Homeroidal

Bernard Knox

  • The Husbands: An Account of Books III and IV of Homer’s ‘Iliad’ by Christopher Logue
    Faber, 55 pp, £6.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 571 17198 2

I first came across Christopher Logue’s ‘account’ of the Iliad in 1975 at Oxford where I went to hear a vigorous reading by two young men of Patrocleia, his version of Book XVI. It was an opportunity to experience the poem in its original medium, by the ear rather than the eye. Homer himself had probably chanted his verses plucking the strings of a lyre, like the bard Demodocus in the Odyssey and for many centuries after his death people did not read Homer: they listened to skilled rhapsodes, whose dramatic delivery mesmerised audiences and earned the performers ample rewards, as we know from Plato’s Ion. I learned later, from the Preface to War Music, that Logue had undertaken the project at the suggestion of Donald Carne-Ross, who was then commissioning a version of the Iliad for the BBC.

I was impressed by the reading, but every now and then found myself at a loss to reconcile what I was hearing with the Greek poem I knew so well. Logue’s Preface explained why I had been perplexed. His plan, he wrote, was ‘to retain the story line ... but to cut or amplify or add to its incidents, to vary certain of its similes, and (mostly) to omit Homer’s descriptive epithets, “ten-second-miler-Achilles”, “thick-as-a-pyramid-Ajax” and so forth.’ The generosity of the licence he grants himself was not reassuring, and his crude parodies of Homeric epithets suggested a certain contempt for his author’s diction – an attitude surprising in a poet who himself, as I discovered when I read on, constructs compound epithets that defy parody: ‘Your please-Prince-Hector-help-me mouth’, the ‘set-too-close-for-the-point-of-a-spear’s-tip/Wall.’

The cuts are massive. War Music has some two thousand lines of verse; Books XIV-XIX of the Iliad have 2669. But many of Logue’s lines are only three, two or even one word long: ‘And:/Ajax!/And:/Odysseus!’, for example. What is more, a good many of the lines consist of matter of his own invention. On the first two pages, for example, at least half the lines have no basis in the Homeric text. Nevertheless, although it is a potted version fleshed out with original contributions and sprinkled with strange un-Homeric names – Jataphact, Opknocktophon – as well as equally un-Homeric grotesqueries – Patroclus’ crucified corpse carried in triumph by the Trojans as ‘Molo the dancer from Cymatriax tugs/At its penis as he squeaks:/“Achilles’ love!” ’ – it does preserve the main story line more or less intact and has its occasional felicities.

Kings, the next instalment, an account of Books I and II, is a different matter. Perhaps Carne-Ross, who in the interval had left for a university post in America, had been a restraining influence, now removed (Logue includes him in the acknowledgments ‘though he is not speaking to me at the moment’). Whatever the reason, Logue now felt free to rebuild the Iliad according to his own design. The contents of the first half of Book I, the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, are recognisable (though it is news to me that Achilles had ‘red-currant coloured hair’ and the level of discourse is often villainous low – ‘cunt-struck Agamemnon!’ says Achilles to the King, ‘O cheesy Lung’). But what follows is pure Logue. Nestor pays a visit to Achilles in his tent and in a long speech that has tiny particles of Homer from different contexts woven into the invented whole, tries to persuade Achilles to relent, to rejoin the battle against Troy. His attempt fails as Talthibios and Kartom (!) arrive to take Briseis away. This interpolated scene anticipates one of the high points of Homer’s narrative, the embassy to Achilles in Book IX, the vain attempt of Odysseus, Phoenix and Ajax to enlist his help for the Greeks, now hard pressed by the Trojans. What Logue thinks he is doing here is hard to divine. If he intends, later on, to give us his version of Book IX, he will have blunted its impact and if he does not, he will have given his readers a poor substitute for what is universally regarded as one of Homer’s greatest scenes. There is worse to come. The central section of Kings consists mainly of a purely invented action, a council of Trojan worthies summoned to Priam’s palace to debate the question: ‘How shall we win this war?’ Antenor, Priam’s elderly cousin, suggests giving Helen back and so ending, if not exactly winning it. Anchises, Priam’s second cousin, takes the opposing stance. Finally, Hector arrives and announces that he will continue to fight and, at the proper time, drive the Greeks into the sea. This long scene is undiluted Logue; what follows is an exchange between Hector and Andromache, a pale reflection of the famous last meeting of husband and wife in Homer’s Book VI.

The weird names that sprinkled the text of War Music have now become a torrent: Thakta, Kilikiax, Uxa, Gwi, Thoal, Cazca, Chylabborak, Raphno, Tek, Jica, Tollo, Ramuna, Tus, Soos, Neomab, Didanam, Rebek, Pagif, Anaxapart, Bombax, Akafact, Quibuph – we seem to have left the plains of Troy and soared into intergalactic space; at any moment the Klingons may come to fight at Hector’s side. And the verse has become more staccato, the content more trivial. Here is Priam in his palace:

  ‘Who’s there?’

  ‘Manto, sir.’

  ‘Manto?’

  ‘Yes, sir. Your youngest son.’

  ‘Shine the light on your face.’

  ‘Come here.

  ‘Now wipe my mouth.

No-no-no-no-no-no. From there.

I like a clean one every time.’

The latest instalment, The Husbands, is an ‘account’ of Books III and IV. The husbands are presumably Menelaus and Paris; Hector is a prominent figure in the book but no mention is made of his wife. Logue follows the main lines of Homer’s narrative: the agreement to settle the issue of the war by a duel between Menelaus and Paris; Aphrodite’s rescue of Paris as Menelaus is about to kill him; the arrow of Pandarus that wounds Menelaus and breaks the truce. But once again Logue cannot leave well enough alone. Homer’s Hector proposes a duel between Menelaus and Paris, but Logue’s Hector proposes himself as Troy’s champion against any Greek who will volunteer to face him. No one does. ‘Titters from Troy.’ Finally, Odysseus saves the situation by claiming that the right champion to face Menelaus is obviously Paris, and Logue gets back to Homer’s story line. It is hard to see what purpose is served by this displacement of Hector’s challenge to the Greeks in Book VII (it is accepted by Ajax) to the situation in Book III; it seems to be a case of one poet appropriating the material of a predecessor but determined come what may to set his own mark on it.

Next comes another famous Homeric set piece, the ‘Review from the Wall’, in which Helen identifies for Priam the foremost Greek chieftains on the plain. In Logue’s version she identifies only one, and the scene is transformed into something like a Miss America contest as Helen, accompanied by her ‘maids Cumin and Tu’ parades before an audience of prominent Trojans seated on no less than 200 stools:

    as she crossed the midway stage
One of Troy’s mighty subjects gasped, and stood
And then another stood, and then the rest
Casting their gasps before her feet
As would the world its hats before a god.

This trivialisation of Homer’s masterly presentation of Helen, of the grace and economy with which he creates the impression of her overwhelming beauty, is also evident in the confrontation between Helen and Aphrodite, who, in the shape of an old serving woman, calls her to join Paris in his bed after his narrow escape. The tale is told by Cumin, who supplies Homer’s anonymous old woman with a name – Teethee. Helen soon realises that she is speaking to the goddess and, as in Homer, bitterly upbraids her. But in somewhat different terms. Like any wife to any husband, she threatens to walk out. ‘Tu, Cumin, pack./Make sure my pubic jewellery is on top – /Yours too.’ She then complains of a headache. ‘Look at me. All of you. My head is full of pain./Ih! – there it goes. Pepper my breasts.’ The reader is left wondering whether the final phrase refers to a Homeric equivalent of swallowing aspirin or is merely an expletive. In Homer her recalcitrance is met with a fierce threat that silences her. But here Aphrodite, though she threatens later, speaks like an indulgent aunt. ‘Do stop this nonsense, Helen, dear.’ She orders the maids to bathe her. ‘You there: yes, you with the Egyptian eyes,/Prepare her bath. And you, Miss Quivering, strip her.’ And after inspecting her: ‘Your sweat, your wrinkle cream – quite useful, Eh?’ To make her feel at home, the goddess addresses her as Elly.

The vulgar touch is applied not only to mortals but also to Homer’s beautiful but terrifying goddesses. When Aphrodite rescues Paris she comes ‘waltzing up to it, in oyster silk,/Running her tongue around her strawberry lips/While repositioning a spaghetti shoulder-strap.’ Earlier, when Zeus tells Poseidon that he plans to ‘wind up the war’ he is interrupted by the exclamation ‘Rubbish!’ The two gods look round to see

(Steadying her red-sepal hat with the russet-silk flutes)
Creamy-armed Hera with Lady Athene
(Holding their scallop-edged parasol high)
As they wobble their way down the dunes

Apollonius of Rhodes, in his Medea-Jason epic, transformed Homer’s goddesses into images of aristocratic ladies of the Ptolemaic court in Alexandria, providing a model for the goddesses of Baroque opera and the mythological canvases of Boucher. Logue has taken them down a peg or two on the social scale; Aphrodite with her spaghetti shoulder-strap sounds all too louche, and Hera and Athene for all the world like a pair of middle-class ladies making their way carefully over the beach.

This downgrading manifests itself also in the language of the human characters as well as in the emphasis on excretory functions and sexual organs. Homer’s warriors taunt their opponents before and even during the fighting, but not like Logue’s ‘Prince Little’, who ‘loves to tease them with his arse:/I’ll screw your widow, Badedas,/Shouting head down, his face between his knees.’ As Menelaus stands over a disarmed Paris, there is a cry ‘from the mass/“Off with his cock! Off with his cock!” ’ Thersites defies Agamemnon in Homer, but does not say anything like ‘but, O my lord/ Please do not fart.’ And Logue’s Thersites goes on to surpass himself when he announces that anyone who heard Agamemnon offering someone else a share of the booty ‘would be surprised enough to jump/Down the eye-hole of his own knob.’

Even Achilles is not spared. When, in Homer, he heard that Patroclus was dead, he ‘took handfuls of dark dust and poured them over his head, defiling his handsome face, as the black ash fell on his tunic.’ This was much too genteel for Logue, who writes:

Grief has you by the hair and with one
And with the forceps of its other hand
Uses your mouth to trowel dogshit up;
Watches you lift your arms to Heaven; and then
Pounces and screws your nose into the filth.

This might well serve as a description of what is happening to the reader, who has already been regaled with an invented incident in which an invented character, Pyrop, ‘the richest and the fattest Greek/ ... to sail ... to Troy’, pursued by the Trojan Anaxapart, ‘looks behind him, half crouched down,/As timid and as fearful as a dog/About to shit.’ Women get off more lightly: Tu remembers that on the wall ‘the sweat was running down between my breasts’ and Helen ‘wipes the sweat from under her big breasts’. But the wounds that Homer describes with such economy of exact and horrifying detail are in Logue’s version notched up to such heights of sensationalism that he seems to be writing for an audience already sated with violence. Pandarus’ arrow goes through Menelaus’ belt and inflicts a mere flesh wound – ‘It grazed the surface of the warrior’s flesh,’ says Homer. But Logue’s arrow goes ‘THOCK’ into (where else?) Menelaus’ ‘pubic mound ... the arrow-head has thrust/Into the cartilage coupling the pubic arch ... Makon will use his teeth, his neck to draw/The head out of the gristle by its stump.’

It is no surprise that Henry Miller contributed a hearty ‘Marvellous!’ to the publisher’s collection of dust-jacket quotes, which also contains a description of the poem as ‘the best translation since Pope’s’. This judgment was made before the appearance of Husbands, and perhaps before that of Kings; it now seems very wide of the mark. This is not in any sense a translation of the Iliad; indeed, Logue himself makes no such claim. ‘I was not ... making a translation in the accepted sense of the word,’ he wrote in the Preface to War Music, where he also described his method with a word that reveals much about his attitude to the original: ‘I would concoct a story line.’ Homer is one of the ingredients of the meal he is preparing. But in each successive course there is less Homer and more Logue. On the cover of Husbands the publisher offers the rubric ‘not so much Logue’s Homer as Homer’s Logue’. If the final two words mean anything, they suggest that Homer from his grave looks benevolently on Logue’s efforts, an unlikely scenario. And for the first alternative I would like to offer what seems to me a more appropriate formula: what we are witnessing the birth of (more is no doubt on the way) is not Logue’s Homer, but, to use a suffix familiar to fans of Star Trek II, Logue’s Homeroid.