Nobel prize for literature revisited, or, why I love Bob Dylan


Last September I wrote an unusually irritable post about the Nobel prize for literature.  Some of this was sour grapes (I don’t like feeling so poorly read when scanning lists of world-class writers).  Some of my complaints though, stemmed from genuine confusion; I really couldn’t understand the logic behind several of the choices and many of the omissions.  Happily, my irritation is now over, because I do love the way Bob Dylan uses words.

The  Dylan track I always used to insist on my father playing is from the album ‘Blood on the Tracks.’  ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ is not the kind of song I normally get to rave about in public, but this week is the perfect opportunity to share why this is my all-time favourite Western-genre piece of writing and, for my money, one of the best examples of masterfully condensed plotting and structure in literature.


The 9 minute long song tells a story that is both obvious and confusing.  We begin with the scene being set:

The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down
Anyone with any sense had already left town
He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts

This is what good structure is all about.  We know that there is a fall coming from the very first line, we have hints of vice and lawlessness and we have a haunting simile that will form the refrain of the story; it’s all about the enigmatic Jack of Hearts.

The anonymous Jack of Heart is not the only character in the song though.  Look back at the title.  Like all great Westerns (to my mind), this story is about women more than men.  While there may be ‘boys’ mentioned in the first line, it is female names that dominate the title.  The Jack of Hearts is the mysterious stranger in town, but there are two powerfully realised women who take over as events unfold.  First Lily, ‘a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child’.  It makes sense that Lily hangs around with Big Jim who owns the town’s diamond mine.  It also makes sense that big Jim (when Dylan sings, it almost rhymes with ‘king’) has more than one girl in tow.  There’s also Rosemary, though her place in this royal family is less assured; we’re told ‘She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown.’   Shades of Macbeth appear when she ‘started drinkin’ hard and seein’ her reflection in the knife’, but the plot has several more twists to go before all characters come to their foreshadowed ends.

The story itself has more cuts and odd perspectives than a Guy Ritchie film, and the overall impression is that you’ve got nearly, but not quite, enough information to fully understand what’s happening, if only it wasn’t happening so fast.  A bit like life itself.  I love the wealth of incidental detail that ratchets up the tension (one man in the saloon is the ‘hangin’ judge… being wined and dined‘), all the while diverting you away from what’s actually happening.  I love the contradictions that start to build up as the story progresses, because you can’t have a good heist without a lot of lies floating around.  Most of all I love the economic narrative that delivers my favourite crime story in under 10 minutes.  Trust me, there’s enough detail packed in for a whole novel’s worth of enjoyment.

I’m thrilled to have a 21st century Nobel literature laureate that I can really get behind.  In my previous post I was confused by the presence of philosophers, statesmen and general ‘men of letters’ on the list.  A poet and songwriter is good by me though, especially when it’s one who can write such a wonderful story.

For the full lyrics of ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ click here.  I’d provide a link to the song being performed but I’m not clear on the copyright so I just hope you’ll seek it out.

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20 Responses to Nobel prize for literature revisited, or, why I love Bob Dylan

  1. Pingback: Nobel Prize for Literature – Hmmm | Shoshi's Book Blog

  2. Couldn’t agree more. “Lily, Rosemary…” is one of my favourite Dylan songs and I think it’s a work of genius. He deserves the prize for that alone!

  3. Lisa says:

    I love your blog Shoshi, but I am afraid that I think that giving Dylan this award is just a joke!

    • The Noble literature prize is always controversial. Personally, I find Dylan’s work far more affecting than anything I’ve read by Modiano (and certainly than anything by Bunin). Looking at the list of people who’ve won in the past, I rather think the prize is always something of a joke, it’s just that this time it’s one I’m happy with.

  4. I love this! The award was richly deserved, and suddenly the prize seems much more interesting than it did before.

    • Yes, though I also find it funny that this is considered an anti-establishment choice, as if a writer mostly associated with the 60s might be considered up-to-date and a modern by the judges. It’s a bit like someone trying to be down the kids by talking about the crazy times they had 50 years ago.

  5. Great post! I have to wonder if the Swedish and Norwegian Kings are both Dylan fans! I like that Dylan won. Most people today know no other poetry than song or rap lyrics. Sad, but true. I think picking him was a great nod to “modern poetry” that is accessible to the public. “How does it feel?” they may be saying to overly pretentious poetry journals and professors. No matter, excellent post.

    • Thank you – given that in the past this prize has gone to playwrights, philosophers and Winston Churchill (yes, for literature), I think it’s well overdue for a lyricist be mentioned.

      • I’m a Churchill freak so I’m ok with that one! But I totally agree–lyrics are today’s poetry–even raps. It’s really amazing how it all goes together and then blends perfectly with the music, or beats for raps. (My son writes raps–I now see how much goes into them!)

  6. Stefanie says:

    I’m afraid I am left baffled by the selection this year. I’d be fine with Dylan getting the peace prize, but the prize for literature? Nonplussed.

    • Haha, Stefanie, this made me chuckle. Mr Gums said “no way” to him as the prize for peace but is less bothered by this one!!

      • Nothing the Nobel committee makes any sense to me, which I think leaves me very free to enjoy this year’s winner. Maybe in some alternate world, there’s a space where Winston Churchill and Bob Dylan can chat Nobel awards and possibly arrange a swap!

  7. FictionFan says:

    Love that Dylan won! I’m just delighted that at last I’ve actually heard of a winner! But I do think he speaks to a considerbaly wider audience than most of the winners, and from the few I’ve sampled and been bitterly underwhelmed by, he’s a greater writer than most of them. I expect that, despite disgruntlement in some quarters, this will be one of the most popular decisions the Nobel Committee will ever make. Which is, of course, at the root of the disgruntlement… 😉

    • I do think there are some people in the Anglophone world who are really enjoying that for once they have an informed opinion on the winner – even if that opinion is negative! It’s certainly a change from the who? what? response that usually greets the announcement of the winner.

  8. I have no strong opinions about the Nobel Prize for Literature because the span of it – international literature – is so huge that any winner is likely to get naysayers. However, I have no problem with a singer-songwriter being chosen for the body of his/her writing and am very happy for songwriting to be included as literature. I also think Dylan has had immense influence in breadth (diverse forms/genres) and length (time) so I’m not a naysayer. I think it’s an interesting and exciting choice that shakes things up a bit. And, it’s never wrong to shake things up a bit I say!

  9. Aquileana says:

    He was a very inspiring man, and his lyrics are poetry for sure… But this Noble Prize has been far too polemic, and not everyone is happy with the lastest choice….

    • I know, but I’m rather enjoying the debate because I do like it when I hear so many people having strong feelings about literature. Often the prize is given to someone that is little known outside their own country and the rest of the world has to take it on trust that they’re great; I think it’s a refreshing change to have a laureate that everyone has an opinion on.

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