Brought to book
A poet on encounters with the man at the heart of the Nobel prize scandal
I was in my early 20s. I thought of myself as a poet, well aware of the rule that you couldn’t call yourself one until you had had a book of poems published. In Stockholm, where I lived, a place called Forum had opened for people interested in poetry and art; it called itself a contemporary space for culture. In those days, the late 80s, it attracted a young, elitist crowd, where everyone shared a rather earnest desire for profound experiences. I didn’t feel threatened by any of it. My parents were both well-known writers; my father a literary critic, my mother a poet and translator.
I had no writer friends of my own age. I had fallen into the gap between an adult world to which I did not yet belong, and a young person’s world that was mostly about sex and alcohol. I loved to dance. I loved going to nightclubs. The music, the anonymous backs at the bar, the dark corners. The smells of perfume, sweat, spilled drinks. The little details of men and women: a woman’s shirt, dazzling white; a thin gold chain in a cleavage. Sometimes there were men I liked, or desired. I made it a point of honour to salute them, make a small bow, and turn on my heel. Sometimes the farewell itself worked as a seduction technique.
I made no close friendships at the Forum, but I felt part of a circle, mostly made up of older male poets and artists. I got used to being precocious and the youngest. Hanging out with older men gave me the freedom to be young and act old.
It is some years later, and I have submitted a book of poems, had it rejected and rewritten it. Now it has been accepted. Someone wonders whether it’s because it’s good or because I have parents with contacts. It’s an unanswerable question, and I make a joke of it. I know I can’t do any better, but when I read the proofs I wonder if it really is good enough.
Soon I am invited to read my poems at the Forum. The host there is a man named Jean-Claude Arnault, in his mid-40s and married to the poet Katarina Frostenson. He is the frontman; she is the mysterious figure in the background. Jean-Claude is a restless artistic type, a sort of director and doorman who impatiently rattles chairs, pours wine, manages to keep an eye on the stage, the house and the crush at the interval. He kisses women on the cheek, remembers faces, and holds a tender, protective hand behind the back of →
older visitors negotiating the steep stairs down to the venue. Sometimes I hear him make lewd comments about young women, but I choose to hear them as puerile humour. They’re never funny, but they are something easy to brush away, like dandruff on a shoulder. He is French, after all, and speaks Swedish with an accent. Perhaps he wouldn’t sound so crude in French?
One day I see him right at the back of the club, having a go at a young woman standing behind a trestle table of wine glasses. He is very close to her, gesticulating and wagging his finger. I wonder what has made him so angry, what gives him permission to act that way. The woman seems strong. Her face is like a mask. Dark eyes; a clear red mouth. A black lace vest under her suit jacket. I like to wear black, too, but I would never wear a lacy top. It is too obvious, too much of a bohemian cliche, like round framed glasses, dresses with abstract prints, biker boots and dyed hair. But the lace is beautiful against her pale skin.
I’m impressed by the way she stays so calm.
One early afternoon, I agree to meet Jean-Claude in the office at the club to discuss my forthcoming reading. A woman a little older than me pours coffee in dark cups. A vein sticks out on her forehead, becoming more prominent as she bends forward to place the cups on the table. JeanClaude is angry with her about something to do with the upcoming programme. He asks her to go and make a few calls, leaving us to talk. We sit on the sofa, so close that our knees and shoulders touch. Sometimes I nudge him with my arm, in a friendly way. The gesture is a way of showing that I can afford to be a bit familiar; that we trust each other. He seems grateful that I want to appear on his stage. I’m grateful that he’ll let me do it. My shoulder against his upper arm implies that we have a past together, although we don’t.
The fear that he might grow bad-tempered diminishes. He says I am to read for 10 minutes, 15 at most. There is a growing, definite feeling that we have something between us. It’s exciting and ambiguous. I tell myself it is mutual respect.
When we have drunk our coffee we go into the club itself. He locks the door behind us and shows me the green room. Then he asks me to take off my clothes.
I don’t want to have sex with him. He is 24 years older than me. On the other hand, I want the two of us to have something special: something adult, between equals. I take off my clothes. The heatpipes sigh. He doesn’t hurt me; nor does he give me pleasure. It’s a neutral act. There is no resistance and no understanding. It must be a ritual, I think. I notice that his skin is like paper. I look at the ceiling.
My body is on the cold concrete floor. An old carpet, rolled up, supports my head. Jean-Claude, still fully dressed, is almost nonchalant. He tells me I need not worry about pregnancy: he’s sterile. I read the spines of the books on the shelves. My legs seem to be floating. I wish I were more androgynous, the way I feel I really I am. My eyes jump between book spines and body parts. I imagine how I might write this scene, how I would turn the present into a memory.
He tells me that he and Katarina have an open relationship, but that what we’ve done should still be a secret. Later I think, did he really say “open”, or had I had sex with a married man whose wife would dislike it if she knew? Suppose he was in love with me. The fact that he had told me about his sterility made me believe that he had been faithful to his wife for decades; I had no need to worry about picking up a disease. Perhaps I should have said something similar myself – told him that I was probably clean, that I had recently taken an HIV test and wasn’t infected. I wished I could read the situation better.
Was it his way of creating a bond of friendship; a kind of handshake? Or was it a kind of transaction – sex for entry to the inner circle? But I didn’t think I had anything to gain. Maybe I was so light-heartedly ready to pay the price precisely because he had no real power over me.
One day a few months later, I look in at the office and find myself alone with Jean-Claude. He asks if I want to go home with him so he can show me some paintings he knows I am interested in. I don’t ask if Katarina is at home; I assume she is at least local. The mood between us is not as friendly as before. There is an edge, a mocking tone. He brings up my age, my poetry collection, my next book, my ancestry, my relationship with my father, my way of life – as if he wants to see what is real, and what is just cladding.
I feel my own inadequacy, which makes me want to fight back. My ability to put up a front diminishes the closer we come to their house.
I feel as though I am trying to avoid something that has already happened – to return to the scene of the crime to undo something, to smooth it over, to rewrite the story. I want to erase what has happened; transform it into a story about two friends, without a murky past. I almost manage. As we speak there is a masculine, almost conspiratorial tone between us; an easiness. But something doesn’t fit.
He shows me the paintings. He shows me their bedroom and a painting there. He suggests that we have sex on their bed. I have a brief, dreadful thought: Katarina is in the flat, hidden behind a curtain. This is a game they have made up together. But she doesn’t appear.
We sit on their bed. It is twilight. Their separate duvets are in shadow, the pillows still marked where their heads were. I say no, that it isn’t a good idea. I say no again. Jean-Claude is insistent but not threatening. I say: “I’m far too old for you,” thinking myself witty. I kiss him on the forehead, and tell myself that my kiss is both motherly and androgynous.
Five years after the encounter on the concrete floor, my father was elected to the Swedish Academy, where he sat alongside Katarina. In due course he became chairman of the Nobel prize committee. I published my first collection of short stories. One of them was about a young woman who has a relationship with an older man. It was based on real life: a love affair which lasted some years.
Early one morning after the story had been published, the phone rang.
I was living in the same part of the city as the Forum club, with my husband and his daughters. I lay in bed, picked up the receiver, and was surprised to hear the voice of Jean-Claude. We had never called one another, but saw each other from time to time at the club, which I still visited occasionally, most often as part of the audience but sometimes to perform. He was very upset. His voice was low.
He said that he and Katarina, or Katta, as he called her, were grateful for the book I had sent them, but that both had been very disturbed by one story – I knew which one, right? He said he understood that the erotic short story was about him; that I had flagrantly, if flatteringly, revealed
our relationship, and that I must now deny that the story was about him.
“But it’s not about you!” I exclaimed. “How could it be?” My denial counted as further evidence that the material was explosive. He said that I had placed both of them, and myself, in a very delicate position. He said: “She’s really furious with you now!” I trembled with shock. I felt accused, even though I was innocent.
But of course I was also guilty, despite everything. The dark memory of the basement floor. Me naked: him almost fully dressed, his black jeans pulled down. What was the truth behind his phone call? Was Katarina really upset? Did she really think the short story was unmasking him? Had she read it at all?
Or was it just that he wanted me to correct what he saw as my testimony, from some combination of self-esteem and a sudden loss of control? I wanted to protect myself from my own memories. I wanted to protect what I had written. I also wanted to protect the good memories that had been the foundation of the short story.
It felt as if I had joined the game, endured it, wanted it, but then suddenly got tired, forgetting the rules.
Now, 28 years later, when I look back at what happened in the basement at Forum, at Jean-Claude, and Katarina, and the young woman I then was, I do so with dark, mixed feelings. When last year, the journalist Matilda Gustavsson published the testimony of 18 women who accused Jean-Claude of sexual assault and harassment, in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, I felt a great weight lifted from me. It was as though the roof of the Forum club had been lifted off; what had been hidden floated into the light. It was no longer dangerous. But it hurt.
The grief came later. I remembered the place where I had heard all that poetry and music; I thought of the importance of being able to perform there myself. I remembered the atmosphere of the room, a ceremonious, shared joy in art. Perhaps the knowledge of being chosen. It could have been wonderful, but it was not.
Jean-Claude Arnault is in jail now, sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on two counts of rape. Katarina Frostenson, who was a character witness for the defence at his trial, has herself been the subject of an investigation for conflict of interest – since the Academy subsidised the Forum club for many years. The scandal meant there was no Nobel prize for literature last year.
This is not a story about a rape. Nor am I very interested in Jean-Claude himself. I am interested in my own route to that concrete floor. My memory is a series of still lives, fixed in time. But my feelings about them change, moving between sadness, anger, repulsion and embarrassment. When I started writing this, I felt able to laugh about what had happened. I could smile, acknowledging and forgiving my curiosity, my greed for life. But I am not laughing or smiling now.
When I see my younger self in that basement, I understand that I was more lost than I acknowledged at the time. What happened to my feminism during those 10 minutes? I had kept it at bay, just as I did my fear of being lost – of losing my way
I don’t want to have sex with him. He is 24 years older than me. On the other hand, I want us to have something adult, between equals. I take off my clothes
Jean-Claude Arnault with his wife, the poet Katarina Frostenson, in 2011