Exactly Why Was the Nobel Prize Canceled?

The Guardian's Andrew Brown examines what really happened with the Nobel Prize and why Sweden’s literary elite has been thrown into disarray by allegations of sexual harassment and corruption. 

In the eyes of its members, there is no more important cultural institution in the world than the Swedish Academy. The members, who call themselves The Eighteen (always in capitals), are elected for life by their peers, and meet for a ritual dinner every Thursday evening at a restaurant they own in the heart of the old town in Stockholm. And once a year, at a ceremony brilliant with jewels and formality, the permanent secretary of the academy hands out the Nobel prize in literature and all the world applauds.

But this year there will be no prize and no ceremony. In November 2017, it was revealed in the Swedish press that the husband of one of the academy members had been accused of serial sexual abuse, in assaults alleged to have taken place over more than 20 years. Jean-Claude Arnault, a French photographer and cultural entrepreneur, is married to the poet and academician Katarina Frostenson. In addition to assault accusations against him, the pair are accused of misusing academy funding. Arnault has denied all accusations, and Frostenson has refused to comment.

The academy is paralysed by the scandal, which was followed by a slew of resignations and expulsions. Six of The Eighteen have withdrawn from any part in its deliberations; another two were compelled to do so. The statutes say that 12 members must be present to elect any new ones, so with only 10, no important decisions can be taken and no new members elected. The vacuum has been filled with invective.

According to one senior academy member, the man responsible for the moral decay of the institution – through his “rotten macho values and arrogant high-handedness” – is the critic and historian Horace Engdahl, a former secretary of the academy. Engdahl, a close friend of Arnault, has in turn called the current secretary the worst the academy has ever had.

The scandal broke when the Stockholm daily paper Dagens Nyheter published the testimonies of 18 women who said that they had been assaulted or exploited by Arnault. Even if many were anonymous, the cumulative effect was impossible to ignore. In two cases the allegations amounted to rape.

What made the matter a wider global scandal is that it seemed to reveal something rotten at the heart of the Swedish Academy: many of the attacks were said to have taken place in luxurious apartments owned by the academy, in Stockholm and in Paris. Arnault and Frostenson also profited for years from academy subsidies to an arts club they owned and ran together. In addition, Frostenson has been accused of leaking the names of literature prize winners to Arnault, with the result that large bets were placed with bookies in Paris. Arnault’s lawyer, Björn Hurtig, told Expressen that his client was “disturbed and resigned … He says this is totally wrong and he is innocent of the allegations.”

Soon after the scandal broke, the secretary of the academy, Sara Danius, announced that she had herself been sexually harassed by Arnault. She called in lawyers and attempted to expel Frostenson from the academy. Arnault, meanwhile, has powerful defenders. His great friend Engdahl campaigned to have Danius expelled in turn. In an article for the national tabloid Expressen, Engdahl deprecated the vulgarity of his opponents in the academy, and called them “a clique of bad losers … who plotted to wound and humiliate Katarina Frostenson”.

In the event, both women stepped down. Enough members resigned in support of Danius that the academy was left inquorate, with Engdahl in control of the rump. It seems possible that the king of Sweden, who has ultimate responsibility for the academy, will simply close the whole thing down this summer, with potentially disastrous consequences for the Nobel prize in literature. The Nobel Foundation, which funds the prize, is refusing to keep doing so until the academy is cleaned up.

The scandal has elements of a tragedy, in which people who set out to serve literature and culture discovered they were only pandering to writers and the people who hang around with them. The pursuit of excellence in art was entangled with the pursuit of social prestige. The academy behaved as if the meals in its clubhouse were as much an accomplishment as the work that got people elected there.

The academy had thought it stood for the culture of TS Eliot: somewhat masculine and unashamedly elitist, in which power is channelled in the service of tradition. It turns out to be much more like the culture of an aging rock star: smug, macho, with its cool self-importance armoured by money and fame. The destruction of the academy’s reputation is not just damaging to an old, odd, Swedish institution, but also to the ideals it upheld, and to the dream of a global high culture that the Nobel prize represents.

The Academy was, from its inception in 1786, an elitist institution. It was to contain the best writers and scholars in Sweden, and to guard and nourish the language. It puts out an official list of all the recognised words in Swedish and is still working, after more than a century, on the definitive dictionary of the language. Members are elected for life, and inducted at a banquet with a fanfare of trumpets. It is rich, with investments worth an estimated £110m. Membership brings considerable financial advantages: there are a great many perks in the way of apartments in the loveliest parts of Stockholm, dinners, and the use of delightful offices. The members’ compensation is not published, but according to an investigation of their tax returns by one Stockholm paper, they receive around £40,000 a year when they are active participants. To be the secretary is a full-time post, and while the salary is unknown, the pension increases by £10,000 for every year served.

It’s harder to discover what the academy’s use to contemporary Sweden is. The kind of literature it exists to nourish is kept alive largely by subsidy. With a few exceptions, its members could not make a living from writing. This is, of course, true of writers everywhere today, but in a world dominated by a few global languages, the chief of them English, a language like Swedish – with only 9 million speakers – can’t sustain many writers economically. The books that sell in Sweden are almost always those that can be profitably translated, which means crime novels, with the occasional quirky literary breakout such as the novel Popular Music from Vittula.

In the 1970s, the idea that the academy was the pinnacle of Swedish culture came under attack, at the same time as the wider belief that European – and particularly Swedish – culture represented the peak of human achievement was looking rather unconvincing. To the academy, this was a slowly growing but existential threat. The extraordinary ambition of the academy’s judges was not just to read foreign literature in the original language but, beyond that, to judge their originality and importance within their own traditions. However, as the world of literature expanded to include Latin America, Africa, India, Japan and China, this aspiration began to look unrealistic.

The academy had been established to embody and to strengthen the claim that Swedish was one of the great languages of European civilisation, as worthy of respect as any other. In 1974 the academy put this belief to the test by choosing two of its own members, the poets Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson, for the prize – a choice that was greeted with a storm of derision. (Four years later, Martinson killed himself.) This criticism seems unduly harsh: Martinson is a much better poet than, for example, Bob Dylan, who was awarded the prize in 2016. But the dismissive reaction was a warning of things to come.

At this low ebb in the academy’s prestige, the novelist Kerstin Ekman was elected to the chair vacated by Martinson. She lives in the north of Sweden, and was unimpressed by the academy’s prestige. She arranged not to have to travel to the weekly meals in Stockholm because this would disrupt her work too much. She left in 1989 after a very public row when the academy failed even to discuss a motion in support of Salman Rushdie, after a fatwa was issued against him. Two other members also tried to resign over the Rushdie affair. They, like Ekman, were told that the statutes made no provision for anyone to leave before death. So, like her, they simply cut off all contact with the academy. That scandal made the first real dent in the institution’s mystique. The members could have chosen to try to make a difference in the world. Instead, they turned inwards, cleaving to the belief in their own self-importance and in their perfect right to secrecy.

When I was last in Stockholm, in May, none of the academicians I approached would talk at all, and few people would talk on record. It’s a small city, and the cultural circle within it is smaller still. And no one, I think, wants to be seen washing dirty linen in the foreign press. But I was told again and again that the academy was run by small cliques, and that the story could not be understood outside of the personal relations of the people within it.

Ekman was one of the few Academicians whose novels sold in any quantity in Sweden. The split between popular and elite writing was widening throughout the 1980s and it shows up very clearly in the saga of two writers, only one of whom would become important to the academy. In the late 70s, two fiercely aspiring young writers lived in the small northern city of Umeå, tucked under the Arctic Circle, and both were called Stig Larsson. One had started a literary magazine when he was 17 and still in school. As soon as he could wrangle a state culture subsidy, he moved the operation down to Stockholm where the magazine, called Kris, or “Crisis”, became the centre of a tight group of university-educated critics who were just as ambitious and dissatisfied with the state of Swedish literature as he was. At the age of 24, Larsson published a novel full of meaningless sex and alienation called The Autists – and became a critical sensation.

So great was his success that the other Stig Larsson changed the spelling of his name to Stieg. He was working for years in almost complete obscurity on a novel called Men Who Hate Women, while earning his living on small left-wing magazines. He died without ever seeing his books published, but in English translation Men Who Hate Women became The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – the biggest Swedish cultural export since Abba, or possibly Minecraft. I don’t suppose many members of the academy have read it.

Kris was a small but very fashionable magazine, a war cry against the earnest worthiness of much of Swedish literature then, which was full of noble proletarians and earnest worries about socialism. Kris preached Derrida, and the importance of French and German literature over supposedly provincial American writers. Stig Larsson got to interview Foucault. This was all happening at a time when Swedish popular culture was rushing in the other direction, ignoring European influences, and indeed languages, and embracing the English language, commercial television, hamburgers, credit cards, celebrity and golf.

The insurgent elitism of Kris magazine made a stark contrast not just with popular culture, but with the stiff, unfashionable elitism of the Swedish Academy in the early 1980s. In a narrow, Swedish context, the Academy was radically opposed to the egalitarian ideals of the Social Democrats who had governed the country for 44 years. At one stage there were fewer Social Democrat members of the academy than Catholics – and Catholics in Sweden were then a tiny minority.

In what must be seen as an effort at renewal, the academy turned to a new generation. The young feminist poet Katarina Frostenson was elected in 1992. She entered the academy – as all members do – with a ceremony at a formal banquet. With her much older French husband, the cultural entrepreneur Jean-Claude Arnault, she ran Forum, a basement club in Stockholm dedicated to high culture – poetry readings and classical music in an atmosphere charged with high seriousness and erotic intensity.

Read the full long-read story at The Guardian here. 

Angela Ledgerwood