“Larsson’s Legacy” – author profile of Stieg Larsson by Mark Dapin
When Stieg Larsson died in 2004, he hadn’t seen any of his blockbusting novels in print. Nor had he made a will. In Sweden, Mark Dapin meets the trio locked in battle over his estate.
Eva Gabrielsson, the widow of swedish author Stieg Larsson, selects her words precisely, with an angry, wounded calm. She feels robbed of her partner twice over: first by his sudden death at 50 years old, then by the battle with his family over his estate. The outcome has left her with nothing but the apartment they lived in, while Stieg’s father, Erland, and younger brother, Joakim, control the rights to the work of the second-best-selling author in the world today.
As Larsson’s de facto partner, Gabrielsson, an architectural historian, had no right of inheritance under Swedish law, even though she and Larsson had been together for 32 years. They didn’t marry, she says, for security reasons. Stieg was a lifelong anti-Nazi, and a married couple have to make their address publicly available. If Larsson had done this, he would have invited assassination.
Swedish law allows a journalist to request any citizen’s passport photograph from the police authority. In 1999, Swedish Nazis first car-bombed a vehicle belonging to a reporter who was investigating the white-power music scene, then used his name to obtain a picture of the anti-Nazi trade unionist Björn Söderberg, whom they subsequently murdered in his own home. Along with Söderberg’s head shot, they had also formally applied for and acquired pictures of Larsson and Gabrielsson.
At time of writing, Larsson’s Millennium trilogy – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – has sold 24 million copies worldwide. The books follow investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and punk hacker savant Lisbeth Salander as they inflict justice upon men who exploit and abuse women. Salander rapes her rapist, a serial killer is killed, sex traffickers are exposed, even punters are ruined. It’s an elaborate revenge fantasy that sometimes feels closer to the science-fiction genre than crime. Socially marginalised geeks use their mastery of technology as a weapon against the wicked and powerful, while an old-style, incorruptible journalist plods alongside them, his own investigation fuelled only by experience, intuition, craft and a good heart. Naturally, Blomkvist and Salander fall in love.
The writing has been criticised for its didactic detours and sometimes mundane tenor, but its themes have echoed throughout the reading – rather than the literary – world. These are the kind of books people want, where flawed characters with complicated relationships take on the wicked, powerful and one-dimensional, and win. There is also quite a lot of sex, which never does any harm in a story set in Sweden.
This month, a subtitled Swedish-language movie of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is released in Australia, where more than half a million of the three books have been sold. The film came out in Sweden in February 2009, but Gabrielsson has only just seen it. She applauds the performance of Noomi Rapace as Salander, but is incensed that some of the words in the film are wrong. The movie’s title overseas, for instance, should have been Men Who Hate Women. That’s what the first book – and the movie – is called in Sweden. Larsson was “adamant” that his title shouldn’t change, because the title was the whole point. “But they let the English guy do it,” she says, “and they let all the others rename it, too.”
“They” are Erland and Joakim. “The English guy” is Stieg’s London publisher, Christopher MacLehose, the man who gave the trilogy to the English-speaking world when he released The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2008. Gabrielsson says MacLehose sanitised and anodised the translation, chose all the wrong words.
She cites as an example an early scene in which Blomkvist is interviewed on the courthouse steps, after having been wrongly convicted of libel. Asked how he feels, Blomkvist replies, in both the Swedish version and the original translation, “Like a sack of shit.” In the MacLehose version, he says, “This is the worst day of my life.”
“Imagine 2000 pages [across three translated books] of that,” says Gabrielsson. “He’s changed the sound, the essence, the colour, the character of the dialogue.” If she had the rights to the work, if she could manage the legacy, she would not allow this kind of thing to happen.
the camera flash does gabrielsson no favours.
It deepens and darkens the lines on her face, makes her seem embittered and hard. In natural light, her skin is smooth and she looks girlish and scholarly, nerdy and young, like a female version of Larsson. Both Larsson and Gabrielsson were science-fiction fans. They produced their own fanzines and Larsson wrote fantasy short stories. They looked more like Trekkies than anti-Nazi street-fighters, but fighters they were, and Gabrielsson hasn’t stopped.
Larsson began to write his Millennium trilogy in July 2002. In June 2004, with the first two novels completed, he signed a three-book deal with the Swedish publisher Norstedts. He delivered the third volume in July. On November 9, he had a heart attack climbing the stairs at Expo, the anti-fascist magazine where he worked, and he died on the operating table in hospital. He was 50 years old and had never seen a printed copy of any of his novels. Nor had he made a will.
Men Who Hate Women was published in Sweden in 2005, and the trilogy has sold about three million copies in its home country alone. The translation was a sensation in the UK, and reached No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list. Europe loved the books. Australia has been just as enthusiastic. But Larsson died owning not much more than half the apartment he shared with Gabrielsson, and even that was contested by Erland and Joakim.
Immediately after the death, says Gabrielsson, Erland said the money was all hers, that she was Stieg’s wife. The next thing she heard officially was a letter from their lawyers, saying the estate had been divided between the father and the brother. She says their position now is “the law is the law”; they will only speak through lawyers. They claim she won’t deal with them personally. Joakim says they are willing to let her co-manage Stieg’s legacy. She sees no place for him. “Stieg didn’t want to have anything to do with his brother,” she says. “They were too different.” As for the father, although they saw him from time to time, she and Stieg set out specifically to stay with him perhaps twice, in the 1970s, when Stieg’s mother was still alive.
In 2008, Erland and Joakim conceded Gabrielsson full ownership of the couple’s apartment. They have since offered her 20 million kronor ($3 million) to settle the dispute. Gabrielsson is contemptuous of the family, their motivations and their attempts at compromise. If they were suitable guardians, they’d have blocked the translation she abhors. They would have restored the proper title to the first book. At the end of last year, Joakim quit his job at Ernst & Young to work full-time with his father on Stieg’s business. “What do they do?” asks Gabrielsson. “They go here and there and pick up prizes and say, ‘I miss my son’,
‘I miss my brother.’ Who the f… cares?”
Central stockholm in winter is dark and stern. Snowfalls settle on severe public buildings like the grass growing over a grave. People step cautiously on the icy pavements, don’t look to the side, don’t smile or acknowledge others around them.
The Swedes grow tired of their long winter and the merciless cold. Their patience thins, they lash out. They fear the unprovoked violence of strangers. But they don’t let on; they plod purposefully towards the heat of home, or a warm bar where they can drown the thoughts that trouble them in beer and schnapps.
I arrange to meet Erland and Joakim Larsson in the Sheraton Hotel opposite the central railway station. I am carrying a volume of the Millennium trilogy to help them recognise me, but it is one of about two dozen Stieg Larsson books in the lobby. Others are encased in a Perspex tower, pressed into the service of advertising the hotel’s own guide to “Stieg Larsson’s Stockholm”, a worthless piece of rubbish.
Once we find each other, we smoke a cigarette outside in the street. Erland points out that the character Blomkvist was once “intimate” with one of his many lovers, Harriet Vanger, in this same hotel. Joakim says the guidebook is precisely the kind of thing the family must control. They don’t want money from it, but the Sheraton could donate to Stieg’s Expo magazine or some other cause.
The father, handsome and proud, is insistent and slightly bombastic; the brother, who looks as ordinary and unthreatening as Stieg did, is friendly but frustrated. They know they are supposed to be the bad guys.
The Larssons initially found it difficult to put across their side of the story to media.
“In the beginning,” said Joakim, “when journalists called us and asked, ‘Eva said this … ,’ I said, ‘Piss off. I don’t want to talk to the press. You’re stupid to believe that.’ ”
Now they have been interviewed by newspapers and magazines from all over the world, and they have refined their presentation to a series of anecdotes and asides, most of which share a single point: to show that Stieg was a happy member of his family, and his family background led to him becoming the person he was. (Look how similar we are, they say through their stories. The man and his work were a part of us.)
One problem is that Stieg did not, at first, grow up with them. When Stieg was born in 1954, there was a housing shortage in Sweden. His
father had to move with his job, and there was no space for a child in the room the family rented in the northern town of Umeå. So, from the age of one to nine years old, Stieg lived with his maternal grandparents. His grandfather worked at a pig processing plant, and was an active communist. By the time he was a teenager, Stieg was also communist. But Erland worked at the same pig factory, when he was 17, and he would have voted Communist, too, he says.
Both parents spent time in the rag trade; Stieg’s mother in a dress shop, his father as a salesman and sometime window-dresser. “Both of us were very involved in the union movement,” says Erland, “agitators, so to speak.” The teenage Stieg served in the same shop during the pre-Christmas rush. “He was very nice and polite to the customers,” says Erland. (You see! says his story. You see!)
Stieg was always a writer. He produced his first crime fiction at 12. “His mother and I bought him a typewriter when he was about 14 years old,” says Erland, “and with that he wrote all his life.” (Even the tools that he worked with were ours.)
About the same time as he got his typewriter, Stieg became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. “I didn’t like it so much,” admits his
father. “But there Stieg learnt rhetoric, and I remember Stieg was 14, we had a discussion at the dinner table and I couldn’t answer him. He won over me. It was a first. After that, we handled each other with more respect. We didn’t provoke each other.”
Erland’s wife sat on the city council. “Much of Stieg’s thinking about equal rights comes from his mother,” he says. “She had a very big influence …” His voice trails off. “I think she was better than me. I was always angry.”
When Stieg failed to get into journalism school, he moved to Stockholm and found work at the post office, then began shifts as an illustrator at the TT news agency. Erland, too, had become an illustrator for the local newspaper. (You see! You see!) On a couple of occasions, they even illustrated the same news story for competing publications.
Erland, the proud father, has brought a sheaf of Stieg’s drawings to show me, and photographs of his boy growing up. He passes me a black and white print of a bookish boy with glasses, on the cusp of adulthood.
“Forty years,” says Erland.
I ask if it was taken 40 years before he died, which would make Stieg 10. No, says his father. This is my son at 40 years old.
I am astonished. He looks so young. “I’m 75 years old!” declares his father, with vigour. (His very face, his skin, his eyes come from me.)
Erland knew his son as “a very soft guy” who came to life when he addressed union meetings. While he continued to work at the press agency, from 1983 Stieg contributed Swedish news to the UK’s Searchlight, a magazine of investigative journalism that focuses on the genocidal masturbations and bitter theatrics of the international extreme right.
It was not polite to discuss Sweden’s Nazis, past or present. It was socially forbidden to suggest that “neutral” Sweden was actually close to Germany in World War II, that Swedes served in foreign volunteer units of the SS, and the grandchildren of those men grew into the skinheads who began first to threaten, then to beat, then to kill immigrants and leftists in the 1990s.
In 1995, Stieg founded Expo, a Swedish version of Searchlight. The Nazis tried to make it impossible for Expo to operate. The magazine’s printer was threatened, and the press store daubed with swastikas, its windows smashed. In response, two competing daily newspapers combined to publish an issue of the tiny magazine and distribute it to their 800,000 subscribers.
In 1999, the year the Nazis murdered Söderberg and obtained photographs of Stieg and Gabrielsson, Expo was in financial crisis. The magazine was saved by a Kurdish community leader and prominent anti-racist campaigner named Kurdo Baksi, who inserted it into his own publication, Black and White.
Erland calls Baksi on his mobile phone and invites him to meet us at the hotel. When he arrives, we four huddle around the ashtray on the wrong side of the revolving doors. Baksi is a stocky, wry, charismatic man, built like a wrestler, with laughing eyes. He says he has been quoted in the media since he was 20 years old. He has become part of the Stieg Larsson travelling circus, appearing alongside the father and the son in the high-wire act. Baksi’s role is the friend. He has written his own memoir, My Friend Stieg Larsson, at the moment available only in Swedish.
“He wrote much that I didn’t know,” says Erland of Baksi’s book. “When I read the manuscript, I had tears in my eyes, twice.”
But Baksi has been accused of claiming Stieg was a mediocre journalist and sloppy researcher.
“He has been on TV to defend himself,” says Erland, “and I felt sorry for Kurdo. For a week or two. We have been in tabloid headlines, too. The journalists have been devils in Sweden to discredit us. We are very bad persons, because of what Eva said in the beginning.”
“‘They have stolen all my money and everything,’ quotes Joakim. “ ’They have stolen my life.'”
Joakim points out they have offered her a 20-million-kronor settlement. “She doesn’t want the money as a gift from us,” he says. “We don’t know what to do. She prefers to be a victim in newspapers and say, ‘I haven’t got the money.’ ”
As well as rescuing Expo, Baksi published Stieg’s half-dozen non-fiction works. His best-selling book before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sold 7000 copies. His book on European fascists shifted about 600. “And we did a lot of publicity,” says Baksi.
Between 1999 and 2003, anti-Nazi work became “very dangerous”, says Baksi. “The situation was terrible. I had two houses, I had bodyguards, I never went by public transport. They shot at one of my apartments in November 1999, but when I asked Stieg what kind of security measures he had, he said he got off the bus one station before he came to his home. Maybe he got from his father to not be scared, I don’t know.
“No one was expecting Stieg to die naturally,” says Baksi. “It was a surprise for me, because I always knew he would be killed.”
The Nazis had called him a traitor, and sent a gunman after him at least once. “After he died, one night the phone rang and I answered,” says Erland. “They said, ‘I’m glad your son’s dead, he was an enemy to the Swedes.’ ” Erland tips back his head, so the tears do not flow from his eyes.
Nobody is certain of the cause of Stieg’s heart attack. His father blames smoking and junk food. Stieg should have lived to taste his success, he says, but he died knowing he had a nearly one-million-kronor advance on his German sales, and the books were certain to do well.
“His mother and I told him through the years, ‘Write something commercial,’ ” he says, “and he did at last.” (It was our idea all along.)
Baksi jokes that he was Stieg’s first publisher “but the money went somewhere else”. Like Joakim, he seems to have subsumed his own identity to become a Stieg Larsson avatar. “Before, I was the ambassador of the Kurdish community,” he says, “now I am the ambassador of Stieg Larsson. Eighty per cent of my times goes to Stieg Larsson interviews and subjects.” He will go to Spain and say something about Stieg, he says, “Then Eva will criticise me. Then I will go to the airport and the journalists will come again. And I will give an answer, and try to be a diplomat. Then I go to Denmark, and the same thing starts in Denmark. Then, after two weeks, the Danish journalists will come to Sweden. And all the other journalists like this game.
“I’d like to speak about Stieg Larsson’s political struggle, about the characters in the book, about Larsson as a writer. But 50 per cent of my time goes to this lady.”
“For you, it is 50 per cent,” says Joakim. “But for us, it is 100 per cent. We say to the journalists, ‘But we want to talk about Stieg.’ They say, ‘You didn’t know Stieg. Eva says he hated you, he never wanted to see you.’ That’s not true.”
Baksi says he’s known Gabrielsson for 20 years, that she is like a sister to him, “But she’s not the best diplomat we have in Sweden.” Gabrielsson says Baksi’s book is “a nasty piece of shit, and almost everything that’s there is actually lies”.
One week after I meet the Larssons and Baksi, I am drinking with Gabrielsson in the bar of the same hotel. We talk, we have dinner, and we smoke in the street. Larsson smoked, too, but not as heavily as people have made out, she says. In fact, Gabrielsson contests nearly every statement the Larsson family and their friends make, and denies each part of their picture of her lover.
Gabrielsson says that, during the war, Stieg’s grandfather was interned as a threat to the state in a Swedish concentration camp. From his experience came Stieg’s political commitment. Stieg only moved back with his parents when his grandfather died. His mother, Evianne, was a similar kind of person to Stieg, but they didn’t get on. The key relationship in the family, she says, was between Evianne and herself. She thought Evianne was the best mother-in-law in the world. (She was my mother-in-law. Stieg and I were as good as married.)
Gabrielsson says Larsson’s rage against misogyny grew from a crime he witnessed when he was 15 years old, when he was living with his parents.
“Some guys who he thought were his friends gang-raped a young girl at a campsite one summer,” says Gabrielsson. “Stieg tried to stop them, but it wasn’t possible. He met that girl a few weeks later on in the city centre, and went up to her and tried to say, ‘I’m so sorry. I tried to, but…’ She just withdrew and said, ‘Don’t come closer. Don’t talk to me. You’re one of them.’
“That was his shame,” says Gabrielsson. “It was very painful for him to talk about. It has a bearing on who he was: his feminism, his understanding of being subjugated to things because you are something – Muslim, woman, black – and how hopeless that situation can be.”
Larsson and Gabrielsson met at a meeting against the Vietnam War when they were 18. He was a Maoist, she a Trotskyist.
“We really had problems,” concedes Gabrielsson. “We really fought about this, but at the same time we loved each other.”
Larsson became a Trotskyist, too, and joined the tiny Communist Workers League (now the Socialist Party), the Swedish section of the Fourth International (FI), which hopes to bring about world revolution and introduce a science-fiction golden age without racism, sexism, exploitation or war. After his compulsory military service (“He was against it,” says his father, “but he was a very good soldier”) he was sent to do political work for the FI in Africa. Worried that he might be killed, he wrote to Gabrielsson asking that, in the event of his death, his money should go to the FI.
Erland and Joakim have never seen this document, and Gabrielsson has not made it public. “It’s not signed,” she says, “it’s just like a letter. It’s not a formal testament.”
While he was in Africa, Larsson put to use his army training and taught a platoon of Eritrean women how to use their Soviet-supplied rocket launchers. Gabrielsson is obviously proud. (Erland says, “It was not so funny when I went out to town one day and the headlines said, ‘Stieg Taught Women to Kill in Africa’.”)
Gabrielsson’s Stieg was hard, not soft. “He was good at street fights,” she says, and tells me how two men followed him back from an FI meeting, and he saw them off with punches and kicks, and came home with bleeding knuckles. “He fought in Umeå as well,” she says, “when he was young … in the pubs.” She laughs. “I know he was beaten up by some guy in Umeå for personal reasons and that’s when he lost part of his tooth. So after a year, when he healed from that beating and got his gold tooth, he ambushed the guy one night, in a tunnel under a road. He was no man of peace.”
Gabrielsson says there are parallels between Lisbeth Salander and Stieg Larsson. He was small, with fast reflexes and street smarts. He could read people and situations, and knew how to break the weakest link in a chain.
Larsson left the FI and shifted his political focus to the anti-Nazi movement. “We started to get into troubles, already in the 1980s, with our security,” says Gabrielsson. She says Larsson took much greater care of himself than Baksi implies – that he relied on them using her name for everything – and Baksi simply doesn’t know, because he and Larsson were never very close. Gabrielsson even denies Baksi is the leader of Sweden’s Kurdish people. Nobody elected him, she says; they don’t want him. Ask any taxi driver.
Larsson began writing the trilogy when he and Gabrielsson were on vacation in a cottage in the Stockholm archipelago. Gabrielsson says she asked him about a short story he had written in 1977, about an old man who mysteriously receives flowers. “Who’s that guy?” she says she asked him. “Who sends the flowers? Why? Have you thought about that?” Larsson said he’d been wondering that himself, and this became the premise of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
It took Larsson two years to write the three books from beginning to end. It was easy for him, says Gabrielsson. He was a fast typist, a natural storyteller, and he’d already done all the research – because the research was their life together.
“The research and the analysis are mine, too,” she says. “Some of these are completely mine, because I worked with these particular things.
“That’s why I’ve been fighting to get the rights to handle the legacy of this,” she says, “because I know what’s in there and why, and I don’t want it distorted, lost in translation, or used in the wrong surroundings or rewritten in the wrong way.”
When the books were accepted for publication, Gabrielsson had thought she would be the one to die. (Because it was my work, too, I was just as entitled to fear.) “This was so unexpected, to have that kind of success based on beliefs and values and thoughts you’ve been fighting for your whole life,” she said. “So that’s why I expected something equally bad to happen.”
Gabrielsson says Larsson ate well, she cooked organic food for him, but he didn’t exercise. She says the predisposition to die young is genetic. (They did it. They killed him.)
Before he died, Larsson began the fourth Millennium book. Gabrielsson has the manuscript and says there are only about 200 pages. “The father has said that I placed the finished book four in his hands the night Stieg died and he read it all. A Swedish journalist asked me to comment, and I said, ‘You call him up and ask him what the book is about.’ And it turned out that he can’t remember and maybe I didn’t do that. It’s been like this all the time.”
She will never release it to the family.
In sweden, families do not fight in the open. almost nobody does. People try to stay calm, neutral, incurious, unreadable. If something is uncomfortable, it is not discussed. So most Swedes try to forget the national shame of World War II; the scandalous 1973 revelation that the ruling Social Democratic Party apparently ran its own secret police force, the IB; and the mystery over the 1986 assassination of prime minister Olof Palme. But Stieg Larsson tried to force them to confront their secret history.
I have lunch with the actress Noomi Rapace, who plays Salander. “Swedish people are pretty passive-aggressive,” she says. “Everybody’s keeping to themselves what they are feeling and thinking, so sometimes it’s difficult to get a clear picture of what they really stand for. Then you have the Nazis, and they are screaming it out. But there are not so many people who really stand up against them and say, ‘This is not okay. F… you. We don’t accept it.’ ”
In Sweden, everybody has to be beautiful and successful. “Even if your life’s falling apart,” says Rapace, “everybody’s trying to keep up this nice untouchable surface. And it can create a monster. If it’s not allowed to show feelings, if everybody’s keeping everything inside, it gets more and more full inside.” And people simply explode.
Stieg Larsson exploded in print. Gabrielsson says his novels were “written out of disappointment and frustration with journalism, with society, with politics. There’s a huge rage in them: ‘How can these things go on?’ And that disappointment, combined with the rage – ‘I can’t do anything about society, at least I can write about the shit’ – that was the driving force.”
His widow has chosen the same release. Gabrielsson is writing her own book “to set the record straight”. “You can’t create a life that wasn’t. You can’t create a false identity.” That is what Erland and Joakim are doing, she says, “in trying to replace themselves in my role in Stieg’s life”.
She lost her lover, but she will win back his memory with the tools he used to shape his own life: words.
MARK DAPIN | GOOD WEEKEND (2010)