Stieg Larsson and the publishers who cashed in on his name

June 30, 2011

The publishing industry, like nature, abhors a vacuum. But a vacuum was what we had when Stieg Larsson died of a heart attack at the age of 50 in 2004. Larsson’s Millennium series instantly became a publishing phenom, selling well over 40 million copies around the world to date. Readers hunger for another Millennium novel, and another and another! But all we have is emptiness, the silence of the grave.

So the publishing industry has resolved to fill the void by bringing out memoirs written by people close to (or, in the case of Kurdo Baksi, allegedly close to) Larsson. If you’re really, really desperate to read some anecdotes about Larsson, I suppose you might give these books a try; otherwise, there’s more comfort to be found for bereft Millennium fans in reading the Pippi Longstocking books, whose eponymous heroine was the literary inspiration for the anarchic female avenger Lisbeth Salander.

The memoir written by Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson’s life partner of three decades, is the more defensible and, as its title indicates, the more bizarre piece of writing. “ ‘There Are Things I Want You to Know’ About Stieg Larsson and Me” is atonal and fragmented. On some pages Gabrielsson sounds robotic, as if she’s dutifully testifying before a jury about minutiae: “Coffee was for both of us an extraordinary remedy for all kinds of misfortunes great or small. . . . Although we experimented with every possible way of preparing the brew, we always fell back on percolated coffee.” Then, seemingly out of the blue, an apocalyptic anger erupts: “FIAT JUSTITIA, pereat mundus,” intones Gabrielsson at the end of the book, after relating another setback in the legal battle over her partner’s estate. “Let justice be done, though all the world perish.” Maybe a mug of that percolated coffee — or a shot of Aquavit — would have been in order.

The fact that the style of this memoir is so erratic, and that Gabrielsson acknowledges a co-writer, Marie-Francoise Colombani, should lay to rest the rumors that Gabrielsson wrote part of the Millennium books. Overall, her memoir sorely tries a reader’s sympathies, even those of us feminists who think that Gabrielsson got a raw deal when it came to sharing the Larsson spoils. As anyone interested in the Millennium books knows, Gabrielsson was denied any stake in Larsson’s estate by whacky Swedish inheritance laws that don’t recognize the legitimacy of childless civil unions and by Larsson’s failure to make a will.

The most affecting part of her memoir deals with her numbness after Larsson’s death. “I went through life like a zombie. Every morning I woke up in tears, although my nights were dreamless. . . . Like a hunted beast, I fed only on little things picked up in passing: dates, nuts, fruit,” she writes.

In the aftershock, Larsson’s father and brother, with whom he had had minimal contact as an adult, were recognized as the rightful heirs to his estate. (Gabrielsson claims that the brother suggested she marry Larsson’s father in order to keep the assets all in the family.) The war over Larsson’s literary estate is ongoing, with Gabrielsson holding hostage her one golden asset: approximately 200 pages of a fourth Millennium novel, snippets of which she tantalizingly describes at the end of this memoir.

On the New Year’s Eve that followed Larsson’s death, Gabrielsson read aloud a nio by torchlight on the shores of an icy lake. (In Swedish mythology, a nio is a curse written in verse form.) Kurdo Baksi probably felt the hairs on the back of his neck tingle that night, because odds are good that he was one of the “evil, sly, cowardly” false friends Gabrielsson was chanting about. Baksi is a journalist who worked with Larsson; his 2010 memoir, newly published in paperback, is simply called “Stieg Larsson.” In it, Baksi recalls Larsson’s courage in the face of constant threats by far-right hate groups in Sweden and his superhuman work ethic (fueled by greasy junk food and endless cups of coffee — 22 mugs at one conference Baksi and Larsson attend together). Baksi also alleges that Larsson cut corners as a journalist and put young staffers in danger by allowing them to infiltrate extremist groups while he was editor of the crusading journal Expo. Maybe it’s the translation (which could also be the source of Gabrielsson’s strangely stilted writing voice), but Baksi comes off as too self-aggrandizing to earn the reader’s trust. Reacting to the news of Larsson’s death, Baksi says: “I had to be strong. Stieg’s partner, Eva, and the young members of Expo staff needed me.”

Uh-huh. Gabrielsson must have a choice nio to lob back at that assertion. To Millennium fans, the value of Baksi’s memoir rests chiefly on an anecdote he tells about the real-life inspiration for the enigmatic Lisbeth Salander. (Gabrielsson tells a version of this same event.) Larsson supposedly told Baksi about a gang-rape he had witnessed as a teenager. Although the victim was an acquaintance of Larsson’s, he stood by passively. The incident and his own failure to act haunted him, and as expiation — perhaps — he wrote an engrossing series of novels featuring a bisexual feminist avenger.

The real mystery here is how Lisbeth Salander — a character who, in real life, would repel many middle-of-the-road readers — has won over the world. That’s a mystery that even Stieg Larsson, were he still alive, couldn’t solve.

Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air” and a literature professor at Georgetown University.

STIEG LARSSON

The Man Behind “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”

By Kurdo Baksi

Gallery. 182 pp. Paperback, $12.99

“THERE ARE THINGS I WANT YOU TO KNOW” ABOUT STIEG LARSSON AND ME

By Eva Gabrielsson with Marie-Francoise Colombani

Seven Stories. 209 pp. $23.95

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