Sara Danius. Om Bob Dylan. Stockholm, Sweden: Albert Bonnier Förlag, 2018. 104 pp.
REVIEW BY Karl Gustel Wärnberg, Leiden University
Bob Dylan is a unique phenomenon. He is the only artist to have won a Grammy, an Oscar, and the Nobel Prize. The latter was not uncontroversial. When it was announced by the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, that Dylan had won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, the world held its breath in shock, gasped out of surprise, let out a gleeful cheer, and then scratched its head wondering if it had in fact heard the correct name. In her book Om Bob Dylan (On Bob Dylan), Danius reflects on this momentous time in history.
Danius begins her reflections on Dylan by describing another Nobel Prize laureate. Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the prize in medicine the same year as Dylan was awarded the prize in literature. Ohsumi studied how cells reproduce themselves, multiplying by killing off the old. Danius jokingly compares this cellular process to Dylan’s career, except the joke is only a half joke. Her point is that Dylan holds within himself an entire tradition, ranging from Petrarch, to Shakespeare, through Rimbaud, all the way to Lorca. Dylan creates something new from the old, which Danius describes by stating that “Bob Dylan is an indefatigable archivist of history, a stubborn traditionalist, and simultaneously an artist who never stops reinventing himself. He appears again and again in surprising guises.” A slightly forced comparison, one might think, but the point comes across.
The book contains many similarly forced comparisons but reads well in general. It is short and flows steadily, more like an extended essay or reflection than a book. It is clearly written by a fan who is also trying to be funny and occasionally provocative. Writing this kind of book is hard to do because who does one write it for? Is it aimed at convincing those who don’t already believe Dylan should have won the prize, or at those who already love Dylan and believe in his literary genius? Danius pitches the book in the middle ground, meaning skeptics can find arguments as to why he is given such an elevated position in the literary canon, and long-time fans might discover previously unknown details about Dylan’s Swedish reception. Although Danius provides some refutation to questions about whether Dylan deserves the prize, her book is not a polemic, and she shrugs off skepticism by stating that his prize is not actually controversial, but well-deserved. It might strike some as elitist, maybe even as a sidestepping the issue, but the book has wider aims and provides insight to the process of awarding Dylan the Nobel Prize, for which Danius provides references to other books, such as Christopher Ricks’s Dylan’s Visions of Sin.
As Danius makes clear, Dylan is an artist whom many love to hate, and others hate to love for the sheer energy it takes to immerse oneself in his music and words. The hours spent listening to the words as they speak through time can be exhausting. And on top of it all is a shrill voice in the early years, and a whiskey-induced rasp in later years. But Danius says this is exactly why Dylan’s cult status endures. His voice, like it or not, is unmistakable, and it doesn’t matter whether one likes it. If there was a museum of historic voices, argues Danius, Dylan would have a natural place in it. None of this will surprise Dylan enthusiasts, though the book is not primarily or solely written for them.
Danius could have engaged more of her own thoughts on Dylan, which she sometimes begins to do but fails to reach her destination. As a reader, I thought she would say more, given her prestigious place in Swedish cultural society and her background as a well-known literary critic, who dedicated much work to the American tradition. Danius’s book partially aims to tell us why Dylan won the prize, but this fact is connected to his qualities as an artist. Dylan won the prize for literature, yet his voice is the vehicle through which the words reach us. There is surely much more to be discussed about the relation between Dylan’s lyrics and his performance or embodiment of them.
The former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy goes on to say that, based on these reflections, many thought that the Academy’s decision was rather bold and risky. How could a musician, and one that is often criticized even as a musician, win the Nobel Prize in Literature? The criticism should not be exaggerated, she writes. Concentrating on Sweden, Danius shows how Dylan was received favorably even in the earliest days of his career, recalling the interest and conflicts surrounding Dylan’s first visit to the country. In the spring of 1966, Göran Printz-Påhlson wrote an article for Dagens Nyheter – one of Sweden’s leading daily newspapers – where he argued that Dylan is a poet who can be read just like any other poet. The following year, a magazine tied to Bonnier, one of the largest publishing houses in Sweden, printed an article that also argued that Dylan was a poet. This article, in turn, was commented on in Dagens Nyheter, where Torsten Ekbom argued that Dylan was a champion of ‘New Poetry’, alongside artists like Frank Zappa and Ed Sanders. Old poetry was dead.
That same year, 1966, the bard visited Sweden himself. He came on a tour, captured in photographs taken by Björn Larsson Ask. Sweden was known for its old-fashioned style: jacket and tie. When Dylan arrived at the airport, journalists waited in great excitement for the global star who trailed The Beatles and Swedish folk music legend Cornelis Vreeswijk in the national charts. Dylan finally showed up, no tie, sporting large curly hair and sunglasses. He held a press conference, which left everyone irate. It was clear that the press didn’t know much about Dylan, and they asked all sorts of strange questions, writes Danius. For example, they claimed not to have listened to his music, yet they proceeded to ask him about the songs. After his concert he is reported to have turned to Swedish journalist Annette Kullenberg and said, “they like me better now, don’t they?” Many of the journalists were probably not very well acquainted with Dylan, Danius muses, and his nonchalance struck the buttoned-up Swedes as insulting. A dose of Nordic skepticism, then, tempered the Swedish critics’ early praise.
Danius also takes us behind the scenes of the Nobel Prize announcement, half-a-century after Dylan’s first visit. Stating that you shouldn’t always believe the media, she welcomes us into the story from the inside. Yet, the story is retold by Danius, a member of the Swedish Academy, just before the Swedish Academy entered a crisis with disputes between its members not seen since its founding in the 18th century. In 2018, the husband of one of the Academicians was first accused, and later found guilty, of harassment; public perception was that the Academy handled the situation poorly. The controversy split the Academy into two camps as to how to relate to the accused party, who was a high-ranking personality in Swedish culture. Several members resigned, and a fellow member wrote an op-ed in a Swedish daily claiming Danius was the worst permanent secretary the Swedish Academy had ever had. Danius’s account, then, becomes even more valuable, as she found herself in the eye of two storms: the harassment scandal, and the Dylan announcement. As Danius herself puts it, her book exists only ‘for the record,’ and it is worth considering that the Swedish Academy very rarely has to justify its decisions to the extent that it did with Dylan. The Academy usually delivers a sentence or two explaining why they have chosen that year’s laureate, whereas in this case they found themselves defending their decision in the press.
While Om Bob Dylan will go down in history as an explanation and justification of what for many was a controversial decision, unlike perhaps any other in the Academy’s century-long history, the content itself is not hugely surprising. Much of what it contains was already known to the public, and what the Academicians discussed behind locked doors leading up to the final vote is not disclosed. It would be fascinating to hear what some of the world’s most erudite people say about Dylan when the microphones are off, although this information is safeguarded under a veil of secrecy and will perhaps never be disclosed in full. In this sense, Danius heightens expectations, only to burst them with triviality, despite teasing some interesting historic trivia about Dylan’s visits to, and reception in, Sweden.
On the morning of October 13, 2016, no culture journalists speculated about Dylan as a potential laureate. His name had been brought up a few times as a potential laureate in previous years, but not this time. At 11:30am the Swedish Academy awarded Dylan the prize, with a broad majority. The reason? Dylan is a poet of the highest caliber. According to Danius, he works in the English-speaking tradition going back to Milton, via Blake, and going past Rimbaud in France. She adds that he also stands in a great oral tradition from the blues in the American South, and the folk music in the Appalachian Mountains. The analysis Danius provides in the book is not unique. In one sense, it is hard to be unique, given the many volumes of scholarship that have already been dedicated to his oeuvre. It is surprising, however, because Danius spent almost a decade in America, studying modernism and literature. Her doctoral dissertation was titled The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Modernist Aesthetics (1997) and she worked in UCLA and the Getty Research Institute. Feminism, via Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf, has characterized much of her work. This book only shows a few signs of her literary research and feminist point of view, which she applies to the Swedish Academy stating that the Academy is a “she.” This seems a rather pointed statement, given that many of the male members had been accused by the public of creating – or trying to retain – a sort of “macho-culture” within the Academy. Despite her learning, when it comes to analysis of Dylan, she seems to rely on previous scholarship rather than providing what could be her unique perspective.
At 1pm – an hour and a half after Danius made her announcement – she began trying to get in touch with Dylan, something which proved more difficult than she thought. Many in the public were furious. She received angry emails criticizing the decision, but many others rejoiced over the widening definition of literature. In fact, as Danius’s colleague Horace Engdahl pointed out in his moving speech during the Nobel ceremony, Dylan takes us back to an original understanding of literature, where words are meant to be sung and not merely spoken. Engdahl asked: “What brings about the great shifts in the world of literature?” His answer is that often “it is when someone seizes upon a simple, overlooked form, discounted as art in the higher sense, and makes it mutate.”
Finally reaching Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, Danius received a message saying, “We’re thrilled over here!” Naturally, the message crossed the Atlantic and traveled all over the world. In the following weeks, there was much talk about Dylan’s potential skipping out on the Nobel ceremony, which he eventually did. Danius says this criticism is unjustified, and she spends several pages telling the story of how Samuel Beckett refused to show up at the ceremony. She says Beckett was in his right not to attend the ceremony, and so is Dylan, while adding that Dylan may not be the last. It is not a condition to receiving the prize. Yet, Dylan is no Beckett: he is a rockstar, as well as a writer. Dylan was about to go on tour, and it is hard not to get cynical and think the aged Swedish Academicians wanted to spend their time with a rock ’n’ roll hall of famer. Again, Danius says this is untrue and argues that the media criticism was wildly exaggerated. For example, it was stated that the Academy was angry with Dylan for refusing to commit to showing up. It was said that they found him “impolite and arrogant.” With such statements, we are back to his 1960s visit to Sweden. However, the Academician who had accused Dylan of arrogance was speaking as an individual, and not as a member of the Academy. The story was buried and twelve days later Danius had Dylan on the phone.
“I feel so very, very, honored. I don’t know what to say – I’m speechless. But I want to … truly … thank you. It’s a great honor. I can’t find the words.” Those were the words of Dylan to Danius, on Tuesday, October 25, 2016. Danius says she could hardly believe her ears. She could not get confirmation if Dylan would visit Sweden, but a few days later that came as well. He wouldn’t be able to on account of his tour. She soon felt relieved that he couldn’t come. Sure, she writes, it would have been fantastic if he came, but it would also have been a lot of work. It wasn’t until April 2017 that Dylan set on foot in Sweden again. He was there for his planned tour, performing at Stockholm Waterfront. On April 1, April Fool’s Day, Dylan visited the Swedish Academy. It was only him and the members of the Academy. No photographers and no journalists were invited. Danius was busy speaking to a colleague when an odd figure appeared through the doors. It was Dylan. He seemed nervous and shy, she recalls. They delivered the medal, 18 carat gold with 25 carat gold-plating, engraved with an inscription from Virgil’s Aeneid. Dylan recognized it immediately, laughed and spoke to the members of the Academy for a few minutes, then left.
Danius’ book is a recollection of Dylan’s reception in Sweden, a description of his genius, and an intimate narrative of the controversies surrounding his nomination and reception of the Nobel Prize, dispelling many of the rumors. Danius is a controversial figure in Sweden; she was vocal in the #MeToo movement, which shook the Academy some years after Dylan’s prize. Her book is indeed a valuable record of the events leading up to and through Dylan’s Nobel sojourn, and it is surely one which will be of value to historians in decades to come. Yet, it remains her version of turbulent times, and as she remarks, she was often tired and overwhelmed by events. The most valuable thing with the book is her reminder that no matter what, the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature belongs solely to Bob Dylan.