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The continuing crisis inside the Swedish Academy

The continuing crisis inside the Swedish Academy

The crisis at the Swedish Academy began in November 2017, when Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of the Academy member Katarina Frostenson, was accused in an article in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper of sexually harassing or assaulting eighteen women.

By – Richard Orange

“He held me and shoved his dick so far down my throat it felt like I was choking”, stated the plaintiff in Arnault’s subsequent rape case. “I panicked. He didn’t let go. In the end I vomited. Then he pushed me to the floor, so my vomit would not end up on his sheets. His movement was so routine, like he had done the same thing a thousand times.” Several women claim that Arnault used his close ties to the Academy to shield his abuses. Some of the assaults were alleged to have taken place in apartments owned by the Academy. And many of the Academy’s members had hosted events at Arnault’s club, Forum. “The #MeToo movement”, as Sara Danius, the institution’s first female Permanent Secretary put it in a radio essay on August 18, “stood bashing on the door of the Swedish Academy.” Of the eighteen women whose allegations against Arnault were printed in the original article, eight filed formal complaints. All barring one of these complaints were dropped because they exceeded the statute of limitations or lacked sufficient supporting evidence. On October 1 this year Arnault was sentenced to two years in prison, the minimum possible sentence for rape.

Börshuset, the old Stock Exchange building, will be familiar to anyone who has been on a city break to Stockholm. It takes up the entire northern side of the main square in the city’s tourist district, Stortorget in Gamla Stan. King Gustav III officially opened the building in 1776, a decade before he founded the Academy. The Academy, whose eighteen members are elected for life, meet in its gilded rooms on the third floor every Thursday. There, they discuss the disbursement of grants and prizes to literary institutions and promising writers. Chief among the prizes is the Nobel Prize for Literature, which the Academy has awarded ever since it was established in 1901 using funds bequeathed by Alfred Nobel.

The day after the article in Dagens Nyheter was published back in November, the Academy held its weekly meeting as usual. At the meeting, the Academy’s members unanimously decided that the institution should immediately cut its ties with Arnault, and several members came up with new accusations against him. Three hours later, Sara Danius stood outside in the rain to read out a press statement outlining the institution’s plans to stop funding Arnault’s venue. “During the meeting it has emerged that Academy members, members’ daughters, members’ wives and personnel in the Academy’s secretariat have been subjected to undesired intimacy or unfitting behaviour by the concerned person”, she said. One fellow Academy member, and former Permanent Secretary, Horace Engdahl at that point fully supported the rapid response, according to Danius, who in her radio essay quoted a message he had sent to her praising her “excellent” press release. “The situation is looking somewhat brighter”, he wrote. “You have handled yourself fantas­tically well. Perhaps, despite everything, we will survive.” Danius went on to say that she did not understand why, by January, Engdahl appeared to be protecting Arnault. “What had happened in Mr Engdahl’s life over the Christmas break? I still ask myself that today.”

Having cut their ties with Arnault, the Academy then entered a long dispute over whether to also expel his wife, Frostenson, from her seat. This (on top of the allegations against Arnault) followed a law firm’s allegations that Frostenson may have leaked in advance the winner of at least seven Nobel Prizes to her husband (Arnault denies all claims against him and Frostenson did not respond to requests for interview). Danius was voted down in the motion to expel Frostenson by a majority of members who were led, it would seem, by Engdahl. Some members then put forward a “coordinated measure” in which Frostenson would temporarily leave her seat so long as Danius stood down. When Danius did stand down, in April, Engdahl was seen as the backroom power-player pushing her out. Almost 2,000 protesters, many wearing Danius’s signature pussy-bow blouse, came to protest outside the institution’s doors.

Three further members had announced their resignations from the Academy in April, in protest at the decision not to expel Frostenson. And in the weeks after Danius stood down as Permanent Secretary, her ally Sara Stridsberg also announced she would leave the institution. With two other members inactive even before the crisis began, the Academy now lacked the quorum of twelve needed to appoint new members and so renew itself. The foundation that supervises the Nobel Prizes pressured the Academy to postpone this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, and Engdahl’s stubbornness was blamed. At the time of the prize’s postponement in May, Engdahl had become almost more the villain in Sweden than Jean-Claude Arnault, the man whose sexual assaults triggered the crisis.

On June 20, when I asked Engdahl how it felt to be the most unpopular person in Sweden, he was defiant. “I consider that to be completely trivial”, he said. “It doesn’t even make me sad. What worries me is the fate of the Swedish Academy, only that.”

Engdahl had tried to explain himself in an interview with Swedish Radio in May, expressing a desire for reconciliation with the Academy members who had stood down, but the attempt failed. The Swedish media seized on a single phrase that he had used when claiming never to have discussed sex with Arnault, “We blokes [or perhaps ‘chaps’] don’t talk about such things”.

For Engdahl, this response was the last straw. “I realised I was not a participant in a public dialogue, I was a prisoner”, he told me during our two-hour phone interview. “I was subject to a public interrogation and the sentence was already clear.” He decided that the newspapers in Sweden were no longer going to give him a fair hearing. “When I tried to speak to the media, I could feel that there was absolutely no willingness on the side of the journalists and the newspapers to allow me any right of having an opinion at all. I was judged from the beginning, and they really just wanted to discover symptoms in what I said of the wrongs that I tried to deny.”

For twenty-five years, Engdahl was married to Ebba Witt-Brattström, a professor of literature and one of Sweden’s leading feminists. He has been a member of the Academy since 1997 and served as its Permanent Secretary for ten years. Named Horace by his naval family after Horatio Nelson, in the hope that he would become an admiral, Engdahl is a courtly figure with a slightly stiff, almost military bearing. But he broke into Sweden’s cultural scene as a radical young man in the 1980s, promoting the trendy European critical theory of Kris, the cult literary magazine co-founded by his close friend, the writer and poet Stig Larsson (not to be confused with the other Stig Larsson, who changed his name to Stieg in order to avoid confusion between the pair, and who went on to write The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Larsson told me that while he and Arnault had both been interested in girls and nightlife when they met in the early 1990s, Engdahl, who was already married to Witt-Brattström, had taken no part in this. “Me and Horace are extremely close, and he is so correct”, Larsson said. “He’s from a military family and he’s very, very correct. He has never done anything unlawful.”

For Engdahl, Arnault’s appeal seems to have been not about the young women he surrounded himself with, but about the fact that he could command large audiences. “He was very good at what he did, and what he presented was something that was unequalled in other places in Stockholm and even in Sweden”, Engdahl remembered. “And if you compare it historically to what we had before, [Forum] was a marvellous place for inter-art discussion, philosophy reading, and all sorts of cultural experience. It was not only natural, but almost unavoidable to get drawn into it.”

After the Dagens Nyheter article was first published, Swedish journalists highlighted Engdahl’s long, and well-documented friendship with Arnault. “He lives the good life, and he is almost alone in that, the only one who gets it”, he had said admiringly about the Frenchman during an interview to publicize his book of epigrams, Den Sista Grisen (The Last Pig) in 2016. “He should turn [the] Forum into a style school for young men.” But in our interview he was adamant that he was never as close a friend of Arnault as the media has made him out to be. “It has happened that we had a glass of wine occasionally, but it wasn’t the kind of private sociability that you imagine.” Others dispute this. “They have been much more friends than just that. They have been old drinking buddies for a while”, says a person close to the Academy who does not wish to be named. “The relationship between these two men is in the core of this business.”

“Horace has only two friends”, said Witt-Brattström, Engdahl’s ex-wife, when I met her in Södermalm, “Stig Larsson and Jean-Claude Arnault”. Engdahl had warned me in an email, that “[Witt-Brattström] has, since our divorce, been known to make the greatest possible effort to do harm to the reputation of the Swedish Academy and of me personally.” In July, though, Witt-Brattström seemed confident that Engdahl’s position was irredeemable. “He can never come back I think”, she said, pointing to the article her ex-husband wrote in the Expressen newspaper attacking Sara Danius’s handling of the crisis and calling her supporters “a clique of bad losers”. “Sara Danius”, he wrote, “of all the secretaries since 1786, has fulfilled her duty the worst.” For many in Sweden that article reframed what had up until then been a somewhat mystifying internal dispute into a battle between a reactionary man and a modernizing woman. “He has really exposed himself”, said Witt-Brattström, and she showed me a tweet posted by the culture editor of Dagens Nyheter showing how an oil painting of Engdahl had been moved to a new place outside the toilets in the villa owned by Sweden’s biggest publishing company.

Since their divorce in 2014, Witt-Brattström has published a poetic novel, translated into English as Love/War (reviewed in the TLS on February 16). It is a dialogue between a “he” and “she” whose relationship has descended into bitterness. It was performed as an opera at Stockholm’s City Theatre. She has also published a feminist literary history of the 1970s, in which she accuses her ex-husband and the small coterie of bright young men centred on Kris magazine of forcing a “new aesthetic ideology” into Sweden’s literary world in the early 1980s. With “an aggressive, young-male arrogance”, she wrote, they swept away the socially conscious and feminist literature that had gone before them. “In hindsight, it’s as clear as day that the goal was not just an elitist view of literature”, she wrote. “It was just as important [to them] to free literature (and theory) from every aspect of a feminist thematization of gender.” Witt-Brattström believes that when Engdahl joined the Academy, it continued to promote this ideology. “It’s the literature, as you say in France, ‘du mal’. It’s the bad literature, the wicked, the tradition from Marquis de Sade, which by the way, Jean-Claude Arnault took more or less literally”, she says. “In this ideology women were supposed to take the role of mutes, or whores. The man is the only subject.” The women elected to the Academy were admitted, she argues, because they yielded to this new ideology. When the Academy under Engdahl’s leadership awarded the Nobel Prize to the Austrian poet and playwright Elfriede Jelinek in 2004, Witt-Brattström felt it was a reward for Jelinek’s depictions of women being willingly abused in sexual relationships. “It’s like Jelinek, you blame the woman who stays and lets herself be abused. It’s never critical. You don’t criticize the men, the abusers”, she says.

In our discussion, Witt-Brattström seems to be motivated less by revenge than a desire to undo some of the damage she feels she unwittingly did to the feminist cause by raising her ex-husband to prominence. She pulls out a photograph of Engdahl from 1981, wearing ripped jeans and a leather jacket, a totally different figure from the elegant literary gentleman he presents himself as today. “When I fell in love with Horace, he was poor. He didn’t have any power. The power was coming, but I didn’t see it. He only owned one pair of jeans and they had holes in them. I took him in.” At the time she was the editor of Sweden’s leading feminist magazine and a frequent contrib­utor to the cultural sections of the main newspapers. “In those days, I thought that we [the feminists] were so strong. I made this misjudgement. I thought this was interesting. He was so male. This classical male fixation of his was interesting for me.” Their bitter divorce and its aftermath certainly helped prepare Sweden’s literary world to place Engdahl in the role of a villain in a gender war. But he hasn’t helped himself either. “Complete penetration is always a humiliation for the woman and always a victory for the man”, he wrote in Den Sista Grisen, a sentiment hardly calculated to endear him to women readers, or most men. And the book’s epigrams, like its title, often seem designed to antagonize feminists. He argues for instance that while men sometimes hit women, women “fight with other means which the law does not cover”. “They can calmly deliver the death-blow and still count on winning sympathy as the weaker party.” He warns Swedish fathers that looking after babies on paternity leave won’t win them any credit. “As you push the baby buggy, your guilt only grows.”

When I first spoke to him, before Arnault’s trial, Engdahl still perceived Arnault as innocent despite the weight of the evidence against him. “What was stated in the original article didn’t at all fit with the image I had of this man”, he said in our interview. “I couldn’t imagine him using violence against women. . . . I’m not trying to say that all these situations were imagined, but I don’t think that you can claim the opposite either. You would have to be one or other of these two parties to know. People play games and sometimes those games go wrong.” When he heard rumours about Arnault’s treatment of women in the past, he says, he always put them down to cultural differences. “He’s a Frenchman, he comes from a different culture, and if it existed [the rumours], it was thought of as a matter of course, in a very conventional way. . . in a very stupid way.”

In our interview, Engdahl conceded that a guilty verdict for Arnault would leave him “surprised and dismayed” and force him and his supporters to “rethink our image of this man”. But when I get in touch with him again after Arnault has been found guilty, he still expresses doubts about the trial. “I am surprised that a man can be sent to prison without any substantial evidence of his guilt being presented at the trial. We live in a dangerous time.”

This seems to be how Engdahl interprets the #MeToo movement more broadly. During the most intense part of the crisis in April, he began reading a book on the Académie française. He was struck by the similarities he perceived between what happened to that institution after the French Revolution, particularly after 1792 when the revolution moved into the Age of Terror, and the Swedish Academy in the present day. “When I read some of these articles in various revolutionary newspapers, I recognized quite a lot”, he told me. “Basically it was the same resentment, it was the same attack on privilege, it was also an attack on sexual irregularities, and the use of public funds for financing various forms of luxury and pageantry.”

“I feel we’re involved in the same kind of event here, we’re in a kind of 1789, and the forces that were released are extremely strong and they’re very, very hard to resist”, he said. This is the historical perspective with which he understands the accusations against Arnault. “I don’t know the number of witnesses who came forward to accuse Marie Antoinette of incest with her children, but it was probably no fewer”, he said of the Frenchman’s eighteen accusers. “We live in this period that is very much defined in Sweden by the onset of the #MeToo movement and the atmosphere that has created.”

Engdahl claims, however, that the position he has taken during the Academy’s dispute has been less about Arnault’s guilt or innocence than about whether or not it is correct to punish Arnault’s wife, Frostenson. “I think she was a blameless victim, and that’s why we had a moral duty to protect her, to give the kind of help we could give.” He said his biggest regret is that he supported the Academy’s rapid reaction in November. “What we can safely say is that she experienced a hostile attitude from the direction of the Academy, and this was very painful, and definitely contributed to making her situation nightmarish . . . . If I had been subjected to the same kind of treatment, where the media were to subject me to wild accusations, I would have lost my mind.” Engdahl also accuses the Swedish press of shamefully failing to inform the public of Frostenson’s status as a poet. “When you look back in fifty years, who will be regarded as the most important writer of the Academy in our era? Well, probably her”, he said. “In a very odd way, the Swedish media have had very little interest in her. She’s been almost invisible in all this. They haven’t really told the public who she is.”

When the Academy resumed its meetings following the summer break on September 6, the pressure on Engdahl was once again intense. Three members of the Academy who had stood down – Sara Danius, Kjell Espmarsk and Peter Englund – had agreed to come back, but only if Engdahl himself resigned. There was also the looming threat from the Nobel Foundation, which could simply pass the selection of the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature to another institution. At their first meeting after the summer break, the rump of the Academy rejected a compromise proposal from the Nobel Foundation that would have forced Engdahl out of the committee which decides the prize winner, but kept him in the Academy.

In her radio essay, Danius hit back at Engdahl for his article attacking her. “It’s not for former permanent secretaries to say who is best or worst. There is only one judge and that is history itself”, she said. “And one thing is clear: history will not be merciful about what today’s Swedish Academy is in the middle of, especially not to Mr Engdahl, to the extent that he will be remembered at all.” The essay also included a section dripping with sarcasm in which Danius listed the “new words” she said she had learnt as permanent secretary: “cronyism”, “honey trap” and “golden shower”.

Despite this counterattack on Engdahl, Danius dropped her requirement that he stand down. Together with Espmark and Englund, she retook her seat to vote in two new members, the Swedish-Iranian poet Jila Mossaed and the judge Eric Runesson. Since then the Academy has made the decision to request that Frostenson leaves the Academy permanently and voluntarily. At the time of publication she has made no public response to this.

When I spoke to him in June, Engdahl remained adamant that neither he, nor anyone, could be removed. “I can’t be. There’s actually no way to do it”, he said. Only one person has been excluded from the Academy, and that was for plotting against the King. And he was sentenced to death. “You could just as well try to oust a judge from the Supreme Court. Cum Periat Mundi. . . even if the world perishes.” He hesitated, alert to the possibility of erroneous conjugations or declensions. The next day, an email appeared in my inbox. “Et pereat mundus! Those are the words. (Fiat justitia et pereat mundus.).” Let justice be done though the world perishes.


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