Bob Dylan was announced as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature – but then removed mention of it from his website
When I ask him about his reaction to hearing the news a fortnight ago that he is to follow in the footsteps of George Bernard Shaw, TS Eliot, Winston Churchill, William Faulkner, Günter Grass, Ernest Hemingway and Harold Pinter, I have no idea what to expect.
Dylan, now 75, is on tour in Oklahoma, and we had been due to discuss his new exhibition of artworks, depicting iconic images of American landscapes and urban scenes, which opens to the public at the Halcyon Gallery on London’s New Bond Street next week.
Since it was announced he had been chosen by the Swedish Academy to receive the Nobel, Dylan has made no public reference at all to it, save for a fleeting mention on his own website that was deleted within 24 hours.
More than that, he has also reportedly refused to pick up the phone to speak to representatives of the Nobel committee.
They apparently remain in the dark about whether he will be attending the ceremony on December 10, when he will receive a cheque for £750,000 from King Carl VI Gustaf.
Well, I can put them out of their misery. For when I ask about his Nobel, Dylan is all affability. Yes, he is planning to turn up to the awards ceremony in Stockholm. “Absolutely,” he says. “If it’s at all possible.”
And as he talks, he starts to sound pretty pleased about becoming a Nobel laureate. “It’s hard to believe,” he muses.
His name has been mentioned as on the shortlist for a number of years, but the announcement was certainly not expected. When he was first told, it was, Dylan confides, “amazing, incredible. Whoever dreams about something like that?”
In which case, I can’t help but ask, why the long public silence about what it means? Jean-Paul Sartre famously declined the award in 1964, but Dylan has these past weeks seemed intent on simply refusing to acknowledge its existence, so much so that one of the normally tight-lipped Nobel committee labelled him “impolite and arrogant”.
For his part, Dylan sounds genuinely bemused by the whole ruckus. It is as if he can’t quite fathom where all the headlines have come from, that others have somehow been over-reacting.
Couldn’t he just have taken the calls from the Nobel Committee?
“Well, I’m right here,” he says playfully, as if it was simply a matter of them dialling his number, but he offers no further explanation.
It is over a quarter of a century since I first interviewed Bob Dylan. That was back in 1989, and he started off so reticent that he was monosyllabic.
When I asked him a question about the 1960s, he snapped at me. What I did then was start over and ask all the same questions again. It worked. We ended up doing a two-and-a-half hour interview.
If there is one thing I have learned about him over the years, and the several interviews he has granted me, it is that he always does the unexpected.
Bob Dylan has never made a secret of the fact that he doesn’t like the media. It is two years since he last spoke to a journalist. He does it his way.
So, for all the speculation over the last two weeks about the reasons behind his blanket silence on the Nobel award, I can only say that he is a radical personality – which is why he has remained of so much interest to us over six decades since he first emerged on the Manhattan music scene in 1962 – and cannot be tied down, even by the Nobel Prize committee.
In interviews over the years, the famously unpredictable Dylan has been by turns combative, amiable, taciturn, philosophical, charismatic, caustic and cryptic.
He has seemed intent, most of all, on being fiercely private and frustratingly unknowable. Hence his apparent toying with the Nobel committee cannot be said to have come entirely out of the blue.
Perhaps it is just that he has grown casual about garlands that would send the rest of us into orbit, as he has received so many in the course of his long career in the spotlight, since songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They Are a-Changin’ became anthems for the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.
Among many others, he has received a Special Citation Pulitzer (2008), the National Medal of Arts (2009), Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012), as well as France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1990) and the Légion d’Honneur (2013).
Dylan has received many awards during his long career
So does he agree with the Nobel committee, I ask, that his songs belong alongside great works of literature? Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, for example, has linked Dylan’s contribution to literature with the writers of ancient Greece.
“If you look back, far back, 2,500 years or so,” she has said, “you discover Homer and Sappho, and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, they were meant to be performed, often together with instruments, and it’s the same way with Bob Dylan. But we still read Homer and Sappho… and we enjoy it, and same thing with Bob Dylan. He can be read, and should be read.”