…or what the numbers say about Dylan’s Literature Nobel
From where I am – which seems to be amidst a brass band blowing into the wind – it looks like Bob Dylan might be preparing to give the world his biggest, erectest, knobbliest finger yet.
Turn up for the Nobel Prize 2016 ceremony at the Oslo City Hall on 10 December 2016.
In a fitted, dark, edgy chalk-stripe tux; open-collar, polkadot shirt; and a John B. Stetson hat covering his pate of thinning wirewool.
And lean into the mahogany lectern and mumble:
“Thank you for the honour – but no.”
Or maybe not.
It is two weeks to the day since the Swedish Academy announced Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature 2016, in its extravagantly-chandeliered Börssalen ‘Grand Hall’, located on the upper floor of a 238-year-old, two-storey building of prosaic Neoclassical design. Until 1998, this building housed the floor of the Stockholmsbörsen. In a nod to either history or cognominal laziness, it is still referred to as the Börshuset, despite that it is no longer used for trading in numbers – strictly speaking. Po-faced, unbeguiling, the building, located in the picturesque Old Town in central Stockholm, occupies most of the northern skirt of a large kvadrat – a piazza, for politicking and other sins, dating back to the founding of Stockholm in the mid-13th century. Then, again, the Börshuset is today a politics-free zone – strictly speaking.
The Börshuset is a bureaucratic yellow ochre on the outside, but glitters with Palladian panelling on the inside. The Nobel Prize has invested the pile with a grace and gravitas it would otherwise have struggled to obtain.
Now, consider Dylan: think back to his hoboesque harmonica neck-brace, his fretful 1959 double-O Martin acoustic, his beat-up J50 Gibson. Imagine the Börshuset – and the Freemason-like proceedings inside of the Swedish Academy – carrying the smallest sliver of appeal for Dylan (whose architectural tastes, such as they’ve ever been, range from Chinese fairylights swarming his topiary, to big copper onion-domes that stick out on Google Earth like a Disney djinn’s turban, to Edwardian themes on his sweet clapboard childhood home in Duluth, Minnesota).
Nor can I.
Meanwhile, though, there are 18 buckram-stiffened lifetime members of the Nobel Committee for Literature who, so goes the Stockholm scuttlebutt, are beginning to extrude cobwebs in their Empire Swan chairs waiting for the 2016 literature laureate to make a courtesy pingback.
But we might as well not get alarmingly anal about Dylan not calling back. Remember, this is the dude reputed to send bogus messages from his Point Dume home in Malibu to ward off fans who Navajo down on his cell number:
“The … number you have dialed has been changed, disconnected, or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please hang up and try your call again.”
Compare the pingback put-down to the other thing that Dylan has not also done (but not said that he won’t ever do) – taking even one telephone call from the Nobel Committee, acknowledging even one email, or answering even one SMS, since 9(-ish) am (G+2) on October 13. But Swedes run on Swiss timepieces, and the Nobel Prize runs on its own steam. Keeping to the pace of the programme clock, the Nobel Committee on Literature announced, sharp at 1 pm, the literature conferral on The Man With The Bangabout Martin (Or Gibson) Acoustic Guitar And Sinusoidal Hohner Mouth-Harp – harps, rather, in seven flavours: C, G, D, F, A, B, and E.
Applause was uncertain, uneven, ununanimous. Veterans in the press pack – many of who had covered the 2006 Nobels during which Ladbrokes had pegged Bob Dylan’s odds at 500/1 – were aware that Dylan was playing at a Las Vegas concert (where he pointedly ignored the audience, much as he was ignoring the Swedish Academy).
But you have to ask: Can Dylan continue to ‘ignore’ the Swedish Academy – and that unilateral largesse? (Largesse, because it is, after all, 8 million Swedish kronor [$932,786]. Unilateral, because the Swedish Academy, taking no shit from a bestowee, “has never held a view on a prize winners decision in this context, neither will it now, regardless of the decision reached”. And ignore, as in ‘cold-shoulder’, with neither warm-up nor glaciation, neither feeler nor response, neither validation nor rejection.)
Sure he can – but it would be to no account.
The Nobel Prize has a dynamics of its own: Notably the most patrician, impositional, propulsive award since the heyday of the poisoned chalice, the Nobel needs no acknowledgement, no RSVP. It just is. It is self-sustaining, self-sufficient, powered by the undying will of a man dead a century and more. The Nobel names you as its laureate – and you become one. No refusal. No denial. No appeal. No running away as speedily as your ass can take you without running out of gas.
A Nobel for a rebel is quite the holy grail of mainstream hostile takeovers: the bloodless coup – because, no matter how well or how badly he takes this award, the name of Bob Dylan, primo peacenik, is forever etched alongside that of Alfred Nobel, the unlikeliest maecenas in history, a name as synonymous with the world of deepthink as of demolition.
Technically, it is also a tittle late for Dylan to wholly ‘ignore’ the Nobel Prize: His Facebook and Twitter accounts acknowledged it. As did his official website, BobDylan.com.
On 20 October 2016, a few days behind the news, The Guardian had been pleased to announce: ‘Bob Dylan website acknowledges Nobel literature prize win after five-day wait’. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/20/bob-dylan-website-acknowledges-nobel-prize-win-after-five-day-wait
“In a subtle update on Dylan’s website, a page promoting a new book of his lyrics now includes the declaration ‘winner of the Nobel prize in literature’.”
17 hours later, on 21 October, The Guardian was reduced to lamenting that Dylan’s website had scrubbed the acknowledgement.
However, contrary to The Guardian’s hesitant dipping and dowsing for poetic meaning in a matter analogical to tooth extraction, the Nobel award announcement on Dylan’s website was not “a subtle update” (leave alone a ghost of a press presentiment that Dylan might up – because he has, severally, implied being prepared to do and has done – and leave the building).
Put up on 17 October 2016, the announcement on Dylan’s website was clear, celebratory, and capitalised:
‘WINNER OF THE NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE’
It stayed up for two days. It was deleted, without preamble, and replaced with:
‘Order from Amazon’
It was an extraordinary erasure of a prix extraordinaire, considering that Dylan had won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation (the very same award given John Coltrane posthumously in 2007 and Thelonius Monk in 2006) – and isn’t shying from owning up to it. There is a whole page devoted to his Pulitzer on his website.
Three days ago, the Dagens Nyheter daily quoted Per Erik Wästberg, Seat No. 12 of De Abruten (‘The Eighteen’) lifetime members comprising the Swedish Academy: “One can say that it [Dylan’s aloofness] is impolite and arrogant.”
Still, as a musicologist friend said, coming to the defence of Zimbo: “It’s early days yet.”
In the subliteral Dylanverse, it’s only two weeks to go.
Here’s what his NobelPrize.org cites as the “Prize motivation” for Dylan:
• “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
(Not in the Nobel’s 105-year-old history has a Nobel laureate received such a concise citation – maybe even abrupt, possibly – the horror! – unsyntactical and unceremonious.)
Here’s what the 2008 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation award read: that he was awarded
• “[f]or his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power”.
Was the citation format taken from a go-to secretarial bureau marked ‘Templates’?
What’s with the coördinating conjunctions, then?
I do not smell a conspiracy here, mostly because Dylan is up shit creek.
For Elmer Johnson a.k.a Lucky Wilbury a.k.a Boo Wilbury a.k.a Blind Boy Grunt a.k.a Elston Gunn a.k.a Jack Frost a.k.a Jack Fate a.k.a Sergei Petrov a.k.a Robert Milkwood Thomas a.k.a Tedham Porterhouse to be eligible for that almost-cool million that comes with the gong, uncompromising Swedish Academy rules require Dylan to give at least one lecture, specifically on literature, within six months of 10 December, Alfred Nobel’s birthday.
It’s sort of like asking for the moon – made of Appenzellar cheese, slices cut to a size, merci vielmal.
First, when not singing – well, even when he is, most times – Dylan drips out syllables as if through a sieve of rust-flaked adenoids: If he’s into talking, I must’ve missed that major epiphany in my childhood.
Second, he carries around a beaky albatross named ‘Shyness Central’. Granted, Pulitzer Prizewinners tend to dawdle and giggle overlong at the mic – but Dylan didn’t only not put in an appearance at the 2008 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation award ceremony, but he also sent an off-key emissary – his musicorporate son, Jesse Byron Dylan, looking a comprehensive ill-fit in bunchy pinstripes (which his dad would have just killed with his cool, by the way).
Third, the Nobel Prize endowment of $932,786 is 0.518%-1.166% of Dylan’s estimated holdings of between $80 million (Richest Celebrities) and $180 million (Celebrity Net Worth). He’ll live fine without the Nobel small change.
Can anyone truly imagine Dylan orating in front of 1,300 people sitting primed to tinkle their wineglasses with their spoons in thunderous applause – all dressed, as gender might variously demand, to resemble penguins or crinoline tents?
The Swedish Academy, likely prepped the night before to anticipate the sort of dude whose existence no finishing school can bring itself to acknowledge – Spectral Septuagenarian Souljaman – is already getting into firefighting formation.
They’re determined to have Dylan finish the formalities – whatever flexibility with the rules it might call for.
As Jonna Petterson, spokeswoman, the Nobel Foundation, said:
• “Yes, we are trying to find an arrangement that suits the laureate.”
• “Yes, he can also opt to give (sic) a concert instead of a lecture.”
It seems unlikely that we’ll ever know exactly how Bob Dylan came to the odds – or the odds came to Dylan – which involved almost nonchalantly shrugging off integers from the stiffest numbers scrum of all: the punters’ run.
The 2016 Nobel for Literature went, literally, to a horse so dark and so swift that even experienced punters, in the mêlée for the hard cash, not the bookmaking thrills of the bookish, missed it.
Haruko Murakami, leading the list at an easy, long-legged canter, had been the favourite since betting began. On 3 October, the odds (Ladbrokes) had been Murakami (5/1); Syrian poet Adūnīs (6/1); retired American writer Philip Roth (7/1); Kenyan playwright, novelist, journalist, and memoirist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (10/1); Albanian novelist and poet Ismail Kadaré and celebrated Spanish novelist Javier Marías (both at 16/1); Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes, the Irish John Banville, Norwegian playwright and novelist Jon Fosse, the American Joyce Carol Oates, and Hungarian novelist and screenwriter László Krasznahorkai (all at 20/1); and Israeli novelist Amos Oz, Austrian novelist and political activist Peter Handke, and Hungarian playwright and novelist Péter Nádas (all at 25/1).
Murakami never broke his stride. On 6 October, Ladbrokes was still plugging Murakami (4/1) for lead nag, with Adūnīs (6/1), Philip Roth (7/1), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (10/1), and Joyce Carol Oates (14/1) next, followed by Ismail Kadaré and Javier Marías (both come to a stop at 16/1).
Dylan joined the race-line on this day, 6 October, one week before the Literature Nobel was given him. From a mudstuck backrow 50/1 (Ladbrokes) with 7 days to go; to 16/1 (Ladbrokes) on 12 October, less than 24 hours before the award announcement; to 8/1 (Unibet), when betting came to an official close on the hushed night of 12 October, hours before the Nobel award – and Dylan was still not showing promise.
A day prior, on 11 October, absolutely nobody had been betting hard on Dylan – not even the otherwise dependably loyal American media. The Guardian, on its part, announced American writer Don DeLillo as a surprise “outside contender”. DeLillo’s speed was ferocious: Ladbrokes announced that he had swept up from 66/1 (from the Margaret Atwood boonies) to a Murakami-contesting 14/1 (and even, briefly orbital, to 4/1).
On 12 October – when, I assume, five selected members of the Swedish Academy were in the thick of bloody but honourable literary triage – Dylan started the day tied for 8th place (at 16/1) with Javier Marías: and ended the day (Unibet) at 4th place (8/1), after Adūnīs (5/4), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (3/1), and Murakami (13/2).
In fact, on that day before the reckoning, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Murakami’s numbers had wrestled, weakly and for form’s sake, for the top spot. Sometimes one led, and an hour later the other. At one time, Ladbrokes had Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o as favourite (at 7/2), with Murakami and Adūnīs tied in second place (at 6/1). At other times, Unibet had Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o holding the slightest edge.
Dylan: Somewhere. Diaphanous. In the wings.
THE NUMBERS GAME
On 6 October, the day that Bob Dylan stepped into the scrimmage, such as it was, his odds were 50/1 – the same as that of the (lately-outed) Italian pseudonymous writer Elena Ferrante, the reclusive Thomas Pynchon, midcentury/Midwest writer Marilynne Summers Robinson, and feminist-science fiction doyenne Ursula K. Le Guin.
In the best tradition of media lit crit, New Republic asked a question and answered it, unasked:
‘Who Will Win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature?’
“Not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure.” (https://newrepublic.com/article/137496/will-win-2016-nobel-prize-literature)
By 12 October, the sentiment in the US had hardly changed. ‘Will Don DeLillo win the Nobel Prize in literature?’ asked the Los Angeles Times, fondly but archly observing that “for the last couple of years, Bob Dylan has been on the betting list for the Nobel Prize in literature. The idea holds little truck with readers — Alex Shepherd writes about the possible winner, “not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure” at the New Republic — but the musician is fun to bet on all the same.”
I’ve heard this muttered over the past days, conviction muffled but not muted: “The idea [of Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel] holds little truck with readers…” Certainly, nobody I know of who (also) reads had the slightest inkling that Dylan would cop the Literature Nobel.
That said, the Nobel Committee hardly appears to have been detached from judgment. In the Biobibliographical Notes on the Nobel Foundation’s website, Dylan’s ‘Works in English’ were prioritised, as if he has works in other languages, too. His ‘Albums’ are listed next. At the very end of the conga line, the whip-like snap of a long, defensive tail, pointedly named ‘Further Reading’ – basically, a list of books on Dylan (including an encyclopaedia) that the Nobel Committee on Literature cobbled together to show it knows its business.
References sans reading.
As The Atlantic put it, both bluntly and sharply:
“The first listed entry is the ‘Bob Dylan Song Book’, a 1965 collection of sheet music and lyrics, and the last is ‘If Not For You’, a little-noticed 2016 children’s book that that illustrated the lyrics of a 1970 Dylan song (see pic #4). His self-repudiated 1971 prose collection ‘Tarantula’ and 2004 memoir ‘Chronicles, Volume One’ are in there, too.”
The Swedish Academy’s closed-door proceedings seem to be as arcane and as secret as the Vatican’s Papal Conclave to elect the pope. We’ll have to wait until 2056 to know what it was that the Nobel Committee for Literature 2016 found so radically and swiftly persuasive that, on the night of 12 October, it went against the very name that the numbers in Geneva were throwing gold Öres at, should the Nobel Committee discover itself in the mood for some experimentation: that of the Norwegian Jon Fosse, pegged as the mörkhäst, the dark horse.
The Swedish Academy says it understands that the “constant changes call into question what criteria the Committee is currently using to determine ‘ideal’ literature”.
But the call for answers has not gone out yet – because “the answer can only be deduced after the fact, as the Academy’s logs are kept under wraps for 40 years”.
40 years to wait for classified information about who, in the year 2016, let the odds out.