I’ve been reading the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson; feeling my creative batteries in need of a serious recharge, I had retreated into a reading cocoon, and his original 3-book series seemed promising. I saw the American movie of the first book The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo which I thought quite well done—LOVE Rooney Mara, loved Carol—so when I stumbled on a copy of the The Girl Who Played With Fire for €1 in the “English” box at a Spanish flea market, I scooped it up despite its 649 paperback pages…(!)
And… It was OK. I mean, he could probably have trimmed it down to 400 pages, easy, just by eliminating the blow-by-blow of everyone’s breakfast, daily wardrobe, sleeping and showering and lovemaking habits, and the first and last inscrutable Swedish name of every character from The Girl herself down to the Sunday charwoman. There are 339 mentions of “coffee and sandwiches”—I suppose we should be grateful he didn’t list the ingredients for every single one.
It plods at times, but if you want to plunge into a good escape between the fits and starts of a funk, it hits a lot of solid notes. Slightly ironic that the American translations saw fit to dub the entire series about murderous misogyny with “The Girl” moniker, but perhaps “Girl Power” is a reappropriation I am not qualified to judge. You gotta have a hook.
And the hook, she is remarkable. Lisbeth Salander absolutely makes this series, and is the ultimate reason for its remarkable success. The woman who hates “Men Who Hate Women” (translation of the original Swedish title “Män som hatar kvinnor”) might be a tiny little waif, but her brilliance, her daring, her cool-headed ruthlessness cuts off at the knees every presumption of helplessness and submission on which sexist arrogance relies. Lisbeth Salander is Ellen Ripley, Katniss Everdeen, and Xena Warrior Princess all blended up into a frosty five foot tall badass. Sweet avenging angel! Every time one of the myriad chauvinist pigs gets a face full of feminist rage, the cheering reader feels transcendent.
So, then what do we think of the fact that when Stieg Larsson died of a heart attack at 50, before one word of his most famous work was published, his longtime partner of 30 years, Eva Gabrielsson, was disinherited due to legal technicalities, and all of the success of the Millennium series has been conferred to the writer’s estranged father and brother? Sad, of course, on all counts. They offered her a “comfortable” settlement (comfortable for whom?) but still, one gets the distinct sense that everything Larsson was trying to convey about entrenched sexism has been proved out in the drama of his own legacy.
Suppose Larsson had visited a reputable fortune teller and been told on the morning of the day: he would turn in his manuscripts and promptly drop dead of a heart attack, his beloved partner to be jilted, and his absent family to reap all of the rewards his work would earn?
Of course this echoes (for me anyway) so many stories over the years of LGBTQ people whose families swooped in upon their death and turned out into the street long-time partners who had, until very recently and sometimes still, no legal recourse to property to which they were entitled on every moral and ethical level. I imagine my own worst-case scenario—my husband and partner of 24 years cheated by a faithless family out of a legacy when my as-yet unpublished novel becomes a wildly successful international bestseller (stranger things!)
Back to Earth
I think of how authors sometimes speak of owing something to their fictional characters, as though they are somehow obliged to write and publish creative work as though these characters have a life of their own—above and beyond the lives of their creators and in the hearts of fans—in the corpus of literature, in the vast panoply of culture, in the soul of society.
Imagine Lisbeth Salander, suppressed by Larsson at the last moment to prevent a miscarriage of justice. Would she approve? Would she grimly aver that her fame and glory mean little if the engines of inequality steam on undisrupted?
Or would she fight for her symbol to be born, let the ill-gotten chips fall where they may, the hand of avarice extending itself the better for the sword of justice to fall at some future reckoning however far and long the arc may bend? Live to fight another day?
But seriously, does a fictional character have a claim to life, even if only in the minds of the public? And by that claim, does a writer have a responsibility to submit their creation to the public, regardless of the consequences? Would not the Xenas or Lara Crofts simply expand to fill the gap? Or, like any personality, do the quirks of varied sympathies demand that Larsson have published the Millennium series, breathing life into this particular character with her particular gifts, even knowing the outcome of the settlement of his estate?
I would submit that the world could get along with Xena if Larsson had decided not to publish, but what about Sherlock Holmes? Just Poirot and Marple, then? No Watson, or Moriarty? What about Gandalf, or Frodo and Bilbo Baggins? (Yes, I know—I go too far…)
This very question was the premise of the delightful movie Yesterday in which the adorable but lackluster Jack crashes into an alternate reality in which the Beatles never existed, except in his memory. As he blunders his way to fame, the consequences appear limited to his own self-worth. The general consensus seems to have been that the joy of the work justifies the broadcast, if not the contrivances. Jack could have found other means to perform the Beatles’ music, some way to make it clear he was only performing songs others had composed. Dionne Warwick had Burt Bacharach, and Elton had Bernie, why not? (Answer: Because we wouldn’t have had the rom-com antics.)
By the same token, Stieg Larsson could almost certainly have found a way to publish the Millennium series AND made sure that, if it was a success, his partner would benefit, rather than estranged family members. No one likes to think they’re going to die suddenly, age 50, but life insurance must be bought BEFORE death, after all.
I must admit I generally fall on the side of authorial autonomy, and I’ll be damned if some long lost relative is going to swoop in and try to claim a red cent of my legacy. On the other hand, I’m also not one to take chances with fate: we had wills and living trusts long before same-sex marriage became legal. But on the third hand, your actions are your own responsibility—tell me I must or mustn’t, or you’ll do something despicable, and I’ll tell you to go to hell. And on the fourth, I don’t believe in fortune tellers—an uncertain future is all the more reason to cover your bases.
And with that, we’re out of hands…
What say you readers: Viva Lisbeth? Or justice at all costs?
"as though...as though" I know, I know... ;)
Wow. Wow. Wow. Love how you weave literary works with other literary/cinematic works with real life and real life worries. Beautiful, brilliant, and charming as always.