Somewhere, a giddy Wes Anderson is developing a film about an elderly novelist, one of the most lauded and prolific in the world, who spends his late years waiting eagerly for each October, feeling sure that this — this! — is the year he will be given his due, and awarded the world’s most prestigious literary prize. I can see the twist, even now: As the years wear on, and he becomes more aggrieved by the seemingly nonsensical withholding of the honor, he starts receiving visits from his own most memorable characters. His alter-ego, who takes careful notes on their interactions and walks away disoriented and unfulfilled, yet curiously wiser. A Jewish man who uses his all-American good looks to build a seemingly flawless life, only to have it all fall apart. A breast!
Then, of course, comes the frankly misogynist sexual omnivore — joke intended, liver optional — whose respect for decency, boundaries and consent is, at best, compromised. Perhaps the character for whom the author is best known, this man delivers an unwelcome plot twist. In the author’s 86th year, for the first time in seven decades, the prize will not be awarded due to the conduct of a frankly misogynist — ok, allegedly so — accused sexual predator.
It is a surprising coincidence that Philip Roth — who famously had Alexander Portnoy of “Portnoy’s Complaint” utter the words “What I’m saying, Doctor, is that I don’t seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds” — would be denied the Nobel Prize in Literature, yet again, partially because of the actions of a man accused of groping the Crown Princess of Sweden.
Yet if 2018 was going to be Roth’s year to nab the laurels, itself a dubious proposition, as the Swedish Academy has apparently made something of a sport of withholding them, that is precisely what happened. The Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, has been recently overwhelmed by a scandal over a number of sexual assault allegations against the photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of now-former Academy member Katarina Frostenson and a longtime close associate of the Academy. The first allegations against Arnault were published by a Swedish newspaper in November, which reported on 18 women’s accusations that he had sexually harassed or assaulted them; as The New York Times reports, a number of allegations were subsequently made public, including the claim that he placed his hand on Crown Princes Victoria’s behind at a 2006 event.
Why the Academy should face internal difficulty over the alleged sexual misbehavior of a member’s spouse might be unclear, were it not for two relevant facts: Arnault is suspected of leaking the names of previous Nobel Literature Laureates prior to their announcement, and his marriage is not his sole tie to the Academy. Per the Times report, the cultural center Arnault co-owns with Frostenson, Forum, has benefited from Academy funding, and several of the instances of misbehavior of which he is accused are alleged to have happened at venues that belong to the Academy. Arnault has, through his lawyers, denied all the allegations against him.
Frostenson’s continued presence on the Academy’s 18-member panel prompted some members to resign, but the true crisis hit when Sara Danius, the first female Permanent Secretary of the Academy — its highest post — was dismissed after ending the Academy’s relationships with Arnault and Forum and bringing in an external law firm to investigate the Academy. Danius remained a member of the Academy after being removed from the post of Permanent Secretary, but several members resigned over her treatment. The two waves of resignations left the Academy with only 10 voting members, prompting a feeling both within and outside of the Academy that a prize could not be credibly awarded this year.
Yes, the Academy will award two Nobel Prizes in Literature in 2019, to make up for the 2018 omission, the first of its kind since 1949. So Roth can still look forward to 2019 — so long as he’s willing to share the stage.