Sara Danius, 57, Dies; First Woman to Head Nobel Literature Committee

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Sara Danius, who was the first woman to lead the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, and who was ousted in the aftermath of a sexual abuse and harassment scandal that roiled the academy, died on Oct. 12 in Stockholm. She was 57.

Her mother, the author Anna Wahlgren, said on Facebook that Ms. Danius died of breast cancer, which was diagnosed six years ago.

Ms. Danius, a literary scholar, professor and writer, was the permanent secretary of the academy from 2015 to 2018. As such, she played a central role in the hotly debated decision in 2016 to bestow the world’s most prestigious award for literature on a musician — Bob Dylan.

But a sex scandal the next year, when 18 women accused a board member’s husband of sexual assault, overshadowed the Dylan dust-up and led to Ms. Danius’s departure.

She herself was never accused of wrongdoing. But she was the public face of a global institution whose reputation had been severely damaged.

Behind the scenes, her enemies within the academy sought to protect the accused man. They resisted her attempts to bring in law enforcement and forced her out.

When she left, she acknowledged that her colleagues had lost confidence in her leadership. She also defiantly suggested that arrogant and anachronistic forces within the academy had invoked the institution’s traditions to deny accountability.

“Not all traditions are worth preserving,” she said.

Her abrupt departure infuriated many women — and many men as well — across Sweden, a country that prides itself on gender equality. She was widely viewed as a scapegoat.

As a New York Times headline put it: “In Nobel Scandal, a Man is Accused of Sexual Misconduct. A Woman Takes the Fall.”

Thousands of people rallied to support her in public demonstrations and on social media. In a show of solidarity, many donned a garment favored by the fashion-conscious Ms. Danius — the pussy-bow blouse, or knytblus, in which a flowing wide tie is knotted at the neck. Considered the professional woman’s alternative to the suit and tie, it was worn in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher and Nancy Reagan, and more recently by Melania Trump.

The scandal, driven in part by the #MeToo movement sweeping the United States, set off recriminations and power struggles within the academy. Amid the turmoil, several of the 18 board members left their chairs. And in 2018, for the first time since World War II, no Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded.

The literature prize has a long history of controversy. The academy has tended to favor Europeans, often Swedes and especially men, and has frequently honored obscure writers rather than towering literary figures.

In 2016 it drew plenty of fire for awarding the literature prize to Mr. Dylan, the first time a songwriter was so honored. Ms. Danius was pivotal in that selection, but the deliberations that lead to the selection of recipients are kept secret for 50 years, and she revealed little about it in her book “On Bob Dylan.”

When she announced the award, she cited Mr. Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

The award horrified many in the literary world, who maintained that song lyrics were not literature.

Ms. Danius defended the choice, telling reporters, “He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards.” Mr. Dylan worked in the oral tradition, she added, like Homer and Sappho, whose works were meant to be performed, often with instruments, and whose art has survived well on the printed page.

Sara Danius was born on April 5, 1962, in Taby, north of Stockholm. As a child she moved frequently with her mother, Ms. Wahlgren, who had nine children, of whom Sara was the oldest. Ms. Wahlgren, who was married and divorced seven times, was nonetheless acclaimed in Europe in the 1980s for her popular child-rearing manual, “For the Love of Children,” which was published in English in 2009.

When Sara was 11, she moved to Taby to live with her father, Lars Danius, a teacher and author.

She studied at Stockholm University and, after graduating in 1986, established herself as a literary critic. After further studies in France, England and the United States, where she received her doctorate in literature from Duke University in 1997, she was appointed professor of aesthetics at Sodertorn University in Stockholm. In 2013 she was named professor of literature at Stockholm University. She wrote extensively about modernist aesthetics and also about Proust, Flaubert and Joyce.

She married Stefan Jonsson, an author, in 1989; the marriage ended in divorce in 2010. In addition to her mother, survivors include her son, Leo; six of her seven sisters; and one brother.

Ms. Danius was installed at the Swedish Academy in 2013 and became permanent secretary in June 2015. After stepping down from that position, she retained her seat in the academy until she resigned in February 2019.

The man at the center of the sex scandal, Jean-Claude Arnault, was found guilty last year of raping a woman in 2011 and was sentenced to two years in jail; he appealed, but the appeals court found him guilty of raping the same woman twice and extended his sentence.

In addition, his wife, Katarina Frostenson, a poet who resigned from the academy, was accused of leaking the names of prize recipients to him on at least seven occasions so their friends could profit from bets. The two have denied all charges and said they were the objects of a witch hunt.

The academy underwent extensive restructuring after the scandal. This year, it named two Nobel laureates in literature — the Austrian writer Peter Handke and the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk — to make up for the absence of the award in 2018.

Mr. Handke’s selection drew fresh outrage: In 2006 he had eulogized Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Yugoslavia who was on trial for war crimes.

Ms. Danius left the academy before the decision was announced to award two literature prizes. But she told reporters she disagreed with the decision. She suggested that the year 2018 should have been left blank, without a recipient — “out of respect,” she said, “for the women who became victims.”


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