28/6/06: “Chronicles Vol 1” by Bob Dylan
This book generated an unusually diverse set of reactions, and an unusually long discussion.
For some, “Chronicles” displayed a master of the English language showing himself as proficient in prose as in verse. For others, the book was a boring failure, and for them it was bizarre that the book had won so many awards.
The proposer of the book, a self-confessed Dylan buff, saw Dylan as the greatest singer-songwriter of the second half of the twentieth century. He was, however, a divisive figure, who attracted fanaticism and hatred alike. Dylan had generated an enormous volume of critical literature, much of it from universities, that speculated about his influences, meaning and life. Having been through a bad phase - partly described in the book - of doubting his ability to play, and also having suffered illness, he had clearly become more comfortable with himself and his past. Departing from his usual reticence, he had taken the opportunity - in this book and in the Scorsese documentary - to set out his perspective and counter the endless speculation about his life and influences.
Dylan did not have an academic intellect, but his account of his life and influences showed that he picked things up very quickly. It was a primitive intelligence almost - he was a great primitive. He showed himself as a creative introvert struggling in a world of extroverts. And this book demonstrated his capacity to find the fascinating turn of phrase as readily in prose as in song. He hated the tag of the modern revolutionary, and in fact took a great interest in the past,. This showed in the echoes of earlier American writers such as Twain, Whitman and Kerouac in this book, or in his interest in the Civil War, or in his interest in the great blues and folk singers of the past. Above all, his carefully crafted chronicles demonstrated the creative process at work.
Some others had responded equally warmly to the book. They found many a brilliant turn of phrase, such as his comparison of John Wilkes Booth to Brutus. They enjoyed the explanation of his creative influences and the creative process. They liked his ability to evoke atmosphere, and his skill in using metaphor. They also enjoyed the period detail, such as the nuclear bomb practices in school.
However, some readers did not like the book at all. They found it very superficial. He pretentiously listed great artists as influences, but drew the tritest of conclusions from them. He would self-indulgently record mundane events, and list taxonomies of furniture, as if his mere presence invested them with significance. And for them the structure of the book was hopelessly confused.
Most readers were intrigued by the section of the book in which Dylan explained how he hated being seen as the leader of a protest movement, and hated his privacy being invaded by those who saw him in this role. Some were struck by his reaction against the introduction of him at a concert of “take him he’s yours” and wondered whether any other of the great icons had been seen as public property in quite the same way. Engaging as this humility was, some noted that in the later section about his sessions with Daniel Lanois, he seemed much more egotistical about claiming to have described great truths for the world. There was an odd combination of humility and arrogance in the book.
Dylan’s apparent recall of detail was remarkable. We debated whether he was blessed with a photographic memory, whether he was making up the apparently concrete details, or whether he had kept a journal. In any event, the immediacy with which he could summon up past years was very effective. Moreover, he seemed able to recreate his thinking and outlook at the different phases of his life, so that there was a different persona writing for each of the different episodes. The title "Chronicles" aptly captured this approach.
The structure chosen for the book - a series of different shots in time presented in a circular rather than linear manner - provoked wide differences of view. For those who did not like the book this structure was simply awful. Even for some Dylan fans the circularity and complete lack of references or even dates was the major weakness in the book. For others, including some non-Dylan fans, the circularity of structure, cleverly moving through time to end back at the beginning, was not very different to many modern novels. It helped to illuminate cause and effect in the creative process. Dylan had a similar approach to his songs as he argued the order of the verses did not matter.
Guileless as the book appeared, we felt there must be some shaping - or re-creation - of his image involved. He never criticised anyone, and this became irritating and implausible after a while. He went to great lengths to list all the writers he had come across in the libraries of his friends, without saying much of substance about what he took from them. We wondered if this was partly a response to academic speculation about his influences, but felt it also revealed the insecurity of the auto-didact. That being said, his years in New York had clearly served as a very valuable education in the university of life. On the subject of his influences it was pointed out that he seemed to have little or no knowledge of black music in his early formative years. But the most interesting insight into his influences was the role played by reading old newspaper cuttings in public libraries.
Surprisingly open as the book was, he was still enigmatic in some areas, starting with the complete lack of introduction or dedication for the book. We were surprised to be told that the "wife" he refers to in two different episodes was in fact two different wives (the second wife being revealed for the first time to Dylan scholars through the publication of this book). We also noted that he, presumably deliberately, never referred to the colour of any person he mentions.
We ended as we had begun with a wide range of contradictory views. This might be partly explained by the fact that the book assumed in the reader a wide knowledge of Dylan's life and works. However, while most of the non-Dylan fans were not fans of the book, this was not true of all of them, and while most of the Dylan fans were fans of the book, this was not true of all of them either.
There was some common ground. One of the two most interesting aspects of the book was Dylan's account of his dislike of the nature of his early fame. The other was the insight the book gave into the creative process as it actually happened. However, few could understand how the book had come to be nominated for a Nobel prize!
See also the Monthly Book Group's new web-site at: http://www.monthlybookgroup.com/