Kazuo Ishiguro, the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, and Bob Dylan, last year’s winner, have both just published the texts of their Nobel Lectures in slim volumes.
Ishiguro delivered his lecture on December 7, 2017 at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, as is customary. Dylan wasn’t so accommodating. He submitted an audio recording instead (almost at the last minute) to fulfill his obligation of giving a “Nobel Lecture” in order to receive the $930,000 prize money.
Ishiguro’s lecture is light and modest and focuses on a few instances of “quiet, private sparks of revelation” that led to turning points in his writing. These moments come to him at odd moments — watching an old movie (Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century) in one case or listening to music (Tom Waits’ “Ruby’s Arms”) in another.
These moments, Ishiguro says, “don’t come often, and when they do, they may well come without fanfare, unendorsed by mentors or colleagues…Sometimes what they reveal may go against the grain of prevailing wisdom. But when they come, it’s important to be able to recognise them for what they are. Or they’ll slip through your hands.”
“Stories can entertain, sometimes teach or argue a point,” he says.”But for me the essential thing is that they communicate feelings. That they appeal to what we share as human beings across our borders…But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”
Before he became a prose writer Ishiguro had wanted to be a singer songwriter and Bob Dylan was, and still is, one of his heroes. He mentions Dylan in his lecture and talks about the lessons he has learned from his favourite singers. “I refer here less to the lyrics being sung, and more to the actual singing. As we know, a human voice in song is capable of expressing an unfathomably complex blend of feelings,” he says.
In his lecture Dylan notices something similar in his own work. “If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it—what it all means…John Donne as well, the poet-priest who lived in the time of Shakespeare, wrote these words: ‘The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts. Not of two lovers, but two loves, the nests.’ I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.”
Dylan’s lecture is a rambling but energetic look at three books that he says had a strong effect on his work, Melville’s Moby Dick, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On the Western Front and Homer’s Odyssey.
(Slate magazine noticed Dylan’s lifting of phrases from online student prep notes. But then again, easily discovered plagiarism has by now become a Dylan trademark.)
Dylan uses another familiar technique to great effect — indeterminate personal pronouns. His “you” could just as easily be “he” or “me” in his riff on the horrors of war described by Remarque:
“You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world, and now you’re shooting it to pieces… You’re a cornered animal. You don’t fit anywhere. The falling rain is monotonous. There’s endless assaults, poison gas, nerve gas, morphine, burning streams of gasoline, scavenging and scabbing for food, influenza, typhus, dysentery. Life is breaking down all around you, and the shells are whistling. This is the lower region of hell. Mud, barbed wire, rat-filled trenches, rats eating the intestines of dead men, trenches filled with filth and excrement.”
He uses the same technique in talking about Homer. “In a lot of ways, some of these things have happened to you,” Dylan says. “You too have had drugs dropped into your wine.”
Ishiguro ends his lecture with a plea to listen to new and challenging voices, often from young and non-Western writers. Dylan’s lecture teaches us the value of listening to the voices of past masters in order to navigate a dangerous present and an uncertain future. Good advice from both of these perceptive and sensitive craftsmen.
My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs: The Nobel Lecture by Kazuo Ishiguro, Knopf
The Nobel Lecture by Bob Dylan, Simon and Schuster