Brought to book

A poet on en­coun­ters with the man at the heart of the No­bel prize scan­dal

The Guardian - Weekend - - Front | Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Anna Schori

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

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