Three members have already stepped back after a series of women came forward with harassment claimsby Dominic Hinde / April 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
In Britain and America, it has been most closely linked with the film industry. But elsewhere, the ongoing fallout from the #metoo movement—and a tale of split loyalties in the cultural establishment—has caused a spectacular implosion at the Swedish Academy, the body responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Each September, the white doors of the grand Börssalen hall in the centre of Stockholm’s old town open and the Swedish Academy’s Permanent Secretary emerges to unveil the year’s Nobel laureate. The discussions of the Nobel committee are always strictly confidential. But it is exactly these secretive inner workings which have led the institution into a crisis of unprecedented proportions.
The scandal has its roots in allegations made in a report by the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter last autumn. The story collected anonymous testimony from over a dozen women who claimed they had been harassed at a venue in central Stockholm belonging to a figure close to the Academy.
The venue, which has been described as the Academy’s living room, was frequented by its members and other prominent cultural figures. Immediately, the story raised questions about how much members of the Academy knew and how close they were to the figure at the centre of the allegations.
Although not revealed in the original allegations, the club is widely reported to be the same venue owned by the French photographer Jean Claude Arnaut, who is married to the poet and Academy member Katarina Frostenson. This week the Swedish Economic Crime Agency were revealed to be investigating the financial circumstances of Arnaut’s club, though no charges have been brought relating to sexual harassment.
Before Christmas, the current Permanent Secretary Sara Danius commissioned a firm of lawyers to prepare a private report into the allegations, the results of which were nominally confidential. Some frustrated members have, however, selectively leaked details to the press after an internal vote on taking action against Frostenson was lost. Danius, meanwhile, has said that though she is bound by the vote of the committee, anyone could in theory file the case with the police.
In support of Danius, three members—the historian Peter Englund and the writers Kjell Espmark and Klas Östergren—stepped back from the Academy. Usually, seats at the committee table are allocated until a member dies and are left vacant if they cannot fulfil their duties. The problem, as it has been succinctly expressed by some in Stockholm, is that you can check out but you can never leave.
Enter the King
The Academy is no stranger to internal conflict. In the 1980s there was a huge internal disagreement about intervening to protect Salman Rushdie after a fatwa was issued against him. But the Rushdie affair—as it became known—pales into insignificance compared to the current crisis.
Along with the monarchy, the Nobel prizes are an important piece in Sweden’s wielding of diplomatic soft power worldwide and maintaining its place as a global centre for culture and science. Each year all the Nobel winners assemble in Stockholm in the presence of the Swedish Royal Family to receive their prizes, attracting worldwide attention.
The 71-year old King of Sweden Carl Gustaf XVI—a man who knows a thing or two about private scandal and who has become a master of the restrained public statement—has stepped forward in his role as the Academy’s patron to try and save its reputation at home and abroad. King Gustaf has said he will look at the rules preventing members from leaving the academy, which opens the door to replacing members wholesale.
Race for the prize
The scandal means Swedes have begun to lose faith in the integrity of the academy, with knock-on impacts for the Nobel award itself. If further members were to quit it would also throw this September’s literature nominations into chaos.
Danius appears to have public support to spring clean the Academy and tackle the culture of silence and patronage in an increasingly bitter power struggle around the committee table—but whether she succeeds depends on whether she can stay in the job and ride out the current storm.
The prize will no doubt survive in the long term—not least because as long as the Nobel foundation has money to give, then it has to be given—but with September fast approaching, the Academy is in desperate need of a plan to ensure that come autumn it can open the doors to the Börsalen and greet the world’s press with its reputation intact.