The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony 2017.
The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony 2017.
Image: Getty Images / Pascal Le Segretain

Sometimes the talk in the local book world turns to who could be the third South African Nobel laureate, after Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee. I always bet on Ivan VladislaviÇ or Marlene van Niekerk, or Zakes Mda. It seems, though, that there might never be another Nobel Prize in Literature, let alone another South African winner.

The Swedish Academy that bestows the prize — arguably, the most important literary prize in the world — has collapsed in a gilded heap under the weight of a sex scandal. It was announced in May that no prize would be awarded this year; what has subsequently emerged makes it unlikely that it will ever recover.

The academy consists of 18 people — they call themselves The Eighteen — who are elected for life. Theirs is a rarefied world of high culture and arcane ritual and the academy is wealthy, owning luxurious apartments in Stockholm and Paris for the members’ use. They own the salubrious restaurant in the old heart of Stockholm where they would meet every Thursday for dinner.

But the #MeToo movement came battering at its antique doors. Eighteen women came forward accusing a man closely linked to the group of sexual abuse, which they said had gone on for decades. He is Jean-Claude Arnault, a French photographer, who is married to the poet Katarina Frostenson, a member of the academy. They run a cultural club in Stockholm called Forum, which was funded by the academy, and which Arnault, it is alleged, used as a base for his predations. Frostenson has also been accused of leaking the names of prize winners to Arnault, who would then bet at bookies in Paris.

There’s been a run of resignations so that the committee no longer has a quorum, and the edifice of the Nobel Prize in Literature is lurching into oblivion. Commentators have, of course, pointed out that this particular emperor was always threadbare. Now that the somewhat arbitrary methods of choosing the annual winner have been revealed, there are many who will agree.

No wonder Doris Lessing accepted the award so grudgingly, and Bob Dylan bunked the ceremony, instead sending a recorded lecture in the nick of time before he forfeited the prize money.

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