[Marxism] Stieg Larsson
John E. Norem
jnorem at cox.net
Sun Sep 13 10:12:13 MDT 2009
Read Stieg Larsson, the bestselling socialist militant
There was nothing false about the Swedish writer's belief in women's
rights or anti-fascist campaigning
Graeme Atkinson provides an essential political service as the foreign
editor of the anti-fascist magazine /Searchlight/. However necessary his
work is, he never expected that he or any of his colleagues who dedicate
their lives to the painstaking and occasionally dangerous task of
exposing neo-Nazism would become celebrities. The global fame of
/Searchlight/'s former Stockholm correspondent is thus filling him with
an unexpected delight.
In the next fortnight, he will hear the name of his old friend Stieg
Larsson everywhere. The bookshops are preparing to receive 320,000
hardback copies of /The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest/, the last
volume of the extraordinarily popular Millennium trilogy. As the hype
builds again, only three thoughts will make Atkinson wince: the memory
of Larsson's death in 2004 at the miserably early age of 50; the
knowledge that Sweden <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/sweden>'s sexist
inheritance laws denied Larsson's partner, Eva Gabrielsson, a share of
his posthumous royalties; and the irritation which always overcomes him
whenever he hears the media describe his old comrade as a "liberal
Larsson was not a liberal or anything like one. He was a revolutionary
socialist, but of a remarkably generous and democratic sort, from a
radical tradition that is all but dead in Europe. The notion that the
work of a writer who had once been the editor of /Fjärde
Internationalen/, the journal of the Swedish section of the Trotskyist
Fourth International, could move to every airport bookstall in the world
would have once seemed absurd. At the very least, you might have assumed
that there would be few connections between the two sides of his life.
But I don't believe you can understand the appeal of Larsson without
grasping an almost nostalgic yearning for the best of the half-forgotten
politics he represented.
Before going any further, I must pepper this piece with caveats. No
writer of fiction <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/fiction> can be
judged solely by political standards, not even the writer of political
thrillers. After other British publishers had turned Larsson down,
Christopher MacLehose bought the novels for the small London house
Quercus, simply because he couldn't put them down. "I spend my life
looking at books," he told me. "And when I find one that takes me over,
I think that the best thing is to put it in the bookshops."
Writing in /El País/ last week, Mario Vargas Llosa explained the
Millennium trilogy's success by saying that Larsson had produced one of
the great stories of "just avengers" in popular literature. He had read
the 2,100 pages of the trilogy with "the same happiness and feverish
excitement" with which he had read Dumas, Dickens and Hugo as a boy,
"wondering as I turned each page, 'And now what's going to happen next?'"
Yet when you have agreed that Larsson was a master storyteller, I think
you still have to accept that his ability to generate tension came from
the political knowledge that he gained as a socialist militant.
Larsson had none of the characteristic difficulties of contemporary
writers in conveying fear or acknowledging the existence of evil, which
afflict even John le Carré. His activism meant he never shared the safe
lives of the standard western author and a part of the attraction of his
books for foreign readers is they show that Sweden is not and was not
always the prosperous but dull social democratic haven we imagined.
Larsson knew very well that Swedish "neutrality" in the Second World War
was a fiction and that his country helped Hitler until the war turned
against the Germans. His knowledge allowed him to create a realistic
picture of the members of the Vanger family who move down the
generations in /The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo/ from supporting Nazism
to abusing and murdering women.
As Larsson again knew from hard-won experience, far-right extremism did
not disappear from Sweden after the war. His reports for /Searchlight/
included gruesome accounts of Swedish neo-Nazis raiding banks for funds
and executing the anti-fascist trade unionist Björn Söderberg. Every
time he opened the door to walk out into the street, he had to overcome
the dread that there were men out there who would assassinate him too
for his exposés. Eva Gabrielsson told me that they had never married
because in Sweden married couples had to make details of their address
publicly available. A wedding ceremony would have been a security risk.
Their caution was wise at the time but meant that Larsson's brother and
father could pocket the royalties when he died because, as an unmarried
widow, Eva was entitled to nothing under Swedish law.
The black comedy of the men making off with the money from the
Millennium trilogy is almost too sharp to bear. For Larsson was a rare
example of a male feminist and Lisbeth Salander is an even rarer example
of a popular feminist heroine, who doesn't hate men, "just men who hate
Eva says that his feminism <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feminism>
was entirely genuine. He was not one of the 1970s leftists who said the
rights of women should take second place to the class struggle. More to
the point, as he aged he didn't turn into a postmodern multiculturalist.
He would never tone down criticisms of racism or misogyny if prejudice
came from a different culture or a poor world regime or movement.
Alongside his denunciations of white skinheads, he produced
condemnations of "honour" killings. "It was the same thing to him," Eva
told me. "If it was neo-Nazis or some Islamic group, it was the same
violence, the same hatred."
To put it as mildly as I can, you have to stare very hard at today's
Britain to find such a principled consistency. A political culture that
allows the authorities to deport women asylum seekers to misogynist
tyrannies and the Archbishop of Canterbury and lord chief justice to
endorse sharia is not one where Larsson's views are welcome. But however
unfashionable they are in politics, they gave Larsson's fiction power
and drive. As a just avenger, Lisbeth Salander is a worthy successor to
Edmond Dantès in /The Count of Monte Cristo/, because Larsson was
certain of the righteousness of her cause. To the huge pride and slight
surprise of all who worked with him in the dusty offices of obscure
anti-fascist journals, tens of millions of readers all over the world agree.
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