So it turns out that the Nobel Prize in Literature does matter to Bob Dylan after all. He may barely have acknowledged the news that he won the award, sending Patti Smith to Stockholm to pick up his prize, but he has fulfilled the one duty required of a laureate and delivered his Nobel lecture, just days before a deadline which would have seen him forfeit the prize money of €800,000.
The lecture, recorded and delivered by audio link, suggests that Dylan was not as indifferent to the honour as his previous silence indicated, and not just for monetary reasons.
Rather, he has used the opportunity to outline the influences and motivations that fired his journey into songwriting. Moreover, the speech is a rejoinder, of sorts, to those who questioned why Dylan got the prize in the first place. Or as he puts it, “I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature.”
That Buddy Holly is the first artist cited by Dylan will not allay the doubts of literary purists. But it is a dramatic opening. He talks about seeing the bespectacled rock-and-roller at a show shortly before his premature death in a 1959 plane crash: "He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something."
Right after that, Dylan talks about the “lingo” he picked up from the blues and folk records that excited him as a young man. “You’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy,” he says, adding that this exotic language was “the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it”.
But, Dylan notes, “I had something else as well.” Thanks to the classic literature he read at school, he had “an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by”.
He goes on to analyse three works that resonated with him: Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey. These books seem to have imparted a fatalistic view of the world on Dylan, where man is cruel, nature is indifferent to human suffering and one is ultimately on one's own.
But he finishes his round-up of seminal works on a more hopeful note, with a telling vignette of Odysseus as he finishes his long journey: “When he’s home at last, he sits with his wife, and he tells her the stories.”
Dylan then finally gets around to the question that has preoccupied his fans (not to mention a legion of rock critics) for decades: “So what does it all mean?” As has always been his way, he keeps his cards close to his chest.
He concedes that the ideas the young Robert Zimmerman took from literature worked their way into his work as Bob Dylan: "I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental."
But the gut impact of a composition means more than the literary or mythical references that may have inspired it: “If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important.”
For Dylan, it seems, songs provide a means for people to affirm their sense of self in a world that otherwise appears random and capricious.
And, he concedes, his chosen artform is necessarily different from the written word. “Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read.”
He ends with a plea for people to encounter his lyrics as they were intended: “in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days.”
Fittingly for a lecture that celebrates the vernacular, it is more effective as an audio piece than as a written essay.
Dylan’s voice is as magnificently gnarled as ever, adding an extra dimension to his language, which veers between the folksy, the allusive and the biblical. His descriptions of the books he loved are delivered with a intensity and insight that suggests he had a great future as an English teacher, had he not been, well, a songwriting genius.
But his prose is nonetheless characteristically compelling. As in his brilliant 2004 memoir, Chronicles Volume One, Dylan offers tantalising anecdotes from his life, gives detailed information of the artists who inspired him and yet manages to retain his enigmatic air, with the reader (or listener) none the wiser as to the personal alchemy that yielded his magnificent body of work.
And, defiant to the last, he accepts his award unapologetically as a songwriter, not as a poet manqué. Literature grounded him, but songs allowed him to fly. Whether his meditation on song and literature will be enough to win over the doubters is another matter.
But Dylan will hardly care. Like his best songs, his lecture is rich in rewarding detail and evocative imagery, but the important thing is how it moves you.
As Dylan says, “I don’t know what it all means, but it sounds good.