Nobel Ignominy Literature, Lust and Lies at the Swedish Academy
The Swedish Academy will not be awarding a Nobel prize in literature this year. And a closer look at the swamp of scandal in Stockholm raises doubts as to whether it can ever be rehabilitated.
Things are just fine -- until they suddenly aren't anymore. Then, everyone turns around and looks back in amazement at the human destruction and shards of shattered dignity left behind. At the moral morass. And they wonder: How could we have believed that everything would turn out alright?
That is the abridged version of the story of the Swedish Academy and the Nobel prize in literature. It is the kind of bitter farce that might result if August Strindberg were to emerge from the grave to watch the dandies from the academy pelt each other with champagne glasses. And Strindberg, whose path to early 20th century literary greatness in Sweden was filled with hatred and scorn, likely wouldn't even find it possible to hate them, as consumed as he would be with disdain.
It is primarily two men who are at the center of this affair -- a scandal that could ultimately destroy a prize that was once the most important in the world: Horace Engdahl and Jean-Claude Arnault. They are two figures who could easily have sprung from the mind of Strindberg, who had hoped that one day his grave might be marked by a penis carved out of red sandstone.
Engdahl, 69, is the spider lurking in the middle of the web, the long-time permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy and a manipulator like Arnault, the all-around talent who charmed people with his education, his speeches and the songs he sang in Swedish and Russian until the early morning hours.
The Swedish Academy is located in the heart of Stockholm, surrounded by the narrow streets of the Old Town. It's a place perfect for tourists, a kind of museum of the pre-modern. But it is not particularly amenable to real life or to reality. It is as if time has stood still. It is, in short, a perfect backdrop for someone like Engdahl, with his thirst for power, his need for attention and his comfort in the masculine brotherhood, a man who loves German romanticism and sees women merely as the muses of (male) geniuses.
"Penetration is always a defeat for the woman and a victory for the man," is one of the aphorisms that Engdahl, the son of a military officer, published in one of his books. Here's another: "There is a chamber inside every man where there is only room for one thing: he himself. There is also a chamber inside every woman. But it is empty. Not even she herself is inside. The woman waits for someone to fill this chamber."
A Feudal Regime
The academy was the perfect instrument of power for Engdahl, a kind of secret society with 18 members, some of them aging and easily controlled. A club with fantastic privileges, such as discounted apartments and extreme cultural cachet -- and no democratic controls of the kinds that are so bothersome when you just want to be left alone.
It was a feudal regime that didn't just hand out the Nobel prize in literature each year, but also millions of dollars in prize money and grants, an aristocratic clique in a country that seeks to be egalitarian. In many areas, it succeeds, but it nevertheless allows itself a handful of anachronisms -- such as its monarchy and this academy, the abuse of which can only be surprising to those who mistrust democracy.
That, after all, is the symbolic and political core of this global scandal made in Sweden. And Engdahl is like the dark villain of a novel fueled by avarice, sex and crime while relating a larger story of how traditions are established and are broken, how change becomes possible and the price that must be paid.
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Which brings us to Jean-Claude Arnault, 71, the other villain. The Frenchman is known for groping women and is perhaps even a rapist. He is a manipulator and a fabulist. And he is married to Katarina Frostenson, whose appearance is just as cold as her name might suggest. She is a celebrated poet and a member of the academy. Together, they are a dream couple. Or a nightmare couple -- because the sexual misconduct of which Arnault has been accused took place over many, many years. And its systematic nature makes it ultimately a question of this marriage and its implications for the academy.
The two met when Frostenson was 17, a time when Arnault, who had been an anarchist in 1968 Paris, had just arrived in Sweden. Those who knew him at the time say he was a Casanova and a braggart, a seducer fueled by a destructive energy that was sufficient to bring everyone down with him. That, though, is the view from today -- of a man to whom both Frostenson and Engdahl have remained true.
Lustful and Coarse
Engdahl and Arnault are bound by more than friendship. They are two sides of the same person, not unlike evil twins, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Engdahl is all brain, well-educated and elegant. Arnault is all greed, lustful and coarse. He is mostly body and, many say, not much brain.
It was Arnault who plunged the academy into it current existential crisis when it became known last November that 18 women had accused him of sexual harassment or assault. But part of the responsibility lies with an entire system for tolerating this behavior, commonly known as it was, for so long.
The accusations against Arnault and Engdahl range from accepting financial benefits -- through a joint cultural forum they once ran together with funding from the academy -- to using insider information to bet on Nobel prize winners. But the most profound and disturbing accusations are those from the women, some of whom remain clearly traumatized by what they say Arnault did to them. Arnault could not be reached for comment by the time this story went to print.
One of the women, who we'll call Elin, would prefer to keep her real name out of the public eye. She was 23 years old when she first met Arnault in 1991 and tells her story calmly and confidently. Arnault, she says, approached her at a film festival with a rather unoriginal observation: You look like my sister.
"At first glance, I thought he was slimy," she says, sitting in the shade on a bench in Vasa Park, not far from where the encounter took place. "And he was old. But it can still be fun to talk to someone like that."
They drank wine and went to the upscale Café Opera, where Arnault elegantly led her past the line of those waiting to get in. Elin says today that she didn't drink much wine, but she had a kind of blackout even though she was always very careful to avoid drinking too much.
He brought her to his apartment in a taxi, undressed her and had sex with her. "In the morning, I just wanted to get out of the apartment. I was so ashamed, I felt so dumb, so bad that I had allowed something like that to happen. He wanted my number and because I wanted to go, I gave it to him."
Friendship and Respect
He called her, again and again, and she made it clear to him that she wasn't interested in having sex with older men who escort her past the line at the Café Opera. And when she thought he had finally got the message, they met for a beer. It seemed to Elin that she could regain her dignity if she could recast her relationship with Arnault on the basis of friendship and respect. They met for dinner, which he paid for, and she invited him to dinner at her place in return. They became friends, so it seemed to her at least, even if the waiters in the restaurants where Arnault took her looked at her in a way she had never experienced before. Like she was Arnault's new squeeze.
It went on like that for a year -- until, she alleges, one evening in fall 1992, the year in which Katarina Frostenson was voted into the Swedish Academy, when Jean-Claude Arnault, who had the nickname Jean-Kladd, or Jean the Toucher, raped Elin.
He was strong, she remembers. They were in a different apartment from the one he shared with Frostenson. There was no tea, as he had promised, just an attack and an initial attempt, as Elin describes it, to fuck her in the ass. She was able to prevent anal sex, but she claims he then raped her vaginally.
She didn't go to the police at the time because she didn't have the words to describe what had happened to her. "I decided to delete what I had experienced from my life," she says. And she did, until the day when she read the story about the 18 women who have accused Arnault of sexual assault. Elin's case had fallen under the statute of limitations, but because there were now other women accusing him of rape in cases that could still be prosecuted, she decided -- 26 years after the fact -- to go to the police to prove that Arnault's behavior was systematic.
It was the #MeToo movement that had given the 18 women the courage to speak up -- women like Elise Karlsson, a 36-year-old author who works at a publishing house. One evening in 2008, she was standing in a foyer waiting for friends when she felt a hand on her bottom. "I turned around and saw him and thought, crap, it's Jean-Kladd, and I'm alone with him."
"Don't touch me," she said.
"What happens if I do?" he asked, grinning.
She slapped him.
That could have been it, but Karlsson and Arnault ended up at the same bar that evening and he approached her and began screaming at her in front of everybody that she would never again be able to find a job in this city and that she was a psychopath. Today, she wonders what would have happened to her if she hadn't had a stable group of friends and security at the time.
They ran into each other one other time on a bridge in the city and when he saw her, Arnault spat at her: "Fat pig." It is often smart, self-confident women who like Arnault, Karlsson says, because he treats them well. For his part, he seeks out young, weak and insecure women as targets for his vulgarity and his barely suppressed fury.
'What Do I Do Now?'
Women like Anna-Karin Bylund, 53, in many respects a pivotal case because she spoke up about Arnault's sexual assault habit back in 1996, writing letters to the Swedish Academy and the municipal cultural office. She received no response, though the paper Expressen reported on her case even if nothing happened as a result.
Today, Bylund lives in the countryside far away from Stockholm and works as an elementary school teacher. She still dabbles in art, but back in 1994 -- which is when the sexual assault of which she spoke in 1996 took place -- she was a young artist preparing an exhibition in Arnault's forum.
"He invited me to his place for a meal to discuss the exhibition," Bylund says. "I was still a student at the time, I was young and insecure, but he had always been nice to me. After the meal, in the living room, he suddenly wanted sex. I thought, oh shit, what do I do now? We had sex. I knew that I had to act as though nothing had happened because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to work anymore."
She held one additional exhibition in the forum but managed to keep Arnault away from her. Still, she got wind of what he was saying about her, that she was a whore and a "pussy artist," who made her gender an element of her art. Indeed, the last work of art that Byland exhibited in the forum was a piece made up of 1,500 stuffed mice arranged in the shape of a vagina and sitting in a giant mousetrap.
"He used his influence to get women," Bylund says. "The money he got for his club was just the framework for his sexual activities. I felt miserable. Something inside me had broken. I knew that I had to do something, so I wrote those letters." What then happened formed the friendship and bond between Arnault and Engdahl, a connection that seems to be based entirely on allegiance and loyalty.
That is how Ebba Witt-Brattström describes it, the 64-year-old literature professor, well-known feminist and ex-wife of Engdahl. In spring 1997, she remembers, when Expressen wrote about Bylund's accusations, Engdahl asked her to help out his friend. Arnault, he told his wife, had been accused of sexual assault and he wanted Witt-Brattström to collect statements of solidarity on his behalf. In fall 1997, Engdahl was voted into the academy.
"I still remember that day very clearly," says Witt-Brattström, whose marriage with Engdahl, with whom she has three grown sons, came to an end in 2014. "I came home from a lecture on the history of female resistance. Horace looked as though he had taken heroin. He was dancing around. He had just accepted his election to the worst bastion of the cultural patriarchy."
'Married to a Bigamist'
Witt-Brattström's reaction was to pick up her youngest son, who had a cold and was crying. "I think that he never forgave me for not being happy for him," she says. And because the academy was like a woman to him, and because he referred to it exclusively in the feminine gender, she felt from that day forward, she says, "as though I was married to a bigamist."
Everything changed, she recalls today. She also wrote about it in her novel "Love/War," published to great acclaim in 2016. In it, she calls her husband a "cast out rat" and a "psychoanalytic meltdown." Just one month later, Engdahl responded with his own book called: "Den Sista Grisen," which translates to "The Last Pig."
Engdahl seemed perfect for the job from the very beginning, one of the "boys," as they refer to themselves. Witt-Brattström prefers the term "Camorra," in reference to the Italian crime syndicate. They felt unassailable, outfitted as they were with too much money, too many privileges and too little supervision. In 1999, Engdahl took over the role of permanent secretary from Sture Allén, who had ignored the letter sent by Anna-Karin Bylund. Today, the permanent secretary pro tempore is Anders Olsson, who is also one of the "boys."
Of the 18 academy members, only 10 are currently active. During the climax of the dispute surrounding Arnault, the most recent permanent secretary, Sara Danius, announced her resignation, as did Arnault's wife Katarina Frostenson. The Swedish king, as the academy's patron, recently changed the statutes such that members are no longer mandatory members for life and can step down.
In response, Kerstin Ekman, a well-known author who declared her resignation from the academy in 1989 in protest over its refusal to condemn the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, fumed: "You don't have the right to approve something that has been fact since 1989."
Literature, Lust and Lies
Essentially, the academy is inoperable at the moment. The prize has been suspended for this year and, looking back, some of the recent prizes appear in a different light -- as the product of a shadowy secret society and its stale compromises.
Some say that the Nobel Committee should simply take responsibility for the prize away from the Swedish Academy and give it to a different academy. That, they say, is the only possible way to save the prize -- if indeed it can still be saved. Lars Heikensten, executive director of the Nobel Foundation, has a clear position on the issue: "We won't intervene," he says. "It is up to the academy to solve its structural, institutional and personnel problems. We will, of course, keep a close watch. And if we have the feeling that it is not being done in a convincing matter, then we can, of course, decide to revoke the prize from the academy."
The coming months will be decisive, Heikensten says. The academy has brought in external consultants to settle the most urgent questions. In addition to allowing resignations in the future, Heikensten believes that it is more important to limit the length of terms in the academy as is done in the other groups the Nobel Foundation works with in awarding Nobel prizes. "To regain credibility, a combination of new and old members would be best. The group must be unanimous that change is necessary."
Heikensten, too, sees the Swedish Academy at the crossroads of an epochal shift, a fate it shares with other institutions in an era of uncertainty and disruption. It is a reality which has lent the affair weight far beyond the literature, lust and lies.
The shock is fundamental in nature. Without social media, there would be no #MeToo movement, and without #MeToo, there would be no crisis at the academy. It is the 21st century colliding with the 18th century, affecting a 20th century literature prize because of men behaving as though they are from the Stone Age. And is the monarchy really necessary?
Again, this story is as rich and sad as a book by Strindberg, a many-layered novel of monstrous magnitude. "I am only a misogynist in theory," Strindberg once said. It is a quote that has been chiseled into the sidewalk of a pedestrian street in Stockholm -- largely ignored by those of our times as they pass by.