/ 13 October 2016

Blowin’ in the wind: How Nobel winner Bob Dylan rewrote history without a pen

Tempest is an album that's an amalgam of the blues
Tempest is an album that's an amalgam of the blues

“Bob Dylan 100% is not going to win. Stop saying Bob Dylan should win the Nobel Prize,” wrote Alex Shephard, news editor of The New Republic, late last week. Writing for a publication that is virulently pro-American, that was some admission and admonishment to his optimist compatriots.

But, astonishingly, Bob Dylan has won the Nobel prize. 100%, all of it: the Nobel prize in literature. It was awarded to the singer-songwriter “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

In announcing the award, Sara Danius, the new permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, was more forthcoming than her somewhat austere longtime predecessor, describing Dylan as a “great sampler … and for 54 years he has been at it, reinventing himself.”

It began not quite in the beginning, Danius implied by citing Blonde on Blonde from 1966, an album that showed “an extraordinary example of his brilliant way of rhyming, putting together refrains and his brilliant way of thinking”.

Dylan is the only lyricist to have won the literature Nobel, a first that cannot but give him even deeper satisfaction given the perennial bookmakers’ joke about his chances of winning. 

This year he was quoted at 50-1, well off the heady odds that he reached in 2011, when Ladbrokes had him running fourth after what it said was “a substantial gamble from clued-up literary fans”.

Dylan fans, clued-up or clueless, were seemingly absent from this year’s scuttlebutt, with literary salon gossip, betting rumours and other less informed speculation focusing on the chances of non-Anglophone writers with (for Wasp readers and critics) unpronouncable names – first and last.

Indeed, Shephard put it wittily in his deftly tongue-in-cheek lament by noting that:

“With the last three Nobel Prizes having gone to a Canadian international bestselling author who writes in the coveted ‘people looking at lakes’ category (Alice Munro), a French guy who writes about remembering stuff that he thought he forgot but actually didn’t (Patrick Modiano), and a Belarusian woman who sort of makes stuff up and calls it oral history (Svetlana Alexievich), this year’s winner is anyone’s guess.”

The chances of Nobel regular Adonis, the Syrian poet living in exile in Paris, were mulled over as intensely as they have been since the Arab Spring, before being dismissed as politically impossible: for which Syrian faction would it imply support? Another of the usual suspects, Haruki Murakami, was analysed with as much attention paid to his love of jogging, jazz and cats and as little said about the real merits, or otherwise, of his idiosyncratic oeuvre.

Then came 1pm in Sweden on October 13, shortly after which Bob Dylan became the ninth United States literature laureate. Preceding him were Sinclair Lewis (1930), Eugene O’Neill (1936), Pearl Buck (1938), TS Eliot (1948) , William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Hemingway (1954), John Steinbeck (1962) and Toni Morrison (1993).

It has been moot that the geopolitical conduct of the US almost certainly ruled out a literature winner from the country, but then Dylan has never been on the side of authority, although he has always been careful to distance himself from any movement – an apparent lack of commitment that disappointed and infuriated many of his fans in the late 1960s.

While he riled some by not being the male equivalent of Joan Baez, he enraged others by “abandoning” folk and acoustic music and taking up – horror! – electric guitar and a wholly different sound. But it is in the lyrics that Dylan has always stood for an examined life, a commitment to the meaning and sound of words, and a craftsmanship and artistry that make his Nobel deserved and unsurprising.

Pre-empting what is sure to be a measure of quibbling and carping, Danius paid Dylan a supreme compliment. 

“If you look far back, 5 000 years, you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts which were meant to be performed,and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho and we enjoy it.”

To be in Homer’s company, and Sappho’s: now that’s a huge surprise.