On Bob Dylan, Nobel laureate: How I was Robert Zimmermanned into submission
Ah October, home in the English-speaking world to the most trill-filled paisa-vasool silly season ever known to Man! When the adage about one swallow not making a season comes true in some poor-joke-y way, because surprise is a Nobel preoccupation. Because there are so many species of disbelief flapping their wings through your very throat when the Swedish Academy announces the Nobel for Literature. You can safely go 'Who dat?' (Elfriede Jellinek? Kenzaburo Oe? Harry Martinson? JMG Le Clezio?) or WTF? (VS Naipaul) Or Wow? Really? Somebody I have actually read? (Pick one). Ever so rarely, they might even choose a writer who you wouldn’t have read otherwise, one you might thank them for. One writer I discovered this way is Wislawa Szymborska, even if it took me about a year to type her name out with any measure of confidence
The only available guidance towards figuring out the hows and the whys of this season of surprises is a JG Ballard short story titled The Assassination of JFK Considered as a Downhill Motor Race. The story begins with the line "Oswald was the starter", if you want to be properly convinced. You have to cruelly translate the award into some other experience, preferably an ornate slow-moving spectacle, to clearly see the comfortingly repeatable and tax-free pleasures that spring thereof.
There's the late-September pre-award buzz. Irrespective of whether it’s raining in Bengaluru, my hometown, or not, the very frogs stop worrying about chytrid fungi and extinction to go "Murakami Murakami" for about a fortnight before the announcement. And then they fall mysteriously silent. They’ve never gone "Paulo Paulo" in living memory, which must either mean that Bengaluru frogs have better taste than Bengaluru’s reading public, or that the universe is somehow conspiring with me to prevent Mr Coelho from packing his Calvin Klein briefs into a suitcase for a quick December dash to Stockholm.
Post-announcement, there’s the inevitable Roth of God. Which may sometimes simply take the form of the agonised question Why Not Philip? or issue forth in an inflorescence of outrage, in hissing manifestos of steam and in a non-stop gnashing of teeth. The formula by which we may contain all this rage is WOT? NO X? Replace X at will with woman, black, Asian, Indian, sexual minority and my uncle. Remember to channel the forgotten poet Robert Froth.
Then there’s the sight, and the sound, of the Academy 'putting English'. Some decrepit person huffing and puffing through the loops of a citation is different from the somewhat more authoritative way in which the same text might leap at you from a screen, but, hey, each is a thing rich in its own thinginess. The 2007 winner, thus, was an 'epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny'. The 2010 winner’s citation commends 'his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat'. The luvviest of them all was written for Swedish writer Harry Martinson, who was apparently good to 'catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos'.
The best thing about having laboured over this text is that so many can go home feeling super-virtuous for having parsed it. I’ve also known people who learnt to paraphrase the gnomic musings of the prize committee so well that they then began to talk like they had already read right through all of that damned year’s damned scribbler’s damned books.
Soon after, the awardee will have to squirm and say something suitably modest, or not. I seem to remember a corps of reporters descending on Doris Lessing and ambushing her as she returned with what looked like shopping. She mumbled for a long time and many pretended to have found great copy in this moment.
This response thingy is a two-tier joy. There's the immediate, for journalists, and a more elaborate one for the world as it were — the Nobel Lecture, a pleasure best confined to cold text. In 2010, I tried to catch Vargas Llosa at it. He put on his glasses, and read it off a sheet, and as he neared the finish line, he began blubbering, evaporating thus the accumulating dew of my decades of fangirling.
Watching the fuss around the Literature Nobel is, in other words, an entertainment genre that doesn’t yet have a marketable name, a sport that awaits its Marquess of Queensberry and its Suresh Kalmadi. It is likewise 'timepass kadlekai' that’s good and taaza for about three weeks.
All this is nothing. The people who have the most fun are certainly the mysterious men and women who vote on the winner very year. They get to flip the bird each year at somebody. When they chose Pamuk, they seemed to be rebuking Turkey for denying the Armenian genocide, or indeed indicating what sort of Turkey might be welcome in Europe. Picking Chinese writer Mo Yan was a way of messing with China. Last year’s choice was a combination shadow-punch aimed at Belarus strongman Lukashenka and his ally in Moscow.
Their biggest kick seems to come from messing with the Anglophone world and the US. The idea of literature they choose to reward is sometimes one that ignores the metropolitan capitals of our world, one that moves the conversation to sundry parts of the world. As much as it is telling everybody that they are impossibly well-read. When they do return to this Anglophone world, it is always with intent. In picking Bob Dylan, they have perhaps found a way of telling us what they think about an America where the fisticuffs of office are to be played out between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton.
It is in Dylan’s work that we find the first stirrings of curiosity about what can be done with words that don’t disappear with the moment
This year’s entertainment has already been something else. I look through my timeline on Twitter, and some sections are in slow burn. The usual number of happy retweeters seemed briefly outnumbered as every scribbler, self-publisher and stylus-polisher came out waving their equipment in the air because writing had somehow been dishonoured.
Among this regiment of sourpusses were several surprising faces. The man who wrote Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart, joined them on Friday when he tweeted about the choice revealing only that 'reading is hard'.
Hari Kunzru woke up yesterday and found himself transformed into a giant insect, kicking its legs about on Twitter. When he began, the decision was the 'lamest thing since Obama getting Peace for not being Bush', after which he predicted another Nobel for Kendrick in 2030. And whined about the Nobel giving small publishers a leg up and how this choice wouldn’t. Last heard he was going about Dylan being a class apart from other laureates because he has been accused of plagiarism.
Somebody I know fingered the man as a cause for writer’s block on account of his unmelodiousness. About the only thing they didn’t do is attribute 1997 laureate Dario Fo’s death at the same time to disgust at news of the decision.
The least offensive of all these contrarians were, rather surprisingly, those tweeting from eastern parts about how the first songwriter to win a Nobel was not some Bob Dylan but an R Tagore. Even if this claim to priority in time shares some DNA with other claims such as Ravana piloting an airplane.
In stark contrast to this were the grace with which American writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King responded to the news.
In 2009, shortly after the attack on women in a Mangaluru pub, a bunch of protestors at a Bengaluru rally against moral policing had an out-of-body experience when a pink float appeared out of nowhere and a grinning Vatal Nagaraj, chronic language defender and rail-roko artiste, emerged from its bowels in his trademark floppy cap to make a short speech about those who wished to criminalise love, while somehow managing the impossible feat of holding a mike and a rather red rose at the same time. Several people immediately forgave him all his previous offences against good sense. Salman Rushdie had what we could call a Vatal moment when he took to Twitter to connect Dylan to the bardic tradition embodied by Faiz and Orpheus.
If you put Dylan next to Svetlana Alexievich, last year’s winner, it looks like those who decide on the award are, after many years, open once again to broadening the scope of the prize, and thus our sense of what these new ways of commenting on human experience might amount to.
Some writers seemed to recognise the value of this broadening. Philip Pullman responded with a tweet about opening the field out to genre fiction also rather than merely returning to literary fiction. Malayalam writer NS Madhavan weighed in with a tweet about extending the prize to the graphic fiction of Art Spiegelman.
The last American to win the Nobel was Toni Morrison in 1993. If we look at her work, and at several of the Americans who have won it in the past — Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, TS Eliot, Eugene O’Neill — the thing that connects them is an attempt at bringing the freshness of their native, spoken idiom to writing. Depending on how you choose to view it, Dylan’s work is a logical extension of this attempt, or a kind of counter-move. Maybe we could say all these chaps were pretending that they were talking. He reversed the compliment, and pretended that he was writing. In that his songs attempt to achieve something of the ambiguous spin of the word on the page rather than the simple leaf-like fall of the spoken word.
The spoken or sung word in the folk traditions within which he began is an artifact that is given away, one that is lost and found in performance and in repetitions of the performance. When technology made possible the retrievable word, the replay-able word, or indeed the rewind-able word, it did not seem to begin to change performance all that much. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan uses the phrase 'rearview mirrorism' to talk of the way in which the promise of the present is often obscured by the habits of the past — look for instance at how most Indian newspapers tend to manage their online content.
So for several decades, those making recordings performed the words in much the same way that they performed them live. It is in Dylan’s work that we find the first stirrings of curiosity about what can be done with words that don’t disappear with the moment. He was by no means the only one. Several of his contemporaries were seized by the same curiosity about the possibilities of the retrievable word. Dylan’s achievement was to take the direct momentary appeal of folk music and to surpass its pieties — to build suggestion and symbol into that appeal. To listen was thus no more to just sing along, but to chase after pattern and complexity and to be involved in a kind of urgent, compulsive problem-solving.
This year’s citation commends him "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". Inexplicably, the Swedish Academy chose this year, to leave behind the opacity of their praise from past years.
I came across Dylan somewhere between school and college, many years after all his derring-do. I think I got curious enough to go chasing after him because of the unusual note of compulsory rapture that seemed to creep into the normally irreverent voices of those who spoke of music from foreign parts.
After some weeks of fruitless prospecting among the official stores on Brigade Road and the others who sold them out of rucksacks and shoe boxes on the pavements of the same street, I found the inevitable greatest hits tape, a CBS release, and took it home like a trophy of war.
The first listen was rather underwhelming. It didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard. I looked in despair from the cover, a rather unrevealing close-up of his face, to the sequence, a bald list of songs, and there was nothing there that could have helped. No map. No words of comfort. And then my dad stopped, laughed rather heartily, and said that this sounded very much like the old women of his village putting oppaari outside a house where there has been a death. An oppaari is a sort of declamatory, wailing appeal to the dead person, an enactment of grief in which everybody begins wailing in different pitches at some point. You can get this free in our villages, he said. No need to buy cassettes.
This riled me so much that I shut him and his continuing laughter out and listened to the cassette on loop. Eventually, the words began to differentiate themselves in my head, and I found myself listening to him, half-fascinated, half-repulsed. What the devil were lines like 'Keep a clean nose and watch your parking meters' doing next to each other? Or indeed what did 'She’s a hypnotist-collector/you are a walking antique' mean?
It was quite unlike listening to The Beatles, for instance, or indeed to straightforward folk, because there was something comfortingly familiar about them. Something reassuring, either because you had heard musicians who had heard them and swallowed their music till it issued forth unbeknownst, or because they were part of the soundtrack of your times — you had heard them without realising you were listening to The Beatles or to Pete Seeger.
And then somebody gave me a recording of Highway 61 Revisited. The first song on this tape, for some reason, was titled 'Tombstone Blues', and it began to issue forth in the tinniest fashion possible out of the mono cassette player. It was a little unsettling, and then I came to a bit that went "the geometry of innocent flesh on the bone/causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown/at Delilah who’s sitting worthlessly alone/but the tears on her cheek are from laughter". My brains liquefied at that point. I had to stop, rewind, and play the first bit again because it made no sense to me at all, and it felt like I hadn’t paid enough attention.
I listened to every number on that album some 20 times, and scribbled notes, all of them ending in question marks, and got nowhere at all very slowly. I couldn’t stop thinking about him and his words and bored various people to death with attempted interpretations. I had arrived likewise at the first huge man-crush of my life.
This, dear reader, is how I perfected my technique for listening to Dylan. I began noticing the music, and how it intersected with the words only much later.
I think the Swedish Academy has chosen to pay attention, rather wisely, to two specific moments in his career Highway 61 Revisited earnest Dylan, and experimental Dylan. Earnest Dylan is the persona out of which he sings of Hattie Carroll and Medgar Evers and provides sharp political commentary fashioned from a largely acoustic, folk idiom. Experimental Dylan is the post-electric phase which resulted in albums such as Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. A phase characterised by a throwing together of disparate elements as he strove to create a way of writing that borrowed shamelessly without surrendering to glib, easy political positions.
There are other Dylans. The Christian, who would write songs such as 'Solid Rock', with lines that went "For me He was chastised, for me He was hated/ For me He was rejected by a world that He created". There’s a Return-to-Commentary Dylan whom you might spot in albums like Infidels. Neighbourhood Bully, a number on this album, has lyrics that go "Every empire that enslaved him is gone/Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon/He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand/In bed with nobody, under no one’s command". So you could also call him Zionist Dylan.
And, for good measure, we have this other Dylan who would write words that read "All that foreign oil controlling American soil/…Sheiks walkin’ around like kings/ Wearing fancy jewels and nose rings/Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and to Paris". Deciding on a name for this version requires us to choose between words and tone — I give you Bad-Hair Dylan and Donald Trump Dylan.
There is also, alas, a WTF Dylan. Some people insist that you can meet him in an album titled Dylan and the Dead. I once watched him do an MTV Unplugged and couldn’t make up my mind about whether he was in a bad place or just taking the piss out of everybody within sight. Who are these guys? Are they phases? Or disguises? We’ll never really know.
Dylan, we are told, is constantly reinventing himself, is a constant chameleon, a kind of consumer from afar of the poison of his times, and much else. Some part of that is accurate, and some equal part needlessly hagiographic. Like other larger-than-life figures from the industry such as Elvis, Madonna and Michael Jackson, he understands and plays the mythopoeia that his fans offer him. Unlike Elvis and MJ, he has never let himself be consumed by the mythology that he adroitly collaborates in producing. Let’s just say that he likes making his own avatars, and remember that the word, in Indian demotic ranges from devout to uncomplimentary. For those who listen to him carefully, it means that he is always trying. Sometimes the verb is transitive and it means he’s onto something. Sometimes it is intransitive, and that is quite the opposite.