Patti Abbott requested that I write a book review of an ignored or forgotten book that I believed needed to be resurrected. Below is the review, as well as a link to her site.
By Christopher Logue
An Account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of Homer’s Iliad
I set before you a translation. No, not a translation – the author does not read Greek – an account, of Homer’s Iliad. How tame that sounds. How shall I convey to you the roaring language, the rousing intensity, the sudden, vivid visuals? Among extraordinary versions of The Iliad, Christopher Logue’s is my favorite; it is alive, lively, and athrob in my hands.
I was first introduced to Mr. Logue’s work as I read Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination. In the essay “Another Odyssey”, Davenport compared Homer translators, mostly of The Odyssey, but in a quick detour to Mr. Logue’s Iliad, Mr. Davenport sang his praises and included an example of his power.
Mr. Logue immediately caught my attention in his introduction to the text, as he quoted a translator’s inspired bit of profanity: “—Chapman had tried to abort the charge that his translation was based on a French crib by calling his judges “envious Windfuckers.” Logue continued on, discussing the response to the first portion of his published account: “After Patrocleia was published I began to get critical support not only from those connected with the composition and publication of verse but from those whom we may choose to count among the hopelessly insane: the hard core of Unprofessional Ancient Greek Readers, Homer’s lay fans.”
I count myself among the hopelessly insane. I am a particular fan of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, and I quite enjoyed Robert Fagles’ more recent version as well. I quoted from Alexander Pope’s translation in my novel Sweetsmoke, which takes place in 1862. As a writer I have been decidedly influenced by Mr. Logue — in Sweetsmoke, I named a character after him.
To give you a feel for Mr. Logue’s language, I must share. I have limited myself to the moments when Gods unexpectedly appear. Even now, knowing the work as I do, I still encounter moments that elicit delighted gasps of appreciation. I catch myself staring off, holding the book aside as his words settle in my brain.
Early in the narrative, Apollo has brought plague to the Greeks as a recently captured female slave was the daughter of one of Apollo’s priests. Agamemnon, forced to return this slave to save his men, insists she be replaced with another female slave, this one belonging to Achilles. Enraged, Achilles leaps 15 yards to push push-push push, push Agamemnon’s chest with his fingertips, then grabs the mace from the king’s hands, and as he is about to strike a death blow, Mr. Logue writes:
But we stay calm,
For we have seen Athena’s radiant hand
Collar Achilles’ plait,
Then as a child its favourite doll
Draw his head back towards her lips
“You know my voice?
You know my power?
Sudden swift violence, as God grabs man by the hair and wrenches back his head, stopping time. Gary Wills, in his introduction to War Music, compares Mr. Logue’s version of this moment to Chapman and Pope: “those great poets, make Athena’s intervention in Book 1 a symbolic checking of Achilles’ passion with the voice of reason. But Athena grabs him by the hair and jerks him around. It is as if his father’s ghost tackled Hamlet as he railed against Gertrude. Only Logue catches the weird interplay of god and human at that point.”
Later on, Greeks and Trojans agree to end the war, its outcome to be determined by a one-on-one battle between Menelaus and Paris. Menelaus quickly gets the upper hand. and it is at that moment Aphrodite steps in.
Menelaus shatters his sword on Lord Paris’ mask:
A hundred of us pitch our swords to him…
Yet even as they flew, their blades
Changed into wings, their pommels into heads,
Their hilts to feathered chests, and what were swords
Were turned to doves, a swirl of doves,
And waltzing out of it, in oyster silk,
Running her tongue around her strawberry lips
While repositioning a spaghetti shoulder-strap,
The Queen of Love, Our Lady Aphrodite,
Touching the massive Greek aside with one
Pink fingertip, and with her other hand
Lifting Lord Paris up, big as he was,
In his bronze bodice heavy as he was,
Lacing his fingers with her own, then leading him,
Hidden in wings, away.
What power in that one pink fingertip! This is no gentle Goddess of Love. A 2006 article about Mr. Logue by Liz Hoggard in The Observer refers to his modern references as “cheerfully anachronistic.” For some, those references may take a bit of getting used to, but Gary Wills makes a case that the spaghetti shoulder-strap is true to Homer.
And now to Logue’s treatment of Apollo’s sudden rage against Patroclus. You may recall, as the Trojans pressed the Greeks back and began to burn their ships, that Patroclus, friend and lover of Achilles, begged to disguise himself in Achilles’ armor to bring hope to the Greeks and push the Trojans back. Achilles reluctantly agreed, but warned Patroclus to do only that; he should not to try to take Troy. But deep in the heart of battle, successful Patroclus heeded not the words of his dear Achilles. His bloodlust was up and he pressed on and on, at first amusing Apollo, who flicked him back three times, then four.
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.
–Is it a god? Divine? Needing no tenderness?—
Yet instantly they touch, he butts them,
Cuts them back:
My sweet Patroclus,
As many as you can,
Coming behind you through the dust you felt
–What was it? –felt Creation part, and then
Who had been patient with you
The power bursts through the page, head thrown back, shrieking mask, sucked at the air to nourish his infuriated mind. The Trojans cannot resist him but are no match for him, with their tired bird necks aching for the blade. When Creation parts, that APOLLO! covers two full pages. You have been waiting for it, sensing it, and when it comes, Mr. Logue does not disappoint, Apollo who had been patient with you. Struck. From there, the death of Patroclus concludes brilliantly, and I could (and do) go on and on, wishing to share Mr. Logue with you over a glass of dark red wine, enthusiastically reading and exploring more favorite passages…
And so I urge you to rediscover the genius of Homer through the prism of Mr. Logue, and I envy you your first time.
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David Fuller’s first novel, Sweetsmoke, is about a slave in Civil War Virginia who seeks vengeance against the murderer of a woman who once saved his life and taught him how to read. It was preceded by eight years of research. Sweetsmoke has been nominated for an Edgar award for Best First Novel by an American Author.