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article imageNobel literature academy gets new head after sex assault claims

By Camille BAS-WOHLERT (AFP)     Apr 13, 2018 in World

The Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Literature Prize, appointed a new head Friday after a crippling crisis triggered by allegations of sexual assault against the husband of one of its members.

Anders Olsson, a 69-year-old writer and literature professor known for his calm demeanour and diplomatic skills, has been appointed the Academy's "temporary" permanent secretary in a bid to unite the 11 remaining Academy members amid the toxic controversy that has divided it into two camps.

Two members, including permanent secretary Sara Danius, resigned Thursday in the aftermath of the scandal, which centres on allegations by 18 women that they had been subject to sexual harassment and assault by Jean-Claude Arnault, the French husband of Academy member and poet Katarina Frostenson.

Arnault denies the allegations.

The two camps have been split on how to draw a line under the row, and on what measures to take after a report it commissioned revealed conflicts of interest and the fact that Academy members leaked Nobel winners' names.

Seen as bearers of high culture, the Academy is traditionally known for its integrity and discretion, with the meetings and decisions made by its 18 members shrouded in secrecy.

But in recent weeks, the curtain has been lifted on a battle between the two camps, with members dealing ugly blows via the media.

After the 18 women spoke out in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter against Arnault in November -- following the #MeToo campaign -- the Academy cut all ties with Arnault's cultural club Forum in Stockholm, which it had subsidised for years and which was a key meeting point for the country's cultural elite.

One camp had defended Frostenson and the Academy's old guard, while the other camp supported Danius, who wanted to carry out reforms.

"Not all traditions deserve to be maintained," Danius said Friday in a written statement to news agency TT.

"I agreed to take on the role of permanent secretary because I believed there was support for the aim to cautiously but determinedly modernise the Academy."

Danius, the first woman to head the Swedish Academy since it was founded in 1786, said Thursday she had agreed to resign after failing to receive the support of a majority of her colleagues.

Public support has however surged for her: Swedish celebrities, politicians and members of the public on Friday posted pictures of themselves online wearing pussy-bow blouses -- Danius, often praised for her sartorial choices, was wearing one when she announced her resignation Thursday -- with the hashtag #knytblus ("pussy-bow blouse") trending.

Frostenson, who had long refused to step down over the affair, also announced she was withdrawing from the Academy's workings.

"Katarina Frostenson is leaving her role within the Swedish Academy in the hopes that it will survive as an institution."

- Nobel reputation at stake -

The scandal has dragged the Academy's reputation through the mud, something the Swedish king, who is its patron, and the Nobel Foundation would gladly have done without.

"This is devastating for the reputation of the Nobel prize," Mattias Berg, who covers cultural affairs for SR radio, told AFP.

"It seems the Nobel prize for literature, the most important prize for literature in the world, is awarded by an Academy which shows nothing but a lack of judgement and integrity," Berg said.

In 2016, the Swedish Academy came under heavy fire in some circles for awarding the Nobel Literature Prize to US singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, who went on to snub the formal prize ceremony in Stockholm.

Technically, the Academy's members are appointed for life and cannot resign, but they can choose not to participate in its meetings and decisions.

Of the 18 members, a total of seven are no longer active members which poses a real headache: according to its statutes, 12 members are needed in order to vote in a new member.

King Carl XVI Gustaf has indicated he is willing to change the statutes to ensure the Academy's survival.

This is not the first time the Academy has faced a wave of resignations.

In 1989, three members decided to leave their seats empty when the Academy refused to condemn a fatwa against Salman Rushdie following the publication of his novel, "The Satanic Verses." The Academy finally did so 27 years later.

Meanwhile, Stockholm prosecutors announced in mid-March that parts of the investigation against Arnault -- concerning allegations of rape and assault between 2013 and 2015 -- had been dropped due to lack of evidence.

The rest of the investigation is still ongoing.

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