161 years old today!

If Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf was alive today, she would be celebrating her 161st birthday.

Born 20 November 1858, Selma Lagerlöf was a Swedish author, publishing her first novel, ‘Gösta Berling’s Saga’, at the age of 33. She is considered to be one of Sweden’s most significant writers throughout history.

She was a woman of firsts. She was the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she was awarded in 1909.

Additionally, she was the first female to be granted a membership in The Swedish Academy in 1914 – the famous literary committee that selects the Nobel prize laureate amongst other things.

She wrote prolifically – mostly novels, religious texts and short stories. Other than ‘Gösta Björlings Saga’, her most famous works are probably ‘Jerusalem’, ‘The Treasure’ and ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Holgersson’. The latter has been translated into over 30 languages.

Selma was a politically active woman – involved as a speaker for the Swedish Suffragette movement, and herself living in a controversial same sex relationship. She was also a vocal anti-nazi.

The house where Selma Lagerlöf was born on 20 Nov 1958, grew up and later lived is today open to the public as a museum. If you’d like to visit, it’s in the county of Värmland and can be checked out at Mårbacka

The Nobel Prize of SHAME

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In egalitarian Sweden, there is an elitist, powerful, elected-for-life committee called The Swedish Academy. This (royal) Academy is an appointed committee of 18 members whose purpose is to further the ‘purity, strength, and sublimity of the Swedish language.’ To this aim, they are guardians of the Swedish dictionary, and they award many prizes and scholarships to domestic authors. A mostly dusty, bourgeois old bunch, they also are responsible for awarding the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature every year.

But not this year. Sex and shame has stopped them.

Today, the Academy announced they will not be awarding a 2018 prize. This has only happened 6 times since its beginnings in 1901  – during the world wars and in 1935, when no worthy winner was identified.

On its website, the academy writes ‘The present decision was arrived at in view of the currently diminished Academy and the reduced public confidence in the Academy.”

The ‘reduced confidence’ they are referring to is the rampaging sexual assault scandal that has engulfed the organisation. Several members of the academy have been slandered, scapegoated and forced out, or left at the own volition.

So no prize in literature this year, but most certainly a prize in shame.

It all started last November in regard to the husband of author Katarina Frostenson who is a member of the Academy. Her husband, photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, who ran a cultural project, with funding from the Swedish Academy itself, was accused by 18 women of sexual assault and harassment. Some of this allegedly happened in Academy premises. It has later been suggested that he even groped Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria at a formal event.  Naturally, Mr Arnault denies the allegations.

This threw the Academy into turmoil. What unfolded in front of us was a drama of betrayal, sexism, power struggle, internal conflict, dishonesty and manipulation. It was like ‘Culture News’ meets ‘Downton Abbey’. Subsequently, a wave of resignations followed, including Ms Frostenson and the head of the academy, Sara Danius.

Today, there are only 11 members in place but the diminished academy requires a quorum of 12 to vote in any new members.

Since its beginning in 1786, the Academy has only ever allowed 9 women to sit in the committee. 9 women! It is clearly yet another example of a white, male-dominated, middle-class organisation. Can it change? Maybe the only way is to rip down this tower and build it up again in a more egalitarian spirit? Surely, the Academy should represent the population in ethnicity and gender at the very least?

The Academy’s slogan is ‘snille och smak’ – which translates as ‘talent and taste’.

Ironic isn’t it, that they are currently demonstrating neither of them.