Stieg Larsson versus Tolstoy

Ifor Thomas argues that the Swedish thriller and crime writer should be up there with the Russian greats

Stieg Larsson is known for his three novels The girl with a dragon tattoo, The girl who played with fire and The girl who kicked the hornets’ nest. What have we got here apart from three north European novels with intricate plots and lists of characters with unpronounceable names?

When William Faulkner was asked to name the three best novels that had ever been written, he replied: Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina. F.R. Leavis said of Anna Karenina that it is the “great novel of modern civilization”. So we are up against some pretty tough opposition. But why Anna Karenina? It is interesting that Tolstoy himself regarded Anna Karenina as his only novel. Of War and Peace, he said it was “not a novel at all as the West understands the term but a form unique and only possible in Russia.” But, of Anna Karenina, he declared, “this novel, the first I have attempted.”

I think it is generally accepted that Tolstoy’s later works are not much read today and of the earlier– is there a work of fiction there that has stood the test of time? I do not think so. Although the Kreutzer Sonata has been made into a film recently, it needed a cinematic treatment to make it palatable.

Anna Karenina is a useful book to compare with Larsson’s work. Both have strong female lead characters – but how different! The people who populate Anna Karenina all know each other and all live in the same world with the rest of the Russian upper class. It’s a world that has disappeared, that has no relevance today, and which teaches us nothing. It is like looking at extinct moths pinned to a board.

As for Anna Karenina herself, what has she to say to modern women? Don’t get divorced, don’t fight for your lover, your child, and when all else fails throw yourself under a train. Anna chooses the solitude of death having given up the fight for life. D.H. Lawrence found Anna Karenina unsatisfactory, stating that Anna and Vronsky should have defied the world and ran away together. But they didn’t. Just as Brokeback Mountain was such a deeply disappointing film, our heroes are destroyed by the mundane, defeated by conventional mores.

Not so Lisabeth Salander. She is a fighter, a woman not only of our time but for all time. Simply stated she is a punk, a computer cracker, an intensely private person, a woman with a strict moral code. The model for Salander was very likely Larsson’s niece, Therese. She suffered from anorexia and “knew her way around computers”. Larsson and Therese met infrequently but kept up an email correspondence. Therese sported tattoos.

Therese might have been the starting point but what a conclusion Lisabeth Salander turned out to be. She is a woman who, if wronged fights back with deadly force. She is a woman who throughout her life has been slandered by the state. Larsson’s choice of surname is not coincidental. She has been misunderstood, perceived as mad and bad.

Her madness is given various psychiatric labels but an accurate diagnosis is impossible. In this respect Larsson demonstrates his liberal credentials, because in actual fact there is nothing ‘wrong’ with Salander, she is not medically ill. As R.D. Laing would have said, and Joseph Heller, the author of Catch 22 would have echoed, madness is the only sane response to an insane world.

Larsson’s books work on so many levels – thriller, rite of passage of one young wronged girl to vindicated woman, polemic against violence against women, exposure of the dark heart of Swedish society.

In the way he made this trilogy of gripping novels Larsson flies in the face of thriller writing convention. Start with an earthquake and get more exciting after that, was the advice Sam Goldwyn offered his screen writers. That could equally be applied to the crime writer of hard boiled American fiction– you– Not Larsson. There is no cataclysmic event on page one of book one to take the reader by the throat. He almost dares the reader to keep on reading and if men are the main readers of tough crime novels he does not think twice about reminding them that “18 per cent of women have at one time been threatened by a man”. He does not let the male reader off lightly. In Salander he has created a true avenging angel to right the wrongs of all women – perhaps also the wronged Anna Karenina, let down and deceived by Vronsky.

Over the three books Larsson, and it should be remembered that he wrote all three before offering them for publication, we have a work as monumental as the 817 pages of my copy of War and Peace. Larsson cranks up not only the action but the sweep of his attack.

The first book, The Girl with a dragon tattoo, is essentially a closed room who- done-it of the sort that was pioneered by Agatha Christie. A murder, or missing person, on an island severed from the mainland by an accident on the only bridge in, a girl that has been missing for over 40 years. But this is more than a thriller. The original title, indeed the title under which it appeared in Sweden, was Men Who Hate Women. It is not just the hunt for a missing girl; it is the unmasking of vicious serial killer – and how neatly that story concludes. No James Bond type rescuing the whimpering heroine, no it’s Lisabeth swinging a golf club that does it. Another concealed irony for golf is an acronym for ‘Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden’.

The second book, The girl who played with fire, sees Larsson develop his theme of misogyny and broaden his attack against the underworld industry of sex trafficking. In this book you are introduced to Salander’s family, and what a freak show they are. The final confrontation is as explosive as any thriller writer has conceived. We are also informed of Salander’s tender side, when she takes financial and emotional responsibility for her previous legal guardian Palmgren.

The last book in the trilogy escalates Larsson’s attack not just against violent men but against the whole Swedish state. In a way this is the most ambitious point Larsson makes. Weren’t we brought up to think of Sweden as some sort of social democratic heaven, where there was justice for all and society was benevolent and caring?

But the signs were there – Ivar Kreuger the Swedish fraudster, model for Graham Greene’s England Made Me, who died in mysterious circumstances; Olaf Palmer, the Swedish prime minister murdered in 1986. Right up to the current smearing of the wikileaks contributor with rape allegations. This is the real point of Larsson’s work: even in so called enlightened social democratic states misogyny and fascism are not far away.

Unlike Tolstoy who towards the end of his life developed his bizarre code of God, truth and anarchy, Larsson had his own set of left wing values that placed his life, and that of his partner, Eva Gabrielsson, under threat of physical violence. When he delivered a lecture in 2004 warning of the rise of the fascist right, he used a telling phrase about how slander, innuendo or rumour was utilized by hate groups “to legitimize actions”. Isn’t this exactly what happens to Lisabeth?

That is not to say that all is well with these books. What is Larsson’s view on sex? He describes in voyeuristic detail Lisabeth’s rape at the hands of Burman, (and also her retribution); and he lingers on the vision of the trussed thirteen-year-old girl being ogled by the paedophile, Teleborian. When Salander brings off the multi-million krone heist, what does she do but buy new breasts? She does, however, discard her sexy underwear. Is this appropriate writing for a man who espouses feminist values?

Blomkvist, the male lead, has given up on his family and revels in many sexual liaisons – so much so that he alienates Salander who naively thought that she was in a committed monogamous relationship. Her Christmas gift of a sign, the title of Elvis Presley’s song Heartbreak Hotel, is consigned to a skip. Heartbreak Hotel is surely where Salander has checked into but she does not surrender to self pity and self destruction, she ain’t jumping under no train.

So where are Tolstoy’s feminist credentials? One could argue that in Anna he did create a great feminist hero, a woman who gave up everything for love, who defied convention and who believed in emotional purity, unlike her husband who was prepared to put up with the affair on the understanding that it did not become public knowledge and that Vronsky never visited the house.

Men are guided by duplicity, women are true to themselves. In a memorable passage Tolstoy describes Anna riding a horse – hard now to envisage how significant that was. On the other hand her friend Dolly travels in her carriage provided by a man, driven by a man; she is obviously not in control of her own life. But the story does not end with the suicide of Anna. Instead, the book ploughs on and explores another character, Levin – that is Tolstoy – and his religious regeneration. What is Tolstoy really concluding at the end of Anna Karenina? A man is the star, a religious man and of Anna, Vronsky’s mother has the last word – Anna is “mean and low”. She is a selfish child who broke things to get what she wanted.

Larsson is unashamedly political in his writing. He dives into gender politics with enthusiasm, but has he really created a true feminist hero? After all, extreme violence is the supposed language of men. Isn’t Salander accepting a sort of defeat by retaliating in kind? Does the fact that readers, or at least this reader, relish her devastating rejoinders against those that do her wrong advance feminist values? This issue was debated on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour a couple of months ago and the view of the participants in that debate was that perhaps Salander debased feminist values by dealing in the same coin as her male antagonists.

I do not accept that view. As I said, the trilogy must be taken as a whole, for that is the way it was written. Just as Salander’s attack moves from the personal to the corruption of the state machinery of law and order, so Salander deploys a language other than violence. She defeats her adversaries in court, albeit with the help of a woman lawyer, Blomkvist’s sister. What makes Salander’s victory complete and the lifting of the Swedish state’s slander, is the use of words and intelligence.

The books came late in Larsson’s tragically short life, he died at 50. He never saw the international success that came in a torrent, although he did experience recognition in Sweden.

To understand Salander one has to appreciate Larsson’s own life. He was brought up by his socialist grandparents whose influence was huge and formed the bedrock for his political views (an early will left all his estate to the communist party). This, rather than an unconventional childhood could also be attributed to his antipathy to the family. A close friend of Larsson’s, Graeme Atkinson an editor of Searchlight, the antifascist magazine, was unaware that Larsson had a sibling. The family models that are drawn in the books are corrupt and perverse – the Vangers of the first book with their Nazi associations and warped values; Salander’s own family, her murderous, woman-hating father and psychotic and grotesque half-brother.

Blomkvist in his own words, is not a good father, he left responsibility for the father/child relationship to his seven year old. The one successful long-term relationship is between Erika and her partner, although this is not a monogamous one with Blomkvist part of the ménage à trios. All this finds echoes in Larsson’s own life. He never married his long term partner Eva Gabriellson, ostensibly for fear of her being the subject of attacks from far right groups as a result of Larsson’s campaigning journalism. Maybe, however, he chose not to make that commitment because he had no respect for the institution. As with everything else in his writing, I think this was a reflection of his own life.

Salander, like Larsson, enjoyed junk food and smoked heavily. At the age of 50 Larsson’s unhealthy life style caught up with him and he died walking upstairs to his publisher’s office. There has been speculation that Larsson was the victim of a right wing assassin but there is no evidence of this. So, like Tolstoy, he suffered an incongruous death as a result of a walk too far, in Tolstoy’s case a walk at a great age into the snow that ends in a railway station.

But what really makes Larsson’s books great is the huge detail that supports and often runs counter to, the main narrative. He lavishes attention on characters with only a passing role to play: the neurosurgeon in book three, the vicar in book one – in a way that, yes, Tolstoy would have been proud of. He makes his minor characters jump off the page. His has encyclopedic knowledge of computers, of the financial markets, and of crime and sometimes as he flaunts it he tests the reader’s patience. He is a journalist; he knows this stuff.

At the centre of it all is Salander. The reader cannot get enough of her and yet Larsson rations out her appearances. Dan Waddell, a talented British crime writer, said that if the first 100 pages of The girl with a dragon tattoo had been sent off to a publisher, it would never have been accepted. Before we encounter her, the white faced, thin woman with tattoos and piercings, who looks like a teenager, we have to survive the prologue and first chapter, which includes a lengthy treatise on financial dealings. Armanski, her boss, describes her as if she had just emerged from a lengthy orgy. And we are caught, hook line and sinker. We love the way that she is in control of her boss, the way she flits in and out of the office like a ghost, just as she invades the computers of friends and foes, sliding through fire walls, evading electronic defences. She is of this world and yet from another planet. Sigurdardottir, an Icelandic thriller writer says –

“It is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes the trilogy so mesmerizing … but I believe it has a lot to do with the feeling of unfairness evoked, followed by justice being served, in an often colourful manner. Salander is the quintessential heroine, bent but not broken, a unique fictional character that one cannot help but admire despite her socially irresponsible antics. Her back ground is tragic and in a more traditional novel she would spiral downwards, and most likely come to a heartbreaking end.”

Isn’t this exactly what happens in Anna Karenina?

Salander is required to investigate her sparring partner of the three books, Michael Blomkvist, her research is meticulous, detailed and factual But always she injects just a drop of her own acid opinion – he is Practical Pig of the three little pigs. However, she is not however impervious to his charms and falls in love with him, a feeling he does not reciprocate. To him she is just another fuck buddy, albeit one for whom he has a deep fascination. He loses her and there is no reconciliation, despite how much the reader longs for it. The last line of the last book does however hold out some hope:

“She opened the door wide and let him into her life again.”

Do we dare to hope that the unfinished fourth novel will ever appear? Or perhaps this is a great, the best place to end.

Ifor Thomas is a an architect and performance poet. His latest book of poems Body Beautiful, concerned with his experience of prostate cancer, was shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year Award in 2006. This essay was delivered at the IWA’s latest Coffee Shop Debate in Chapter Arts Centre, earlier this week.

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