Book Review: Chronicles by Bob Dylan

If you haven’t been following the Bob Dylan-Nobel saga, this post has a pretty good summary of the latest drama, although I disagree about the “damage” to the prize.

Anyway, I always look forward to the Nobel because it either introduces to a new author or motivates me to read a book that had been sitting on my shelf for a few years. Even though Dylan’s primarily a songwriter that are meant to be listened to, this year was no exception. Dylan has written some prose: an experimental novel entitled “Tarantula” (I’ll get to it in the coming weeks) and a memoir, “Chronicles.”

“Chronicles” is actually meant to be the first volume in a three book autobiography project, but it appears Dylan has all but given up on volumes two and three (one was published in 2004, the next book was supposed to come out a few years after, and here we are, 12 years later with no news). It’s not a straightforward story. It starts in the early 60s, when Dylan was trying to establish himself, and jumps around decades, like to the 80s, where the singer experiences a creative block. In fact, that’s what a lot of the chronologically later sequences are about.

Eventually the book loops back around and ends in the early 60s, and it’s these sections, where Dylan is struggling, that stand out. His eagerness and development back then is much more interesting than the malaise of middle age. Then again, I’m not a Dylan fanatic, so perhaps those later sections might have a special significance for someone following Dylan for a while now.

The debate about whether the singer’s lyrics were high enough quality to merit the Nobel (or if the genre deserved the prize) continues, but his artistry is on full display here. Dylan writes in a snappy prose style that barrels forward in a way reminiscent of fellow Nobel laureate’ Saul Bellow. And the out of order timeline never feels random. I couldn’t always see the logic behind the time jumps, but it never caught me off guard, never left me confused, never felt like Dylan was doing it just for the sake of doing it.

All in all, not the perfect piece, but one that has helped me look at his prize in a new way. I was hoping for Pynchon, DeLillo, Vollmann or Erdrich if the prize had to come back to America, and while I still think they would have been better winners, this book at least confirmed that Dylan’s work rises to the level I expect from Nobel laureates.

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Book Review: The African by J.M.G. Le Clezio

If you go on the Nobel website, click on the winners, and look at “About the Nobel Prize in Literature ____ (insert year here),” you’ll find something called the bio-bibliography, which gives an account of the many books each laureate wrote and the themes. Often times the sections dedicated to individual books varies in length, and here lies the interesting part: the books with the longer paragraphs or parts are the books that helped get the authors the Nobel. Usually these are the books you would expect (ex. Le Clezio’s DESERT), but occasionally it is one that has flown under the radar, that has been passed off in the public eye as a minor work. This is exactly the case with Le Clezio’s THE AFRICAN, a novella length memoir that gets as much space as DESERT, which has been described as the writer’s masterpiece.

Le Clezio was virtually unknown in the English-speaking world when he won the Nobel; now, a few years down the line, he still does not get talked about much. Which means THE AFRICAN, which has been summed up as a minor work over here, is rarely if ever mentioned. This is a shame, as it’s quite the book.

The focus is on Le Clezio’s strict father, a doctor who spent most of his adult life working in a very rural area in Africa. After the war, the author, his brother, and his mother all went to live with him (and, in the boys’ case, to meet him). Le Clezio’s descriptions of the landscape, the plains, the termite mounds are as always poetic, and this section is filled with dreamy memories of him and his brother playing around, gritting their teeth at the strange man everyone calls their father.

The book then shifts in time, moving from memories to reconstruction based on the stories Le Clezio was told. How his father wound up in Africa when he could have settled in England. How he and his wife first traveled there. How the couple was separated during the war and how the father abandoned his post to make a mad journey across the Sahara to try to be reunited with his family.

The book is incredibly slim and can be finished easily in two hours. While not a real negative, at times the book does not go into satisfying detail about various anecdotes and recollections. But this is still a very heartfelt book. By the end the father has gone from a strict figure, the bane of rambunctious youngsters, to a complex, tragic figure torn from having a normal family life due to circumstances beyond his control.

This book never really took off in the English-speaking world, and as Le Clezio recedes into a forgotten figure, another example of the Nobel picking a nobody instead of some living legend like Kundera, it seems unlikely that it will ever get a resurgence. This is a shame, as THE AFRICAN unexpectedly confirms Le Clezio as a worthy winner.