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Let's talk about the Swedish Academy's rapid descent into farce (and pussy bows)

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Let's talk about the Swedish Academy's rapid descent into farce (and pussy bows)
What you need to know about the bizarre rise and fall of the Swedish Academy. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
15:10 CEST+02:00
One of Sweden's most prestigious institutions is falling apart. How did it all come to this for the body that hands out the Nobel Prize in Literature?

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Why is everyone talking about the Swedish Academy today?

When aren't they talking about it? It is the body that hands out the Nobel Prize in Literature, after all. I know the rest of the world doesn't care as much as Sweden, but Sweden cares a great deal. A great deal.

I saw a man wearing a pussy bow. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

That may have been the former head of the Academy, Peter Englund, or Infrastructure Minister Tomas Eneroth, or Enterprise Minister Mikael Damberg. It's not just the men: women are wearing them too.

Didn't they go out of style decades ago?

Not at all, they're very stylish. They also happen to be the signature fashion choice of Sara Danius, who was just ousted as the first female head of the Academy. They're wearing it to show support of her.

Aha. Why was she ousted?

How much time do you have?

I think I have a few mi…

… we'll have to go back to 1786.

Oh. Just give me the gist.


King Gustaf III.

The year 1786 is when King Gustaf III founded the Swedish Academy to further the "purity, strength and sublimity of the Swedish language", motto: "genius and taste". Good old King Gustaf probably wasn't aware at the time that words such as slutspurt, fart and prick sound anything but sublime in English.

Speaking of pricks...

Hang on, I have to explain the background. The Academy is behind the Swedish dictionary and hands out a number of awards and scholarships, of which the most famous one is the Nobel Literature Prize.

Oh, I love Bob Dylan!

We try not to talk about that.

Anyway, it is perhaps the most prestigious organization in Sweden and you have to be pretty darn talented, established and lucky to get one of the 18 seats on the Academy. There were initially meant to be 20 seats, but the story goes that King Gustaf III thought the old Swedish word for eighteen ('aderton') had a nicer ring to it. That's the level of posh we're talking about here.

That's funny, but it sounds like the most un-Swedish Swedish institution of all.

It is remarkably different from much of open, egalitarian, no-frills Swedish society, yes.


Sara Danius giving a speech in honour of Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro last year. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

So there are 18 members?

Er, no, there are 11 at the moment. Two left a number of years ago for reasons that aren't part of the current conflict. Three suddenly left last week in protest against this new thing and two were ousted this week. Traditionally, membership was for life, so a member who left was not replaced until their death.

They're thinking of changing that now, because reasons. And because King Carl XVI Gustaf remembered that he's the highest patron of the Academy, and told them all to behave like adults and don't make me come back there. I don't know if those were his exact words, but I imagine it went something like that.

What's the row about?

Remember the #MeToo movement? On the back of that, 18 women accused a high-profile French-born member of Sweden's cultural elite of sex assaults. He denied it, and police probes were dropped, but even members of the Academy itself alleged that there had been inappropriate behaviour.

The man, Jean-Claude Arnault, has close links to several members of the Academy. He's married to one and good friends with others. And lots of other accusations also emerged: allegations that he had leaked names of Nobel Prize winners and questions being raised over the Academy's own conflicts of interest seeing as they had made several financial payouts to his culture venue – part-owned by his wife.

Danius, whose ill-fated title was 'Permanent Secretary', apparently tried to clean things up after this and hired a law firm to investigate. But not all of her fellow members were pleased and when the firm urged them to file a police report, the majority of the Academy voted no. Opinion was also divided as to whether or not the man's wife ought to resign, with Danius and her supporters again defeated by the majority.

This prompted three of her supporters to step down last week. Up until this point the Academy had been tight-lipped about it all, but suddenly the lid came off with a vengeance, with everyone blaming everyone.


Danius and Horace Engdahl, pictured in 2013. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Academy member Horace Engdahl wrote a scathing opinion piece in the Expressen newspaper saying Danius was the worst permanent secretary since 1786 and calling those who defended her "bad losers".

This came to a head on Thursday, when Danius was forced to quit, but did so on the condition that the above-mentioned wife Katarina Frostenson – who's also an award-winning poet – also left. So they did.

Whoa.

I'll say!

This does not seem like excellent PR for the Swedish Academy if you don't mind me saying.

No. While most of the world are familiar with the Nobel Prize in Literature but perhaps less so with the Swedish Academy, it is important to remember that in Sweden this institution is a big, big deal.

It's fair to say that its grandiosity doesn't fit your idea of Swedishness, and most Swedes have previously thought of it as stuffy, pretentious and not-gender-equal (only nine women have been admitted to the Academy since 1786), but if nothing else competent, serious and with a sound judgment.

Turns out the former is true, but not the latter.

The petty infighting has already been very damaging indeed. Swedish writer David Lagercrantz even went so far as to call for the Swedish Academy to be banned from picking the Nobel Prize winner in the future.


Sara Danius announcing her departure as permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

So what has the reaction been?

Remember those pussy-bow blouses?

So far, public opinion overwhelmingly appears to be in favour of Danius, who was the first female head of the Academy and had been credited with trying to bring the organization into the modern era.

It has not escaped the Swedes' (or indeed the world's) attention either that a woman leader had to resign after trying to clear up a scandal emerging from a feminist campaign, while many of the members who were perhaps perceived as the stuffiest, most pretentious and least gender equal remain in their seats.

Many also perceive it as unfair that Frostenson was punished for her husband's alleged actions.

"Two women were sacrificed, one against the other. It is a shameful stain on the Academy that cannot be washed off," wrote Academy member Per Wästberg, one of the few who had voted in support of Danius.

"This is a complete and utter tragedy for cultural life in Sweden," said Björn Wiman, culture editor of the Dagens Nyheter newspaper. "The public's trust for the Academy is perhaps below rock bottom."

"The strong woman who tried to clean up in the Swedish Academy is forced to leave. I am speechless. Completely undignified way of handling this," wrote Centre Party leader Annie Lööf on social media.

You know what, I'm not sure this is funny any more.

It never was.

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Paul Rapacioli - 13 Apr 2018 16:09
For people outside of Sweden this will be baffling. The values that the country has built its reputation on - openness, equality, transparency, democracy, rationality, pragmatism - are evidently completely absent from the Swedish Academy. And yet the Swedish Academy is responsible for one of Sweden's most visible contributions to world culture (apart from ABBA, Pippi Longstocking and The Local, of course).

Having said that, is all this really a tragedy for cultural life in Sweden? How many books won't be written because of this?

This sort of old-Sweden nonsense has been swept away from most other areas of Swedish life and the country thrives. Maybe this undemocratic, elitist 'arbiter of taste' has in fact been stifling cultural Sweden.
Jon Hart-Murison - 15 Apr 2018 09:03
Lovely article, wittily written. Thank you for explaining.....I didn't understand! I love Sweden and wouldn't want to dismantle any part of it......but The Academy is clearly unfit for it's role and, in it's present form, for Sweden. The King, IMHO, SHOULD step in and model change.
- 04 May 2018 09:43
It is a surprise that in a very democratic, dynamic and forward-looking country like Sweden such an institution exists. Appalling, to say the least.
Amal Matar - 07 May 2018 23:25
I am surprised that the public outrcry did not perceive the resignation of the wife of the sexual offender is due to corruption allegations. Having a company partially owned by her given money for services or whatever.
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