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Nobel snubs Dylan for lit laurel as the Swedes pick — surprise! — a Swede.

October 6, 2011

Seldom has being right tasted so much like ashes: Did anyone really think Bob Dylan had a chance to win the Nobel Prize in literature — with a Swedish poet in the running?

Visit the Miami Book Fair International website to see the gaudy author list (Roseanne Cash! Jeffrey Eugenides! Nicole Kraus! Michael Ondaajte! Hundreds more! Literally!). This year’s fair runs Nov. 13-20. More details to come. Watch this space!

Two days ago, after British bookmakers elevated Bob Dylan to frontrunner status, I mounted an argument against giving the Nobel Prize in Literature to a singer/songwriter, a position that inspired a lively argument in the comments section.

My position basically is that while Dylan is a genius, the Nobel should be reserved for writers in traditional literary genres (fiction, poetry, drama). Not only do such authors need the attention more than Bob does, but genre distinctions are worth preserving.

Those arguing in favor of Bob’s literary ascendancy, some of them not only impassioned but also eloquent, argue that Dylan broke barriers and bridged gaps, and, given his cultural influence and the quality of at least some of his lyrics, deserves the prize more than anyone.

But now that the prize has gone to Tomas Transtromer, the whole Dylan-for-Nobel thing, quite apart from the arguments on either side, looks like a fever dream. Really, what were the British bettors thinking when they ran up the odds on Dylan?

A) Bob is American. The Swedish Academy, which gives out the Nobel Prize, has demonstrated in recent years a haughty anti-Americanism bordering on the spiteful. The low point came in 2008, when Nobel pooh-bah Horace Engdahl derided  U.S. literary culture for its “insularity” and “ignorance.” Things haven’t improved since, with American writers like Philip Roth given little chance, no matter how deserving.

B) This year, especially, Bob stood no chance. That’s because one of the leading candidates is a Swedish poet few people outside of Scandinavia have ever heard of. As this nicely barbed story in the Telegraph notes, Swedish writers have won the literary Nobel a ridiculously disproportionate number of times.

Indeed, with a population under 10 million (or roughly the same as Michigan or Georgia), Sweden has taken home the prize nine out of 110 times. Or I should say, kept the prize at home.

Who are those “mighty masters” of literature, as the Telegraph’s Philip Henscher calls them? Bjornsterne Bjornson, Selma agerlof, Verner von Heidenstam, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Par Lagerkvist, Nelly Sachs, Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson.

“Time has shown every single Swedish winner of the prize to be ‘a little phenomenon of no interest’ outside their own country,” Henscher observes. I share his snark.

In the same period these Nordic non-entities were taking the grandest literary prize in the known universe, a few pretty good writers were overlooked. See if you’ve read any of them:

Mark Twain, James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Robert Frost, Marcel Proust, W.H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, Elizabeth Bishop, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Lowell, John Updike, Joseph Conrad, Italo Calvino, George Orwell, Henry James, Edith Wharton…

I could go on: Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Alberto Moravia, Philip Larkin, John Cheever, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Muriel Spark, William Carlos Williams, Arthur Miller… Okay, I’ll stop. You get the point.

Will Transtromer beat the Nobel curse to become the first Swedish winner who is not soon forgotten? I wouldn’t bet on it. Here’s a Transtromer haiku, courtesy of Henscher: “My happiness swelled/and the frogs sang in the bogs/of Pomerania.”

The bogs of Pomerania, indeed. Okay, I know it’s not fair to mock a writer on the basis of a few words rendered in translation, but I’m not feeling like fair today. If you want fair, go to The New York Times for an assessment of Transtromer’s career, or here for a couple of full-length poems in translation.

The last American awarded the prize was Toni Morrison in 1993. My bet: The Cubs will take the World Series before the next American brings home a Nobel. Which is to say, possibly never.

But still, I must add: Better Transtromer than Dylan. At least we will ever see Transtromer on TV, in a creepy Victoria Secrets commercial.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2011 9:26 pm

    Dylan? Nobel? Really? The mind boggles. What were they thinking? As to the translation problem: It’s a biggy. The greatest poet the Russians ever produced (in my humble estimation) was Pushkin. I was a Russian minor in college and tried for years to translate him. It never worked. It can’t be done. The Swede is doomed! Poetry never works well in translation.Well, who knows, maybe it will be okay. Step forward genius.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 7, 2011 12:57 am

      Only a poet can translate poetry, and then it’s more like transliteration, the creation of a similar but new thing. Do you think the 23rd Psalm sounds like “The Lord is my shepherd” in Hebrew? Me, neither, but it’s a great English poem nonetheless.

  2. Sarah permalink
    October 7, 2011 10:08 am

    Romanesque Arches
    (translated by Robin Fulton)

    Inside the huge romanesque church the tourists jostled in the half darkness.
    Vault gaped behind vault, no complete view.
    A few candle-flames flickered.
    An angel with no face embraced me
    and whispered through my whole body:
    “Don’t be ashamed of being human, be proud!
    Inside you vault opens behind vault endlessly.
    You will never be complete, that’s how it’s meant to be.”
    Blind with tears
    I was pushed out on the sun-seething piazza
    together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Mr. Tanaka and Signora Sabatini
    and inside them all vault opened behind vault endlessly.

    • October 8, 2011 1:42 pm

      Thanks, for this, Sarah, and for your fine comments on transl(iter)ation, Chauncey. Here’s another poem of Transtromer’s that still retains much power in the English. Below that a link to him reading:

      by Tomas Transtromer. (Translation by Kalle Raisanen)
      In the evening-dark of a place outside New York, a look-out point
      where one glance can encompass eight million people’s homes.
      The giant city over there is a long, flickering snow-drift, a spiral
      galaxy on its side.
      Inside the galaxy, coffee cups are slid over the counter, store-fronts
      beg with passers-by, a crowd of shoes that leave no traces.
      The climbing fire-escapes, the elevator doors gliding shut, behind
      locked doors a constant swell of voices.
      Sunken bodies half-sleep in the subway cars, the rushing catacombs.
      I know, also — statistics aside — that right now Schubert is
      being played in some room over there and that to someone
      those sounds are more important than all those other things.
      The human brain’s endless expanse crumpled into the size of a
      In April, the swallow returns to its last-year’s-nest under the roof
      of that very barn in that very parish.
      She flies from the Transvaal, passes the equator, flies for six weeks
      over two continents, steers toward this dissappearing point in
      the land-mass.
      And the man who captures the signals of a whole life in some
      fairly ordinary chords by five strings
      the man who makes a river run through the eye of a needle
      is a fat young man from Vienna, called “Little Mushroom” by his
      friends, who slept with his glasses on
      and got punctually behind his writing desk each morning.
      At which the wonderful centipedes of music were set in motion.
      1“Schubertiana” Tomas Transtromer. (Trans. ¨ Kalle Rais ¨ anen ¨ )
      The five strings play. I walk home through tepid forests with the
      ground springing under me
      crawl up like an unborn, fall asleep, roll weightless into the future,
      suddenly feel that the plants have thoughts.
      So much we have to trust, simply to live through our daily day
      without sinking through the earth!
      Trust the snow clinging to the mountain slope over the village.
      Trust the promises of silence and smiles of understanding,
      trust that the accident telegram isn’t for us and that the sudden
      axe-blow from within won’t come.
      Trust the wheel-axles that carry us on the highway in the middle
      of the three-hundred-times magnified bee swarm of steel.
      But none of that is really worth our confidence.
      The five strings say we can trust something else.
      Trust what? Something else, and they follow us part of the way
      As when the lights turn off in the stair-well and the hand follows
      — with confidence — the blind handrail that finds its way in
      the dark.
      We crowd in front of the piano and play four-handed in F-minor,
      two coachmen on the same carriage, it looks slightly ridiculous.
      Our hands seem to move clanging weights back and forth, as if
      we were touching the counter-weights
      in attempt at disturbing the terrible balance of the great scales:
      joy and suffering weigh exactly the same.
      Annie said, “This music is so heroic,” and it’s true.
      But those who glance enviously at the men of action, those who
      secretely despise themselves for not being murderers
      they don’t recognise themselves here.
      And those many who buy and sell people and think that everyone
      can be bought, they don’t recognise themselves here.
      Not their music. The long melody that remains itself through all
      changes, sometimes glittering and weak, sometimes rough and
      strong, snail-trails and steel wire.
      The insistant humming that follows us right now
      up the

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 7, 2011 10:47 am

    That’s a poem, all right. Nicely rendered. Kudos to Tromstromer and also Fulton.

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