STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AFP) — Jewish music icon Bob Dylan has delivered his long-awaited Nobel lecture, citing Buddy Holly and “The Odyssey” among his inspirations, a relief for the Swedish Academy after it honored the songwriter with its prestigious literature prize for the first time.
“The speech is extraordinary and, as one might expect, eloquent. Now that the lecture has been delivered, the Dylan adventure is coming to a close,” Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, wrote in a blog post on Monday.
The Academy, which stunned observers in October when it announced Dylan as the winner, had to wait for more than two weeks before hearing Dylan’s reaction to winning the award. He later declined to attend the December ceremony because of “pre-existing commitments.”
In the speech, sent to the Academy with an audio link in which Dylan reads it aloud, with a musical backdrop, the enigmatic rock star reflects on the possible links between his lyrics and literature.
“When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature,” Dylan said.
He then cited musicians who inspired him — including Buddy Holly, whose music “changed my life” and made him want to write songs when he was a teenager, and Leadbelly’s “Cottonfields,” which transported him “into a world [he’d] never known.” He also analyzed the three classic novels that made a big impression on his life — “Moby Dick,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and “The Odyssey.”
Referring to the main character Odysseus, the writer of “Blowin’ in the Wind” said in the speech: “He’s tossed and turned by the winds. Restless winds, chilly winds, unfriendly winds. He travels far, and then he gets blown back.”
Dylan draws themes from the books — that people only see the surface yet interpret what lies below, the futility of war, and the constant quest to return home.
The songwriter has lived an intensely private life. He was born Jewish, then converted to Christianity, and has since affiliated with “no organized religion,” though he’s been notably present at some Jewish synagogue events, including his sons’ bar mitzvahs. He draws out the biblical, Judeo-Christian themes in Moby Dick, contrasting them with the pagan aspects of the work.
‘What it all means’
Dylan had until June 10 to submit the lecture, the only requirement to claim the 8 million kronor (NIS 4.3 million, $923,000) that comes with the prize.
The lecture can take nearly any form, including a short speech, a performance, a video broadcast or even a song, and must be held within six months of December 10, the date of the Nobel prize ceremony and the anniversary of the death of the prize’s founder Alfred Nobel.
Dylan was honored “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” the Academy said in October.
“If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means,” Dylan said in the speech.
“I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it –- what it all means,” he added.
‘Spirits were high’
After months of uncertainty, Dylan finally accepted his gold medal and diploma on April 1 at a private ceremony with 12 members of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, where he held two concerts at the time.
“Spirits were high, champagne was had,” Danius said after the meeting.
“The Swedish Academy will be more careful in the future with handing out a prize to huge rock stars who may not come and pick up the award,” said Maria Schottenius, a literary critic and senior columnist at the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.
“Even though one would not regret giving the prize to Bob Dylan… it has undoubtedly caused some hassle,” she told AFP.
Other previous winners of the literature prize have also skipped the Nobel ceremony for various reasons.
Doris Lessing, who won in 2007, did not attend because of her advanced age; Harold Pinter (2005) because he was hospitalized; and Elfriede Jelinek (2004) refused to attend because of social phobia.
But each of these winners delivered their lectures, which were either sent to Stockholm or read aloud abroad.
In 1964, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre became the only person to decline the literature prize, rejecting the 273,000 kronor awarded at the time.
Sartre’s letter telling the Swedish Academy that he would refuse the award arrived nearly a month after the Nobel Committee picked him as a top choice, based on archival material made available in 2015, at the end of a customary 50-year period of secrecy.