is explicitly contemporary, yet revels in its ancient roots

Christopher Logue began writing his version of the Iliad in 1959, after a BBC producer commissioned him to translate a section of it for radio. Logue demurred initially on the very reasonable grounds that he didn’t know a word of Greek, but the producer – Donald Carne-Ross – wasn’t having any of it. He advised Logue instead to go away and “read translations by those who did. Follow the story.” Logue gave it a go, and the result – a bright and bold rendering of Achilles’ fight with the river Scamander – sowed the seed of what was to blossom over the decades into the centrepiece of Logue’s working life; his ultimate creative endeavour. He continued to follow the story, on and off, for the next 40-odd years, bringing out sections of the poem at semi-regular intervals - the last of which, Cold Calls, bagged him the Whitbread in 2005. At that point, sadly, illness overtook him. He died in 2011 at the age of 85, leaving his project incomplete.

Part of the fascination, however, of reading Faber’s 341-page edition of War Music (the first time all the constituent parts have appeared in a single volume) is working out what, in this context, the word “incomplete” really means. It’s true that Logue’s output fell short of his intentions: back in 2003 he wrote to his editor outlining what there was still to do (“rather a lot”), and he left behind copious notes and drafts-in-progress on the parts of the Iliad that he had yet to tackle (since sifted and sorted by his friend and fellow poet Christopher Reid to create the appendix with which this edition concludes). Taken altogether, though, this brilliant, vaulting, ragged volume reminded me of nothing so much as an archaeological site – something like the ruins of Troy itself. Parts of the work are fair and fully formed, standing proud of the page. Others are potsherds, vital and vivid but fragmentary; carefully disinterred and placed into their most likely seeming settings but still disconnected from the whole. You couldn’t rightly call the work complete, therefore – but as with archaeology, the idea of completion feels reductive here: not unachieved so much as fundamentally unachievable. In the first place, the interconnectedness of Homer’s poem and Logue’s remodelling is such that you can’t fully pick them apart; Homer’s words run beneath Logue’s like bedrock under soil, and where there are gaps in Logue’s version, Homer’s swells up to carry us over them. Secondly, and just as significantly, Logue’s retelling of the Iliad plays with the idea that, when it comes to war, any sort of ending is an illusion. His decision to illustrate Homer’s story of brave men and bickering gods with flagrantly anachronistic combat imagery (“whumping” helicopters; Uzis “shuddering warm against your hip”) makes the point that, when it comes to war, the best humanity has ever managed is the odd break between battles. War Music is incomplete because the war isn’t over.

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