Here are some lines from Tomas Transtromer, a poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2011: The music is a house of glass standing on a slope; rocks are flying, rocks are rolling. / The rocks roll straight through the house but every pane of glass is still whole.
And here are some from Eugenio Montale, who won for poetry in 1975: Perhaps one morning walking in dry glassy air, / I will turn, I will see the miracle complete: / nothingness at my shoulder, the void behind / me, with a drunkard's terror. / Then, as on a screen, trees houses hills / will advance swiftly in familiar illusion, / But it will be too late; and I will return, silently, / to men who do not look back, with my secret.
And now here are some lines from Bob Dylan: Yes, and how many times must a man look up / Before he can see the sky? / Yes, and how many ears must one man have / Before he can hear people cry? / Yes, and how many deaths will it take 'til he knows / That too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind / The answer is blowin' in the wind.
You might notice a slight difference in density, in complexity and, above all, in rhythm: the Dylan is strictly metrical, the others are free verse. They are yet still all musical. The Dylan is the only one that is crudely so, for the dull reason that it was written to music (simple music at that; a song with a verse/chorus structure). The other difference is the question of profundity. Dylan's call to be less warlike and more spiritual was a common one of his time and is fundamentally vague, easy to feel good about and lacking in original insight. It's nice, is all.
So what on earth, writers all over the world are thinking, happened in those closed rooms in Stockholm?
Here are some more lines by Dylan: The wind blowin' snow around./ Walk around with nowhere to go, / Somebody could freeze right to the bone./ I froze right to the bone./ New York Times said it was the coldest winter in seventeen years./ I didn't feel so cold then.
Here the difference between Montale and Dylan becomes quite pronounced. One is elegant and sophisticated, the other is, well, dumb.
Over the past few months, the bookies were taking bets on the possibilities for the Nobel winner, all of them highbrow writers, with the big favourites being non-Americans (as the Nobel is notoriously biased against Americans; the last U.S. winner was Toni Morrison in 1993).
The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami was the leader at 4/1, followed by people such as Syrian poet Adonis, Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Albanian Ismail Kadare. The only American writers who were considered even a possibility were the cerebral and serious Philip Roth and Don de Lillo.
The Nobel is above all serious: writers on big issues (such asChinua Achebe or Nadine Gordimer) or delicate stylists (such asTranstromer or Elfriede Jelinek) tend to win. The commercially popular has not been rewarded in recent years – indeed, the Nobel was beginning to be disliked for the obscurity of its choices (Patrick Modiano, winner in 2014, was widely known in Europe, but hardly at all in North America, and this was seen as another snub against U.S. culture.)
Well, they picked U.S. culture in a big way – but not its high culture, its pop culture, the greatest global export of that country.
Was the Nobel committee trying to assert a trendy populism? A gesture of reconciliation to the United States? Or was this odd – no, frankly enraging, to the poets of the world – choice just the product of boomer nostalgia, and more evidence that that generation, the generation that once thought itself iconoclastic and permissive, has not relinquished its hold on positions of real power in the world, and really spends its time in those secret halls listening to their old records from college? Perhaps Nobel Prize is just Swedish for "everybody must get stoned."
It won't be the first time a committee of 18 Swedes had difficulty assimilating and judging the literature of the entire world. They ignored, in their time, Leo Tolstoy and Henry James. Perhaps the baffling choice is more evidence that judging literature in every language is an impossible task and we shouldn't take the Nobel Prize so seriously to start with.