ALMOST everyone was taken by surprise last Thursday when the Swedish Academy named this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. And it is perfectly possible that no one was quite as surprised as the honoree himself.
By the beginning of this week, the academy had failed to get in touch directly with Bob Dylan. At a concert in the US on the night after the award was announced, he did not allude to it even obliquely. As of yesterday, his official website carried no mention of the accolade.
Subtly defensive in its citation, the Swedish Academy was probably aware that its decision would invite a backlash, notwithstanding the fact that Dylan had regularly been nominated for 20 years. In 1997, the year the Nobel went to the wonderful Italian playwright Dario Fo — who, coincidentally, died just hours before this year’s announcement in Stockholm — Dylan was apparently second on the list, as the academy was determined, for a change, to pick someone whose popularity had already been established.
But then, as the academy must have been aware, Dylan is something of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, to quote a previous laureate whose award was similarly controversial. The American singer-songwriter has arguably built a career on his unpredictability and capacity for reinvention. He was regularly being booed during an international tour 50 years ago for having the audacity to opt for rock ‘n’ roll after establishing himself as a singular songwriter who delivered his verse accompanied by just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica.
Dylan is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
The fact that Dylan did not call a press conference right away to express his gratitude ought not to have alarmed anyone. It does not necessarily follow that he will turn down the Nobel, as Jean-Paul Sartre did in 1964. Any number of awards have come his way, beginning with an honorary degree from Princeton in the early 1970s and including a special Pulitzer for his exquisitely composed memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, a dozen years ago.
The Nobel, though, ostensibly has nothing to do with his prose, which has included a (perhaps deliberately) incomprehensible novel titled Tarantula. It’s for his vast body of songs. The question of whether they qualify as poetry or literature has spawned a predictable degree of dissent.
These are fatuous questions, because ultimately they are unanswerable in terms that would satisfy everyone. What is indubitable is that, like the greatest writers before him, Dylan has introduced indelible phrases into the English lexicon. More than half a century after he came up with the terms, answers are still blowing in the wind and times always will be a-changing. No young generation since 1963 has substantially disagreed with the plea: “Come mothers and fathers/ Throughout the land/ And don’t criticise/ What you can’t understand/ Your sons and daughters/ Are beyond your command/ Your old road is/ Rapidly ageing …”
Songs such as that were poetry to some ears, but it was a couple of years later that academia began paying heed to what was happening. The Stockholm Academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, cited 1966’s Blonde on Blonde as an appropriate place to begin for those unfamiliar with Dylan’s oeuvre. The recommendation makes sense at one level, because the double album is peppered with exquisitely poetic gems, including ‘Visions of Johanna’ and ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’.
However, a true appreciation of Dylan’s genius entails beginning with his first (largely old-folk) and second (entirely self-composed) outings on vinyl, and trying to understand how, just a few years later, he was knocking on posterity’s door with the plethora of incredibly innovative images that crop up on the superlative albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.
Folklore has it that he was never the same following a motorcycle accident 50 years ago that briefly put him out of circulation and enabled him to reassess his trajectory. He sparkled again in the mid-70s with Blood on the Tracks and Desire, a pair of vastly different albums that once again underscored his versatility as both a songwriter and a singer.
An unfortunate bout of Christian fundamentalism lay ahead, but Dylan eventually recovered from that and lived up to his designation as a wandering troubadour, having embarked on what has been categorised as a ‘never-ending tour’. His last two albums, largely echoing the repertoire of Frank Sinatra, have been dismal, and his original compositions in the past couple of decades have attracted accusations of plagiarism from lesser-known poets.
Be that as it may, the Nobel may be belated, but it is nonetheless well deserved, even if it is seen as a sop to Americans alarmed by the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency — and even if, as the Canadian poet and performer Leonard Cohen put it, it’s like pinning a medal on Everest for being the highest mountain.
Published in Dawn October 19th, 2016