Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hitch on Stieg

I assumed as I was reading them that Stieg Larsson had used the "Millennium" novels as vehicles for material he had uncovered as a journalist that for one reason or another he was not able to publish as non-fiction. This extract, from an essay by Christopher Hitchens reprinted in a new book, supports that view:

The Tattooed Girl: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of Our Time (Dan Burstein, Arne de Keijzer and John-Henri Holmberg)
- Highlight Loc. 567-83 | Added on Tuesday, June 28, 2011, 07:23 AM

A report in the mainstream newspaper Aftonbladet describes the findings of another anti-Nazi researcher, named Bosse Schön, who unraveled a plot to murder Stieg Larsson that included a Swedish SS veteran. Another scheme misfired because on the night in question, 20 years ago, he saw skinheads with bats waiting outside his office and left by the rear exit. Web sites are devoted to further speculation: one blog is preoccupied with the theory that Prime Minister Palme’s uncaught assassin was behind the death of Larsson too. Larsson’s name and other details were found when the Swedish police searched the apartment of a Fascist arrested for a political murder. Larsson’s address, telephone number, and photograph, along with threats to people identified as “enemies of the white race,” were published in a neo-Nazi magazine: the authorities took it seriously enough to prosecute the editor.

But Larsson died of an apparent coronary thrombosis, not from any mayhem. So he would have had to be poisoned, say, or somehow medically murdered. Such a hypothesis would point to some involvement “high up,” and anyone who has read the novels will know that in Larsson’s world the forces of law and order in Sweden are fetidly complicit with organized crime. So did he wind up, in effect, a character in one of his own tales?

The people who might have the most interest in keeping the speculation alive—his publishers and publicists—choose not to believe it. “Sixty cigarettes a day, plus tremendous amounts of junk food and coffee and an enormous workload,” said Christopher MacLehose, Larsson’s literary discoverer in English and by a nice coincidence a publisher of Flashman, “would be the culprit. I gather he’d even had a warning heart murmur. Still, I have attended demonstrations by these Swedish right-wing thugs, and they are truly frightening. I also know someone with excellent contacts in the Swedish police and security world who assures me that everything described in the ‘Millennium’ novels actually took place. And, apparently, Larsson planned to write as many as 10 in all. So you can see how people could think that he might not have died but been ‘stopped.’”

UPDATE: Elsewhere in the same volume, one of Larsson's oldest friends, John-Henri Holmberg (they were boy science fiction fans together), explains that the "emotion free sex" in the novels should be seen as a direct extension of his anarchist absolutism on the subject of personal liberty:
...those who believe in the equal rights and value of all individuals must never overstep the boundaries set by each individual’s right to integrity, free choice, and personal preference. This demands that all relations between individuals are based on mutual consent, choice, and desire. In such relations, there is no room to express feelings of ownership, control, or jealousy, physically or emotionally. Which means that between free agents who feel that way, sex is a value in itself, to be accepted when mutually desired, but implying no claim on any participant. To Stieg, this view was basic, and it permeates his writing.

Throughout the Millennium books, this is how the “good” characters—Lisbeth Salander, Mikael Blomkvist, Erika Berger and her husband Greger, Miriam Wu, Monica Figuerola, and many others—consistently behave. They have sex freely when they feel like it, but it involves no claims or dependencies. Whereas sex to the “bad” characters always involves submission and degradation; to them, convinced of their inherent superiority, sex is not an act of mutual pleasure, but of violence and domination, and consequently of hatred. Many passages relevant to this view of sex and relationships have been deleted [by the Swedish editors]. One example is around 270 words long, which, in Stieg’s manuscript, begins chapter 18 of book 3. Mikael Blomkvist wakes up after spending his first night with Monica Figuerola. He has slept only three hours and aches all over. Monica, on the other hand, is in great shape: “Her body was her temple.” Mikael asks her if all muscular women are as dominant. Monica says that she doesn’t know, and pays him a compliment: “I might want to do it again one of these days.”


Tulkinghorn said...

People who might actually want to read Hitchens's essay can find it here:


I completely agree with this quote, which is probably too glib for most:

"Blomkvist’s moral righteousness comes in very useful for the action of the novels, because it allows the depiction of a great deal of cruelty to women, smuggled through customs under the disguise of a strong disapproval."

Hitchens suggested Philip Seymour Hoffman for the male lead, which shows why he's an essayist and not a Hollywood executive...

David Chute said...

I actually don't agree with that quotation at all. It's a cheap shot; rhetorical snark. Basis of disagreement can be expressed as a question: Given the book's subject matter, what should he have done differently?

Tulkinghorn said...

People have been writing about horrible crimes and death for thousands of years, managing to make them affecting and terrifying without purience or detailed description.

The mind of the author is unknown to me, but his choice of methods leads naturally to suspicion -- as does his feminist hero, who manages to have emotion-free sex with every woman he meets.

Take a look at that poster again -- the same issues are raised by the book. It's not wrong to disagree with your love of Larsson, and the criticisms are obvious.

David Chute said...

Haven't read those passage in a while, so on a second look I might agree. From this distance I might agree that the scenes in question are sensationalized for effect -- but if so the desired effect is horror rather than titilation.

Tulkinghorn said...

The distance between horror and titillation is often pretty small at the best of times -- and anybody who plays that game better be prepared to defend himself, or be an undeniably great writer. (Neither option, of course, available to the late Herr Larsson.)

For my part, I remember the shopping expedition at IKEA more than I remember the crime... Don't know whether that says more about me or Larsson, but it may be that the furniture list (so often derided) is actually more original and shocking.

Tulkinghorn said...

That Holmberg quote cracks me up -- sounding remarkably like a pick-up line at the Human Be-In in 1968 or at some free love rally in London in 1890.

H.G. Wells used a similar line with all of the mothers of his illegitimate children... David Lodge has written a book about Wells's sex life, reviewed here:


Wells was also a prophet of the sexual revolution of our own era. He believed in free love and practised it tirelessly. He was married twice to women he loved, but neither of whom satisfied him sexually, and had several long-term relationships, as well as innumerable briefer affairs, mostly condoned by his second wife, Jane. Of particular interest because of the scandal they aroused were his relationships with three young women half his age: Rosamund Bland, the secretly adopted daughter of Edith and Hubert Bland, who was actually fathered by Bland on Edith's companion and housekeeper, Alice Hoatson; Amber Reeves, a brilliant Cambridge undergraduate, also the daughter of prominent Fabians; and Rebecca West, whom he invited to his Essex country house in 1912 to discuss her witty demolition of his novel Marriage in the feminist journal The Freewoman, a meeting that led in due course to the birth of Anthony West on the first day of the first world war, and a stormy relationship that lasted for some 10 years. Reeves also became pregnant by Wells, by her own desire, with dramatic consequences. There were interesting liaisons with the novelists Dorothy Richardson (who portrayed Wells in her novel sequence Pilgrimage), Violet Hunt and Elizabeth von Arnim. Then there was Moura, Baroness Budberg, a Russian aristocrat who survived the Russian revolution as the secretary and probably mistress of Maxim Gorky and with whom Wells slept when staying in Gorky's flat in Petrograd in 1920. They met again after Jane's death in 1927. Moura was the great love of his later life and his acknowledged mistress, but refused to marry or cohabit with him. Wells has the reputation of being a predatory seducer, but in all the relationships I investigated, with the possible exception of the always inscrutable Moura, he was initially the pursued rather than the pursuer.

David Chute said...

How about this: What we have here is an attempt to be idelogically conistent in a work of fiction in a way that most human beings (I am forced to admit) couldn't manage in real life, threby adding a level of catoonish unreality to the procedings. Comparison possibly with Ayn Rand? (I was going to add, "except that she's funnier," but Holmberg insists that many sly little Larsson jokes were elided by the English translators.)

Tulkinghorn said...

Possibly true, but also could be stated another way:

The completely full of shit and immature writer having failed to live according to his principles created a fantasy world in which a guy like him gets all the girls AND the adulation of the crowd.

Irony number one, of course, is that he would have succeeded in real life if he hadn't smoked so much (or if he had exercised as much as his hero).

Irony number two, of course, is that the true, complex, and nuanced embodiment of his philosophy was not the hero but the extraordinary heroine. And that SHE is the reason for the vast success that he died before experiencing.

Irony number three, of course, is that if he hadn't been so full of shit and paranoid he would have married his partner and collaborator and thus would have insured her just participation in his success.

There probably aren't ten people in the world as interested as we are in this story. Fuck 'em.

David Chute said...

You still seem to have some stake in thinking badly of Larsson that I find baffling. But apart from the sneering tone (he wasn't an asshole, just a guy) I think this is about right.

David Chute said...

You still seem to have some stake in thinking badly of Larsson that I find baffling. But apart from the sneering tone (he wasn't an asshole, just a guy) I think this is about right.

Tulkinghorn said...

What I say three times is true.....

David Chute said...

Reading Fred Vargas currently, noticing that her characters practice the same kind of laissez faire sexuality. For better or worse this seems to be European thing, not unique to Larsson.

Also: It's a hobby horse of mine, stated I'm sure many more than three times, that popular fiction, especially the stuff that really gets to people, often seems to embody wish-fulfillment fantasy of one kind or another. The sort of thing we should perhaps be able to rise above but mostly aren't.

David Chute said...

In a comment on another blof (about the new Criterion DVD of the great "Kiss Me Deadly"): "I meant 'Hammer’s misogyny and boorishness,'not 'Spillane’s.' It’s easy to get the two confused."