Over the last century, the Nobel Prize in Literature has sprung its fair share of surprises. In 1950, for instance, the prize went to the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who quickly followed this up with two books of awkward and astoundingly pedestrian short stories, written and published almost as if they were intended to justify the award. The trend has since persisted, with the Swedish Academy picking writers across genres and geographies. They include Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer in 2011, the oft-banned Chinese Mo Yan in 2012, Canadian short story writer Alice Munro in 2013, French novelist Patrick Modiano in 2014 and Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who has mined oral histories extensively for her non-fiction work on life in the Soviet Union, last year. Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, a long shot in the Nobel sweepstakes for years, is this year’s delightfully idiosyncratic choice, for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
While the purists might be aghast, what possibly clinched it for the 75-year-old is that he isn’t just another musician with a five-decades-plus career. His lyrics — almost bordering on the philosophical when he asks some weighty questions about peace and war in his 1962 hit, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ — chronicled Sixties America’s angst, marking him out as a counterculture icon although Dylan himself would later deny having lent his voice to a generation. Like his contemporary Leonard Cohen, Dylan also wrote in a manner that made listeners, almost contradictorily, both engage and distance themselves from the music. In his hands the music and the lyrics merged and separated, urging us to respond to his songwriting as melody and rhythm, at one level, and as sheer poetry at another.
His role as an influential modern ‘English poet’ has been underrated, despite his profoundly personal odes about war, peace, love and closure. So has been his contribution to the evolution of modern music forms — few, for instance, would trace rap music’s seeds in Dylan’s 51-year-old classic advisory for young adults, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. With every passing decade, he has reinvented himself with a unique ability to stir hope in listeners even while plumbing the depths of darkness in his themes. If Dylan’s body of work were to be compared to any one piece of art, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica perhaps comes closest. Like the beam of sunlight on a solitary flower in a slain soldier’s hands in the depressing scene of the Spanish town destroyed by war, Dylan still brings hope in a world going increasingly awry. And that’s worth a Nobel.