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By JOSEPHINE GREENLAND
STOCKHOLM. The Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel prize for literature, was hit in early April by one its worst crises in decades. On April 7th, three members announced their withdrawal from the Academy, with a fourth member threatening to do so. A week later, two more members resigned. The reason is a series of sexual harassments committed by a well-known cultural figure with close ties to the organisation.
The accusations against Jean Arnault, referred to as the Cultural Figure in Swedish media, can be traced back to the MeToo campaign from November last year. Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported that eighteen women had accused Arnault of sexual assault and harassment. Mr. Arnault ran a private cultural club, the Forum, together with his wife Katarina Frostenson, a poet who was a member of the Swedish Academy. The club was considered a gateway to Swedish cultural life, and received a grant from the academy.
Dagens Nyheter reported that Mr. Arnault had been accused of mistreating women at the club and at academy-owned properties in Stockholm and Paris for a period of 20 years. The newspaper also wrote that Mr. Arnault had leaked information about the Nobel Literature Prize seven times since 1996.
Two days after the accusations the Academy cut all ties with Arnault. Arnault denied all charges directed against him.
In response to the accusations, the Academy’s former permanent secretary, Sarah Danius, hired a law firm to conduct investigations in the Academy’s connections with the club. Financial irregularities were found, but even though the firm recommended that the academy file a police report, no action was taken.
The divisions this report caused reached their height when three members resigned from the Academy on April 7th. Klas Ostergren, one of the three, says that “The Swedish Academy has for a long time had serious problems and has now tried to solve them in a way that puts obscure considerations before its own rules and which constitute a betrayal to its founders.” A new inquiry into the Academy’s dealings established that secrecy rules concerning the Nobel Prize had been broken numerous times. By supporting the club, the Academy was, in effect, giving Frostenson special privileges. Frostenson announced her resignation on Thursday 12th April.
The Arnault Scandal also had negative outcomes for Sarah Danius, who officially represented the Academy as secretary. Danius said the Academy had broken their own rules. Members Horace Engdahl and Sture Allen dismissed the allegations, calling the accusations exaggerated, and criticized Danius for being a weak leader. Danius announced her resignation on April 12th. In protest, member and author Sara Stridsberg also threatened to quit.
Professor Ebba Witt-Brittstrom, previously married to Engdahl, believes that Danius’ resignation may have been enforced by the male members. “What they did was orchestrate a palace revolution, a coup to get rid of her, because she’s too headstrong. A headstrong woman is not what they are used to in the Swedish Academy.”
What complicated matters is that no one technically can resign from the Academy. There are 18 seats available, and each member is elected for life. If they choose to leave, their seat remains vacant until death. Even before the scandal, two seats were occupied by inactive members. A minimum of 12 members are required for the Academy to elect a new vacancy. Today, only 11 members remain, which will make passing decisions, such as the next winner of the Nobel Prize, increasingly difficult.
Following Danius’ resignation, thousands of protestors gathered in Stockholm’s Stortorget Square, demanding the resignation of all members and that the academy be rebuilt from the bottom. Culture minister Alice Bah Kunke posted a picture of herself on Instragram wearing a pussy-bow blouse in honour of Danius, who wore the same clothing on the Thursday. Other Swedish women, and men, did the same, and the hashtag spread rapidly across social media.
The culture editor of Dagens Nyheter, Bjorn Wiman, said in an interview that “This is a complete and utter tragedy for cultural life in Sweden. The public’s trust in the academy is perhaps below rock bottom.”
How can the Academy recover from such a scandal? Is a recovery even possible?
On April 17th, King Carl Gustav XVI, officially the Academy’s protector, announced that the Academy’s decrees would be changed. A member who’d been inactive for at least two years would automatically be considered a leaver, and members would be allowed to resign of their own will. This would imply that new members would be able to be elected. In an interview with Dagens Nyheter April 24th, after speaking about the crisis on radio, Horace Engdahl announced that it was “time to lay down our weapons and make peace.”
Many aspects still need to be solved. Seven new members need to be elected in the next few months in order to decide upon the next Nobel Prize Winner. Things are slowly moving in the right direction, but if they are moving quickly enough, is yet to be seen.
PHOTO CREDIT Frankie Fouganthin, 5th October 2017: Sara Danius, who has resigned from the Swedish Academy
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