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'No greater living artist than Dylan'

Michael Knigge
October 13, 2016

Pulitzer Prize winning writer Jeffrey Eugenides tells DW why Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize in literature even though he is not a writer in the traditional sense. He also talks about his personal connection to him.

Bob Dylan
Image: picture alliance/AP Images/V.Bucci

DW: What was your first reaction to Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in literature, the first American to do so since Toni Morrison back in 1993?

Eugenides: It's a very complicated reaction, so it's hard to say what my first reaction was. It was some surprise, at the same time there was a recognition that I had heard many people saying that this might happen. It was a feeling of some sorrow for people like Philip Roth or John Ashbery that they were also getting on in years and hadn't gotten it. And there was a great pleasure that Bob Dylan was getting it at the same time. I don't think there is any greater living artist on the earth right now. I don't think there is anybody more deserving than Dylan, but there is the question of whether his work is strictly literature or not. All these thoughts went through my head at the same time - a great rush of pleasure and some sorrow for the writers who are not going to be able to get it because of this.

I want to touch on your last point, because Dylan is an incredible artist, but he is a musician mainly and not a writer. So do you think he still deserves the prize in that field despite that fact?

Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel 'Middlesex'Image: picture alliance/Effigie/Leemage

I think the idea of literature is elastic enough to admit someone like Dylan whose lyrics do rise to the level of poetry and are in my head and in the heads of many people around the globe every day. I listen to Dylan all the time, I am a huge fan. It doesn't bother me at all that he got the prize. There is no proper category in the Nobel for someone like him and I think he is greater than music. If there is no category that can contain such a talent you are necessarily going to have an award given where it doesn't fit nicely.

You mentioned you're a big Dylan fan. Can you elaborate on your personal connection to him?

Before I answer that let me just say that the first thing that popped into my head is that Dylan is a Christian, and the first thing I thought when I heard that he had won was the line from the Bible "To he that has much, much more will be added." If there is somebody who doesn't need the Nobel Prize, it's probably Bob Dylan.

I started listening to Dylan in my teen years; my brothers had his albums. And I remember being mesmerized by his lyrics on "Blood on the tracks” probably 40 years ago now. I kept listening throughout my life, and his lyrics continued to get more complex and darker. You never know where he is going to go. I was a person who followed him through his Christian albums without being repelled like many people. I think those albums connect to a tradition in American Gospel music that is in keeping with his project to update the American Folk tradition. I didn't see that as a break in his musical career at all, but actually part of the whole movement.

On his recent albums the lyrics are extremely fine, very dark. There is no loss in intelligence and incisiveness, there's no loss of daring in the lyrics. I have seen him in concert more recently. His voice is completely shot and you can almost not hear him singing, so I do enjoy listening to the recordings more because you can hear the voice when they do it properly in the recording studio. The man has been touring for about 40 years so there is no wonder his voice would be a little bit ragged, but it's hard to hear it on stage right now.

Jeffrey Eugenides is an American writer and professor at Princeton University. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel "Middlesex," mostly written in Berlin where he lived for five years. His first novel "The Virgin Suicides" was made into a major movie.

This interview was conducted by Michael Knigge.