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Dylan is no longer just knocking; Nobel Prize shows he's been let in

Jeff Simon

Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature is spectacular news.

It's spectacular news for the entire world of literature, not just American readers who haven't seen an American writer win for Literature since Toni Morrison in 1993.

It also is spectacular news for the prize itself, which can no longer be consigned to the literary backwaters as a prize handed-out by anti-American Swedish academics.

This is for everyone - especially English language readers whose tastes have been pointedly ignored more often than not since Doris Lessing in 2007. (The 2013 prize to Alice Munro was a nose thumbed at American writers. Munro was a short story writer and a Canadian, as unlike Thomas Pynchon or Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates anyone you'd find.)

Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, blew the whistle on the academy's prize in 2008 and had to resign after rocking the literary world by giving the Nobel Prize game away.

He said the United States was "too isolated and too insulated" for our writers to win. "They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. Their ignorance is restraining."

[Jeff Miers: Dylan has been a "game changer"]

Which is hooey of a most ridiculous sort to anyone who has read the literary essays of John Updike, which are so knowledgeable about international literature that more than a few prize citations by the Swedish Academy - most notably for the prize to Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk - seem to quote from earlier essays by Updike.

Updike was always a problem for everyone until he died. His short stories were exquisite. His novels often were hugely popular ("Couples," "Rabbit, Run," "The Witches of Eastwick.") He played golf and wrote about it. He also wrote perfect journalistic odes to Ted Williams' last at bat with the Boston Red Sox. And he seemed to have more than a passing American acquaintance with being a Protestant and a Republican.

It was his literary sophistication which was hopelessly daunting to the Nobel anointers. They couldn't match it. So why mess with it at all? Better to learn from it. And quote from it, even. And leave it alone.

Toni Morrison was their kind of American writer. So was Isaac Bashevis Singer who wrote in Yiddish. Formidable intellectual Saul Bellow got a pass because he was a Jewish writer from brawny Chicago. His novel "Humboldt's Gift" translated wonderfully into Swedish, they say. Lots of luck to anyone who tried to translate Nabokov's "Lolita" into Swedish, not to mention "Pale Fire." Too brilliant for them. Better to call American literature "insular" and stay as far away from it as possible.

Even so, the very idea of giving the Nobel Prize for literature to the greatest singer-songwriter current America has is a wonderful demonstration of a Swedish Prize committee which seemed to have ossified completely. (Mo Yan in 2012? Patrick Modiano in 2014? Svetlana Alexievich in 2015? None of them were as ridiculous as bypassing Nabokov for Mikhail Sholokov or Borges for Miguel Angel Asturias, but they were absurd enough.)

You don't need to be a virtuoso linguist to imagine how brilliantly Bob Dylan translates into other languages. Think of "Tangled Up In Blue" or "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" or "I Shall Be Released" or "Blowin' in the Wind" and how effortlessly beautiful they can be in other languages, whether Russian or Swedish or Hungarian or Urdu.

For those inclined to be hopeless cynics, there is a little bit of ambiguous news about the prize going to Dylan. The Swedish academics like their Americans to be minorities or folksy or political or socially conscious and/or stylistically easy to translate. (See Steinbeck, Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis and Hemingway.)

And Europeans are notorious for loving Americans as primitives. If they can't have Jerry Lewis being a jabbering monkey in movies, they'll be sympathetic to any American artist who looks as if he might have just emerged from a log cabin after a hearty meal of baked beans, shoofly pie and apple pandowdy.

But Bob Dylan truly represents something magnificent in the American spirit that cultures all around the world revere. Who couldn't understand Dylan's idol Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land": "As I went walking/I saw a sign there/And the sign said/No trespassing/But on the other side/It didn't say nothing/That side is made for you and me."

I've had a rocky relationship with Dylan's work my whole life. I'm no Dylanhead but I've been surrounded by them throughout my adulthood. As I've gotten older, what I've come to appreciate more is the truly awesome perversity of the man.

Listen to him sing a song like "I Shall Be Released." Let Joan Baez and the rest of the folk sisterhood sing it full of isolation and balladic longing. When Dylan sings it, the tempo is almost bouncy. It's the tempo of singers singing folk music at children's birthday parties.

So it's not just the words but that wry perversity of the man that's always there that must translate well everywhere.

How wonderful for us all.

And now we know just how many people that "all" includes.


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