by Paul Wells
The Nobel Committee for Literature of the Swedish Academy comprises five Swedish writers, plus two associate members, ranging in age from 54 to 86, of middling international reputation. Self-awareness is half their charm. They know the annual chance to hand out a Nobel Prize for literature gives them a megaphone out of all proportion to the rest of their lives.
They sure used it on Thursday when they gave the prize to Bob Dylan.
The ageless bard of lonely American struggle is the first songwriter in the history of the Nobels, going back all the way to 1901, to win the literature prize. Normally it goes to novelists, playwrights, poets.
Proper writers, as you might say.
Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Minnesota 75 years ago, has not often been a proper anything.
But the honour suits both him and the times.
His songs are often bone simple. The famous ones were written a half-century ago. He slouches and mumbles as he sings them, half-declaiming in a nasal and conversational tone that is easy to mock.
His most ardent fans, who have been calling for years for a Nobel for Dylan, are surely outnumbered by the legions who would pay good money for the chance to escape an hour of his voice.
But together and severally, those songs are a mighty river cutting right through the centre of the American myth. The Swedes have, rightly, been reluctant to give their prize too often to Americans, or indeed to writers in English from any country, aware as they are that great literature speaks every language. But compared to the worthy American names often bandied as Nobel season approaches – Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Richard Ford – surely Dylan has spoken loudest and clearest for longest.
Of course there is a place for the Nobel to shine a light in obscure corners. Elevating the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska in 1996, an intensely private poet of quiet surprise, ranks to me among the wisest things the Swedish Academy has done. But surely there is room, too, for words that speak to everyone about the universal and the eternal. In his homespun way, that has always been Dylan’s line. “How many times must the cannonballs fly/ Before they’re forever banned?” “He that gets hurt/ Will be he who has stalled/ There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’.”
And then there are those chimes of freedom: “Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight/ Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight.”
I think three things explain why this was the year the Academy turned to Dylan.
First, if his songs are his curriculum vitae, last year he finally wrote a cover letter. In an extraordinary half-hour speech in Los Angeles in February 2015, at a gala where he was named MusiCares Person of the Year, Dylan explained, as he rarely has, what he has been up to all these years.
“These songs didn’t come out of thin air,” he said. “I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth.” He learned to write from traditional American folk songs. “They gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.”
Anyone who works with words knows that’s the opposite of a banal insight. It’s not far from the Schiller poem Beethoven spent his last years figuring out how to set to music: “All men become brothers.”
Working from local sources to the universal is the highest goal of art. It’s what won Alice Munro her Nobel three years ago.
The second good reason this had to be Dylan’s year is that the singer-songwriter tradition has taken a hell of a beating in 2016. David Bowie and Prince left us. Glenn Frey and Maurice White and George Martin.
Short of sending choirs of angels to watch over Bruce Springsteen, there could be no more soothing balm than to put Dylan in the pantheon.
The last reason for Dylan now is the one the Swedish Academy would most vigorously deny, even though it seems the most transparent. The award was bestowed in the waning days of a crucial presidential election in Dylan’s homeland.
Long ago, Dylan said he’s no longer interested in politics. But he’s never stopped being interested in Robert Johnson’s blues, never stopped believing everything belongs to everyone.
As he sang more than 40 years ago, “But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give/ We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.”
Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services