Posted by: nordicnoir | December 29, 2011

Pronunciation Page Updated

It must be clear that for some time this blog was inactive. I apologize to those who emailed or commented and received no reply. I am in the process of sorting through it all now. Judging from the stats, I can’t continue to ignore the blog any longer! So I am planning a few new longer posts now. For the time being, I have updated the pronunciation page. Thanks to one very curious reader, I decided to add the following names:

Björck

Ekström

Fälldin

Fröken

Härnösand

Nieminen

Niedermann

Pontonjärgatan

Södertälje

Thorbjörn

Ulfskog

Wadensjöö

Happy reading to all! -nn

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Posted by: nordicnoir | June 22, 2010

Nordic Noir and the Scandinavian Population Crisis

The Origins of Nordic Noir Part III:

Nordic Noir and the Scandinavian Population Crisis

***

Spoiler Alerts:

Major plot elements of Stieg Larsson’s novels and Arnaldur Idridason’s

Jar City are discussed here, as well as a brief mention of a

minor plot element from Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s Last Rituals.

***

The Mystery… 

            In 1982, Alva Myrdal (1902-1986) won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on nuclear disarmament.  This followed on a long, successful career as a leading politician whose work included the development of Swedish welfare policies that promoted the well-being of families and working women.

            Also in 1982 her son, Jan Myrdal, released a scathing autobiographical ‘novel’ (Barndom, or Childhood) detailing awful upbringing.[1]

            Alva Myrdal’s name was further tarnished in 1997 when the journalist Maciej Zaremba exposed the darkness at the core of her book from 1934 Kris i befolkningsfrågan (Crisis in the Population Question)—which she co-authored with her husband.[2]  It is widely recognized as the founding document of the Swedish welfare state.

            So what was it about Alva Myrdal?

…The History

            Rightly or wrongly, she was accused of having been an unaffectionate, largely absent mother who sacrificed her children’s well-being even as she pursued her ambitious career campaigning for the benefit of families and working mothers.  But there is another story here too—one I think relates to ‘Nordic noir’ and Sweden’s darkest fears about its dwindling population in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. 

            By way of angling into this thorny issue, read the following excerpt from an interview with a woman who experienced the downside of the Myrdals’ social engineering philosophy—which contained recommendations (that became laws) for dealing with Sweden’s population problem. 

         And try, if you can, not to think of Stieg Larsson’s character Lisbeth Salander here.

Astrid is the daughter of an alcoholic shoemaker who did not take care of his children.  Her mother had died when Astrid was three years old.  A maternal aunt took Astrid and her siblings to presumptive foster parents…[The situation failed] and this led to a transfer to a new foster family where conditions were even worse.  Another foster child enticed Astrid into stealing, and the authorities placed the ten-year-old girl in a private school home for feeble-minded girls…[She received no affection there.] Astrid responded to that by becoming ‘mean.’  One summer when she was 19…she fled. Lonely in the big city of Stockholm after having seen only the walls of an asylum for so many years, she did not know what to do.  Two men brought her home and let her sleep at their place ‘but they didn’t do anything to me!’ After that night she returned to the asylum where the matron accused Astrid of having been sexually exploited.  They wanted to have her sterilized and sent her to a doctor who persuaded her to sign an application to be sterilized.  She was told that she could leave the asylum if she was sterilized…The matron gave Astrid three oranges and paid for a taxi to take her to the hospital….She remembers this time only in fragments, but she found it so terrifying that she has refused ever since to go to a gynaecologist…’ [At the hospital] she ‘became hysterical.’… ‘they probably calmed me down with some tranquilizer…It was like that in those days—if it became too noisy they could just give you an injection.’ [3]

            More than 60,000 sterilizations were performed in Sweden between 1935 and 1975.  More than 20,000 were, in some sense, ‘forced’ (coerced with the promise of freedom from an asylum etc.).[4] Ekerwald quotes one of the more damaging parts of the Myrdals’ book as follows:

In those cases where legal competence cannot be denied…doctors and social authorities ought actively to persuade the person …to be subjected to voluntary sterilization.  If it turns out that such pressure is ineffective…then a sharpening of the law ought to be considered, giving the authorities of the society the right to sterilize even against their will persons with legal competence. (Crisis, p. 260).[5]

            While even today, castration is a legal option in the case of sex-offenders, Sweden’s former sterilization policy registers today as heavy-handed, unjust, and cruel.

The Myrdals’ Reasoning: A Dwindling Population

            The funny thing about the Myrdals’ endorsement of voluntary and involuntary sterilization is that it arose in the 1930’s, when it was clear that Sweden’s population was shrinking.  It seems counterintuitive. 

         Indeed, the other welfare programs laid out by the Myrdals (and particularly the reforms that Alva endorsed on behalf of working women) aimed to encourage Swedes to have more children.  Being generally educated and savvy about the use of contraceptives, Swedes in the early 20th century rightly saw that larger families were correspondingly poorer—often miserably so.  Having few (or no) children in this newly industrialized society meant a far better standard of living, better health, and greater happiness. 

           But officials foresaw an aging population and all the problems associated with a diminishing workforce. To encourage births, Alva Myrdal sought to make child rearing more attractive.  Swedish women, she proposed, would need better health care, adequate maternity leave, safeguards against job loss due to childbearing, education for the children, day care…etc. 

            But these reforms were expensive, and they led to thinking about the sort of people the welfare state could and could not afford to support. 

Who’s In, and Who’s Out

            The Myrdals’ philosophy from the 1930’s and early ‘40’s generally targeted ‘feeble minded’ individuals in order to stave off the financial burden of caring for ‘inferior’ citizens.  But these inferior citizens were not only the mentally handicapped. As Spektorowki and Misrachi note, “In practice, individuals who were targeted for sterilization displayed various forms of social misbehavior, and were therefore marked by the state as unable to take care of their children.”[6]

           Thus, it included alcoholics and vagabonds (gypsies) and anyone else deemed ‘asocial’. In practice though, the target group was mainly (90%) women: “Liberated sexual behavior, untidiness or sloppiness and negligent childcare were all attributed primarily to women.”[7] If the welfare state was to succeed (and if, then, Sweden’s population ceased to decline), the Myrdals thought, it would have to weed out those who might weigh down society. 

             But the Myrdals were not proponents of racial hygiene in the same manner as the German Nazis.[8]  Ekerwald quotes an important passage from the Myrdals’ book in which they distinguish between their own social programs and that of Germany’s “unreliable, speculatively biological, cheap and shallow ‘wisdom’ in social questions.”[9]  The Myrdals also denounced the notorious academics in Uppsala who sought to keep Jews out of Sweden during the ‘30’s. 

            This 40 year policy went largely unnoticed until 1997, likely because the so-called ‘feeble-minded’ felt embarrassed or ashamed.[10]  I also suspect they suffered an utter loss of faith in any and all authorities.

Astrid…the Inspiration for Lisbeth Salander’s Past?

          I hinted above that I saw some connection between Astrid’s memories of forced sterilization and the fictional case of Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander.  Hear me out…

1. Lisbeth Salander is the daughter of a prostitute married to a domestic brute

2. Her mother is maimed and subsequently absent from her life

(3). She attempts to kill her father (a wholly unique plot feature, yes)…

4. …and consequently she is hastily labeled non compis mentis (feeble-minded)

5. She is forcibly removed to an asylum…

6. …where she has terrifying experiences with doctors (namely Dr. Teleborian)

7. She is placed in foster care, but flees

8. She is even accused of hanging out with strange, older men

9. The authorities pretty much ‘accuse’ her of ‘having been sexually exploited,’ though this is far from certain[11]

10. Eventually, she proves she has her wits

           In short, the story of Lisbeth Salander, like Astrid’s, is about the terrifying power of the state to deprive an individual of one’s most basic rights.

           The debate surrounding Swedish forced sterilization often turns to whether or not the welfare state inherently leads to such abuses of individual rights.[12]  Yet forced sterilization has occurred in the U.S., Canada, Japan, China, Switzerland…the list could go on.[13]  And though Larsson’s books seem inspired by this issue, in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest the court trial is a symbol of a democratic judicial system doing its work (if barely).[14] 

The Peculiar ‘Noir’ of Dwindling Populations:

Arnaldur Indridason’s Jar City…

            The Scandinavian population crisis and government attempts to manage its dwindling ‘human capital’ shows up as well, for instance, in Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason.  This novel touches on the Icelandic government’s attempt (and that of medical science in general) to study and codify the country’s uniquely small, isolated genetic history (having only about 320,000 people).  While these activities might help screen out devastating inherited diseases, Indridason suggests they can also subject the citizenry to a degrading, dehumanizing scrutiny.

            The doctors involved are portrayed as cold, even robotic. One doctor—clearly meant to be of dubious character—speaks in passing of his lack of desire to have children; it seems this fact is shorthand for ‘self-centered.’ Further, when the inspector’s own daughter, a cruel and petty drug addict, becomes pregnant, Indridason clearly evokes sympathy with the daughter’s life-affirming choice to keep the baby.  Though abortion is broadly legalized in Iceland, little mention is made of possible birth defects (one can almost hear the young Alva Myrdal groan here).

            Similarly, two rape victims in this novel choose to keep their resultant babies.  When Inspector Erlendur, interviews one woman’s sister, he asks how her sister (the rape victim) reacted.  She responds succinctly: “Very sensibly, I thought.  She decided straightaway to be happy about the child despite the circumstances, and she genuinely loved Audur” (p. 64).  Another rape victim also keeps her baby and raises a beloved son, though in her case she wanted to keep the rape secret from her husband. 

            Yet Indridason adds a few tragic twists to these stories. In both cases, despite these supposedly life-affirming choices, everything ends badly.  The rapist had carried a rare genetic disease that was passed on to the two children.  One dies, the other passes it to his own daughter, who also dies.  He later kills himself. 

            So the novel at once portrays a deep longing to preserve and nourish (Icelandic) life at all costs while also struggling with some troubling consequences.  On the whole, Indridason hints that the Icelandic gene pool is just too small for its own good.

…and a Minor Scene in Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s Last Rituals

 

            Sometimes, the population crisis may lurk in the background. Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s Last Rituals contains a minor scene in which a 15-year-old boy has gotten his 15-year-old girlfriend pregnant.  Though all the parents are horrified and disappointed in their exceedingly young children for making a ‘mistake,’ abortion never once comes up as an option, despite the fact that abortion is broadly legalized in Iceland.  Sigurdardóttir’s quietly pro-life stance here can hardly be unaffected by the cultural implications of Iceland’s tiny population.

Conclusion

            This feature of ‘Nordic noir’ doesn’t only relate to the claustrophobia of living in a small country, of knowing everyone in your small town; nor is it merely about the melancholy expanse of an under-populated countryside.  It also has to do with the rather bleak notion of possible cultural extinction, and the attempt by state and individual, for better and for worse, to do something about it.


[1] Her daughters also published memoirs after her death; Kaj Fölster and Sisela Bok presented more positive views of their childhood, but their work still indicates a troubled family history.

[2] While her husband was widely perceived as an egomaniacal ‘genius’ (also blamed for their children’s poor upbringing) the most troublesome views regarding sterilization are mainly attributed to Alva.

[3] Astrid’s story was told on Swedish radio journalist Bosse Lindquist in the 1980’s.  The transcribed excerpt that I’ve laid out here comes from Hedvig Ekerwald’s “The Modernist Manifesto of Alva and Gunnar Myrdal: Modernization of Sweden in the Thirties and the Question of Sterilization,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Spring, 2001), pp. 539-561.  See especially pp. 539-40.  The bracketed comments in the excerpt are mine.

[4] See p. 541 in Ekerwald.

[5] This quote is taken from Ekerwald p. 546.

[6] Alberto Spektorowski and Elisabet Misrachi. “Eugenics and the Welfare State in Sweden: The Politics of Social Margins and the Idea of a Productive Society.”  Journal of Contemporary History, V. 39, no. 3 (Jul, 2004), pp. 333-352.  See p. 348.

[7] Spektorowki and Misrachi, p. 349 (drawing on the work of historian Maija Runcis).

[8] The precise relation between Swedish sterilization laws and German eugenics remains a contentious issue.  But Spektorowki and Misrachi say, defending Sweden, that “…the Nazis worked to preserve a racial community, whereas the Swedish social democrats aimed at a productive welfare community” (p. 351).

[9] Ekerwald p. 547 (Ekerwald quotes from Crisis in the Population Question p. 87-8).

[10] Ekerwald notes this shame on p. 539.

[11] Most of these details are found on pp. 173-76 of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (American edition: Vintage, New York).

[12] Maciej Zaremba maintains that forced sterilization, in Sweden, was a direct result of the project of the welfare state—turning the issue into a direct attack on social democracy.  I take it more as a potential threat to any population under any form of government (since it has clearly happened under many forms of government), though the Swedish welfare state certainly put its peculiar stamp on this instance of it.

[13] For more info, start with Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_sterilization

[14] However, unlike the more straightforward case of Astrid, Lisbeth Salander gets away with the theft of millions of dollars.  One wonders (among other things) whether she would have relinquished that money in subsequent novels.

Posted by: nordicnoir | May 31, 2010

The Girl Who Wasn’t a Girl

The Girl Who Wasn’t a Girl

 

Spoiler Alert: I discuss some minor plot elements

of Stieg Larsson’s novels in the following post.

            At some point (rather soon) I want to look into the representation of women in Scandinavian crime fiction to determine whether or not feminist social reforms have had a significant effect on the development of ‘Nordic noir.’ But for now, I can’t resist another Stieg Larsson centered post—and in a way, it will set up the ‘women in noir’ theme precisely because Larsson’s remarkable heroine is so unlike most female characters in the genre. 

***

            Since the revelation that Stieg Larsson witnessed the gang rape of a girl when he was a young teenager and found himself unable to intervene, a lot has been said about his feminism.  In particular, many have accused Larsson of blatant voyeurism–of merely pretending to be a feminist while indulging in sadistic fantasies.  For me, this particular criticism oversimplifies the matter.  After all, cruel and gory fantasies have been a part of storytelling at least since the Greeks.  What matters is the context of those fantasies and any overriding message—which I think is discernible in Larsson’s work.  Feminism abounds here…but the Millennium books (which after all are only the first of a planned ten novels) also use the character of Lisbeth Salander to point the way beyond feminism.

Larsson’s Women in General

               In general, Larsson’s women are tough; they ‘kick ass’ in bloody brawls, and they are security officers and boxers.  Throughout The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest—he sprinkles historical interludes about female warriors, from Boudicca to the Amazons.  Further, these women read—not romance novels, but books about math and ancient religion.  They write and hold editorships and are lawyers and detectives.

He also defends women’s—and men’s—sexual freedom to a great degree, without ignoring the complicated reactions they may have to their chosen entanglements.  It seems like women everywhere jump into bed with Blomkvist with no regrets; but by the end of –Hornets’ Nest, things are getting complicated in a more realistic way (thankfully!).

Lisbeth Salander

                Yet even setting aside concerns about the voyeuristic aspects of Larsson’s novels (the detailed rape scenes etc.), I find myself confused about Lisbeth Salander herself.  I think it’s because this ‘heroine’ is about as far from being a typical woman as she can get.  I am not talking about her bi-sexuality, but rather her lack of emotion—that human feature so often associated (rightly or wrongly) with femininity.  True, at the end of the first novel Salander experiences a wave of romantic jealousy when she sees Blomkvist with Erika Berger.  And I admit, I was intrigued by the idea of a character with Asperger’s slowly learning to feel the way most people do.  But I also felt a slight sense of loss.  Oh no, I thought, she’s going to become normal.

But that didn’t last.  Soon enough, she pushed him out of her mind.

Then, the breast implants.  Her plastic surgery seems to indicate her own feeling that she is not ‘woman’ enough.  But it also shows, more importantly, that she views herself as a construct to manipulate. [1]  She can make herself either more or less feminine as she sees fit.  It’s not a sign of ‘low self-esteem’; it’s a sign of calculated control over her own body.   And besides, the implants wind up being a relatively unimportant feature of her personality because she’s so nonchalant about it.  I can’t recall any mention of them in the third novel.

Is Lisbeth Salander a Feminist Character?…

            But I’m particularly bothered (or intrigued) by the action sequences.  As far as kicking ass goes, Salander does it not like a man, still less like a woman—but more like a robot.  In a fabulous fight scene in –Hornets’ Nest, in which Salander is all alone, locked up with a brutal killer with no weapons of her own, she never seems to experience fear, panic, or helplessness.

                   Salander took an appraising look around. Click….

                   No weapons.  

                   Only tools. Click. Her eyes fell on the circular saw…Click. Click.  She saw an iron rod…

I don’t currently have access to the Swedish text here, so I don’t know if the ‘click-clicking’ is Larsson’s doing or Reg Keeland’s, but the point is that she’s got a hard drive for a brain, which is in any case a favorite theme throughout all three novels.  It is Salander’s primary social defect, and her greatest asset.  When she’s in a bind, she doesn’t feel, she computes.  It’s what makes her a kind of superhero.

For a time, I felt this was an indirect criticism of women’s supposed emotional sensitivity—as if to say, if you want to kick ass, ladies, think like a man.  But I was wrong. Larsson actually goes out of his way to show that even regular, non-Asperger’s women can beat up men.  Take Mimi for instance, fighting alongside Paolo Roberto.  Or the Säpo agent Figuerola, or the Milton Security body-guard Susanne Linder.  And they don’t do it by means of feminine cunning. They’re fit and well-trained and professionally driven.  They use their fists.

Nevertheless, in the end, the ‘girl’ to whom readers are most drawn is the one who transcends gender—not so much by transcending fear, but by simply failing to experience that most basic human emotion.[1]  As a superhero, she is a little inhuman, or superhuman–and thus hard to describe truly as a ‘woman’.  Ironically then, despite the strong feminist ideology in Larsson’s novels, it’s hard for me to grant the feminist title to the eponymous ‘girl’ herself.

…Or is she a Cyborg?

            But is this perhaps what Larsson intended?  We may never know where he was going with this character, and yet I find myself wondering if Larsson, in the spirit of Donna Haraway, was actually trying to push beyond our outmoded notions of feminism (and of ‘women’)–into something more expansive and useful for the cyber age.  Haraway’s work (I’m thinking mainly of ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ [2]) sparkles with imagination and intellectual brilliance far more than the usual academic fare and I highly recommend it (though readers be warned: it is tough reading).  She is also by now quite well-known; it’s possible Larsson knew of her work too.

In a nutshell, Haraway uses astounding scientific and technological breakthroughs as well as purely speculative images from science fiction to forcibly pry apart and shatter stubborn dualist conceptions of reality (man/woman, organism/machine, nature/culture) in favor of hybrid realities.  She describes a ‘cyborg’ as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction,” and points out how the organism/machine distinction is in fact eroding before our eyes (I note Craig Venter’s very recent development of ‘synthetic life’).  She further says, “The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century.”  In short: “The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world”  (emphasis mine).

Lisbeth Salander’s boob job and computer-brain seem a lot more important in this light.

Haraway certainly uses the cyborg image to think up “a world without gender”, but actually the stakes are far greater than just feminist (or post-feminist) politics.  The ability to think of reality in an entirely new way–unimpeded by oversimplified dichotomies like man/woman or even left/right–may be the key to one day developing a better, more just, as-yet-unimagined society.  And this may be the reason why Larsson paints the Swedish government in a less than positive light, despite its best intentions.  There is always room for improvement, always the threat of corruption, and always a need for greater imagination.

While we will likely never know where Larsson was taking Salander as a character, I believe there is enough evidence that he too was committed to exploding stereotypes and seemingly fixed categories of thought.   And even if he didn’t consciously think of Haraway, even if he never read her work, sometimes big ideas seep through a culture anyway, finding an unlikely home, perhaps, in a [cyborg] with a dragon tattoo.

 

______________________________________

[1] I do not mean to suggest that people with Asperger’s are ‘inhuman’; they clearly have plenty of feelings, including fear.  It’s just that Lisbeth Salander’s Asperger’s symptoms, her lack of fear etc., tend toward the superhuman.

[2] Donna Haraway’s fascinating 1991 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” can be found in her book Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.  For an online version of the essay, see:  http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html .

            Yes, Paolo Roberto is a real person.  Even before he figured as a heroic character in Larsson’s novel, he was ‘world famous in Sweden’ as they say…in Sweden.  He is 41, an ex-boxer, a TV host, and an actor (he played himself in the film version of The Girl Who Played with Fire).   

            Now he appears to have found a different sort of fame.

           The Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet reported last week that he was accused of assault recently.  He had been on set for a film production when the 16-year-old, an extra, wrestled him to the ground and held him down.  Aftonbladet posted a video clip of the fight. You can see the 16-year-old (in white) wrestling Roberto (in a black leather jacket) to the ground and holding him there for a bit.  There is a lot of joking and it all appears to be in good fun, though Roberto seems strangely quiet, almost perplexed by the abuse he’s getting from the teenagers.

           Later, Roberto gets the upper hand and wrestles the boy to the ground and holds him down.  Finally, he sits up and pauses, fully in control.  Then he slaps the boy across the face pretty hard.

            After the incident, Aftonbladet notes, several schools canceled events featuring Roberto as a motivational speaker. 

            The fight isn’t pretty, but luckily the scuffle fails to recall the fantastic warehouse fight scenes from Larsson’s novel, which I assume was partly inspired by Roberto’s real life boxing skills.  It reminds me more of how my smart alec cat harasses my big cat, and then gets bopped on the head for it (which is not to excuse Roberto’s action here).

            All in all, it’s just a little strange to see a ‘hero’ in real life, caught off guard.

 

Posted by: nordicnoir | May 16, 2010

Photos of Sweden I

            In thinking about how popular Nordic crime fiction has become, I initially thought the answer was obvious.  In a land of such great beauty and peacefulness, I mused, why wouldn’t serial fiction set here be desirable?   

            And yet, because of the demands of the crime fiction genre, which must be fast paced, most of the authors of ‘Nordic noir’ give very little description of the landscape.  A typical, plot-forwarding sentence (that I made up) might be: ‘He opened the report on his desk and grimaced.  The wife’s finger prints were found on the door knob.  Within thirty minutes he was speeding along the E4, determined to talk with her.’  

             But what did the cop see along the way?  What’s the landscape like?  

            So for today’s post (the first of a photo oriented series), I’m going to lay out some photos of Sweden in the warmer months taken along one of the main highways about 20 minutes south of Stockholm.  On other days I’ll do winter, Stockholm itself, other parts of Sweden, and I’ll do a bit on other countries as well.  

             The thing that always strikes me the most about these photos?  Space.  For a small country, there is an awful lot of land.  Just to compare: there are 60 million people in the UK, which is about 94,000 square miles, while Sweden is about 174,000 square miles with a population of only 9 million.  The state of California is roughly the same size as Sweden, but has a population of about 37 million.  

              In another post, I’ll be looking at population size and density and its effect on Swedish crime fiction.  For one thing, I find these photos to be lovely, but also a little melancholy…and sometimes even lonely. 

         So here we go: 

Rapeseed grown in Sweden.

 

In July in Sweden the fields tend to turn an amazing golden yellow, thanks to the flowers on rapeseed plants.  

Ubiquitous agricultural fields

 

At other times during the warm months, the fields look more like this.  Most of the neighborhoods have a few of these fields (and a small forest) between them.  The footpaths are lined with wildflowers, wild strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, black and red currant, and those cute red, white spotted (deadly poisonous) mushrooms.  Acres of blueberries grow on the forest floors, as well as chanterelle mushrooms. 

A manor house seen from the highway

 

Thankfully, there are neighborhoods to break up the drive, as well as large manor houses like this one.  Some are converted into golf course club houses or resort hotels; others are privately owned.  

Swedish horse in field

 

At the lower right hand corner of this photo, you can see a horse grazing.  Swedes enjoy their equestrian sports, perhaps particularly show jumping, and the high quality of their Swedish warmblood stock speaks volumes.  There are horses everywhere in this country!  It seems almost a rite of passage for young Swedish girls to attend riding camp in the summers. 

One of the many golf courses in Sweden

 

Swedes also like their golf courses, and they certainly have the room for it.  With plenty of rain, the fairways are always green. 

 

A castle turned manor house turned club house in Sweden

 

This used to be a castle (a ‘slott’ in Swedish); then it was modernized into a manor house. Now it is the above golf course’s club house.   

Aerial shot of Swedish farmlands

 

The final shot was taken from our airplane–though this is probably well north of Stockholm.  

More photos another time!

Posted by: nordicnoir | May 9, 2010

Nazis and Swedish Crime Fiction

The Origins of Nordic Noir Part II: 

The Nazi Connection in Swedish Crime Fiction 

SPOILER ALERT: In this post I (briefly) discuss a few major plot elements from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. 

From the early pages of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: 

            “[Richard Vanger] joined…one of the first Nazi groups in Sweden…[and later] the Swedish Fascist Battle Organization, the SFBO, and there he got to know Per Engdahl… In his free time he travelled around and did proselytizing for Nazism…Richard was a brutal domestic.  He beat his wife and abused his son. “ –from pp. 96-97 of the US edition 

I. Swedish Neutrality and the Rescue of Jewish Refugees 

            Americans are used to the vilification of Nazis in fiction and movies, so much so that the commanders’ decidedly German uniforms Star Wars serve as shorthand for Evil.  The Nazi is always the Other for us.  Hollywood shows Americans pretending to be Nazis—while barely containing their righteous indignation as they set about foiling genocidal plans.  In our popular imagination, it’s a question of infiltration.  How do you get inside the Death Star to take it down? 

              Now imagine you’re in Sweden in 1939-45.  Sweden has been a neutral country since 1815.  In WWII, this neutrality was arguably realistic.  What else could a small, peaceful country do against a force like Nazi Germany?  Neutral Sweden came through the war relatively unscathed (though neutral Norway suffered a German occupation, so Sweden wasn’t that safe).  

              Further, because of its neutrality, Sweden was able take in Jewish refugees throughout the war.  After the German occupation of Denmark, Sweden accepted 8,000 rescued Jews.  And Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede working in Budapest during WWII, handed out illegal protective Swedish passports to Jews who would otherwise have been deported—saving 20,000 lives.  He also helped prevent another 70,000 Jews from being massacred in Hungary.[1]  

             Gosh! you might think.  Everyone should have been neutral.  The U.S. itself remained neutral even after the invasion of Poland.  Only a direct attack on Pearl Harbor brought us into the war (two years old by then).  So what was wrong with Sweden’s position?  It was never directly attacked, so… –Alas. 

II. Recent Revelations of Swedish Nazism During the World Wars 

            To this day, scholars ponder the moral and political implications of neutrality.  Was Swedish freedom and democracy paid for with the lives and blood of the Allied forces?  How would Sweden have fared if Germany had won?  Would it have remained a free, democratic country?  Would it have fended off anti-Semitism?  

            Would it have wanted to? 

            This last question is exceedingly touchy.  In the past few decades, Swedes have begun to examine their country’s murky relation to the Nazis—sometimes reluctantly.  For instance, Per Engdahl was a known leader of a far-right anti-Semitic, Swedish Nationalist group founded in 1941 (Nysvenska Rörelsen, or New Swedish Movement).  In 1994, Engdahl died and his personal letters were made public—letters revealing that Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, had once joined the movement (1942-1945).  Kamprad soon expressed deep regret for his youthful allegiance.  But the fact remains: he was involved with Engdahl’s group, and he did not publicly, overtly renounce his allegiance until the truth bubbled to the surface late in his life.[2] 

            More recently, Swedish news media has pointed to the fact that Sweden’s Queen Silvia (born 

A royal parade in Stockholm

 

in Germany to a German family) has kept secret all these years her own father’s connections to Nazi Germany.  As the journalist Bosse Schön says, “The truth about Queen Silvia’s father, which she doesn’t want to tell herself or her family, is that he joined Hitler’s Nazi party beginning on December 1st, 1934.”  Then the family moved to Brazil, and he soon linked up with an ex-pat Nazi group.  Schön continues, “Queen Silvia’s father worked during his time in Brazil for the German company Acos-Burderus-do Brasil-Ltda, which used wartime prisoners as slave labor in Nazi Germany” (translations mine).  Queen Silvia failed to discuss these issues in her most recent TV interview. 

            Some Swedes are more forthcoming about their regrettable past ties.  Ingmar Bergman confessed to having been very impressed by Hitler when he was young, and having failed to intervene in any way during the vandalization of a Jewish house by his own brother and friends. 

            Newspapers today often depict neo-Nazis as fed-up working class youths who are violently angry about lax immigration policies, which they believe result in fewer jobs for native Swedes (I’ll discuss neo-Nazis in a later post).  Yet a case can be made for ‘upper class Nazism’ during the years of the two world wars.[3]  Though it may be quieter, it was in fact far more insidious, since the anti-Semitism and Swedish nationalism of wealthy elites arose from the abstract threat of an imagined global Jewish conspiracy to control world finance and international politics. These well-to-do citizens, educated, tempered by adulthood, were presumably rational (they weren’t hot headed, impressionable youths). 

             I rather think Stieg Larsson had this particular brand of Nazi in mind when he dreamed up the horrifying family history of the Vangers in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Larsson seems to find in the (fictional) Nazi history of the Vangers the necessary ingredients for the makings of brutal serial killers: a lack of empathy for fellow human beings (in this case women), a willingness to use cruel force (and even a certain zest for it), and an astonishing sense of entitlement.  Admittedly, some of Larsson’s other (many other!) barbarous characters prove that people don’t need politics to justify their cruelty; they don’t have to be anti-Semites or Nazis…sometimes they are just men who hate women).  And yet I think that particular brand of upper-class Nazism makes most Swedes cringe a little more than usual. 

III. The Near Success of Swedish Nazism 

            One interesting question about Sweden’s relation to Nazism is just why it didn’t take hold the way it did in Germany.  This is tough to answer, but I’ll offer a few reasons.  Lena Berggren notes that while the various fascist groups in Sweden either didn’t participate, or did not do very well, in elections, “…the different [Swedish fascist] organizations nevertheless managed to attract 30,000 members and financiers when they peaked in the mid-1930’s” (p. 417).[4]  So that’s still a lot of people, and one can imagine how it might have spawned a situation similar to Nazi Germany.  Berggren adds that if the Germans had won, “It cannot…be assumed that all Sweden’s established political forces would have declined a German offer of collaboration” (p. 408). 

            Some scholars have pointed, quite simply, to the lack of any charismatic fascist leader during the interwar period, and even the presence of too many fascist groups, each too small and exclusive to make any significant impact on its own.  Berggren points to Sweden’s “ethnically homogenous” population; she says there were “virtually no ethnic tensions that could evolve into major political conflicts” (409).  Immigration issues were not inflammatory enough in Sweden during the 1930’s.  I assume this was at least partly because of what Berggren describes as the “highly restrictive Swedish immigration laws…practiced until well after the outbreak of war in 1939,” which laws, she says, “especially kept Jewish refugees out of the country after the crises in Russia at the beginning of the century as well as during the Nazi era” (413).  

         So it was hard to foment large-scale anti-Semitism in a country without many Jews.  And yet anti-Semitism (and more broadly speaking, fascist Swedish nationalism) still existed even without many immigrants.  

III. Concerns About Swedish ‘Collaboration’ and the Origins of Swedish Noir 

               The issue of Sweden’s relation to Nazism simply highlights the more general problem of how to distinguish between neutrality and collaboration.  Sweden did not back Germany (or the Allies), but it made money by trading with Germany… Upon close inspection, it becomes nearly impossible to completely distinguish ‘neutrality’ from ‘collaboration’.  And certainly the Swedes (and others) would very much like to!  For even now Scandinavians use the term ‘Quisling’ to refer to a traitor, because Vidkun Quisling was appointed by the Germans as the President of the collaborationist Norwegian government during the occupation.  He was later executed for high treason.  

             In a way, Stieg Larsson may have been playing with the theme of collaboration at the level of the family.  Recall that it is Richard Vanger (the grandfather of Harriet and Martin) who was a Nazi and a ‘brutal domestic’ (Larsson deftly links political fascism to physical, sexual brutality here).  Years later, Gottfried Vanger, the son ‘abused’ by Richard-the-Nazi, forces his son, Martin Vanger, to ‘collaborate’ in his hideous, perverted activities.  One could argue that Gottfried, having himself been warped by his Nazi father, ultimately turns Martin Vanger into a monster like himself.  

              In this way, one can begin to question the effect of non-intervention on the character of any given human. One wonders what sort of intervention is required to break such a dark streak in the Vanger family history—or any such dark streak.  Certainly Larsson was preoccupied by these worries, given that so much of his work focused on the problem of neo-Nazi hate groups. 

            I think in order to really understand anything you like and admire, you have to come to terms with its deepest flaws.  Every country has dark secrets that most would like to forget, and I don’t mean to single Sweden out as particularly evil.  Indeed, I’ll put out some lighter posts soon! 

             But as for the ‘Origins of Nordic Noir,’ at least in Sweden, perhaps one can argue that Swedish noir gains life in part because of a vague, disturbing sense that truly terrible secrets lie just below the surface of everyday, prosperous life.  It’s enough for any sleuth (whether a detective, reporter or fiction writer) to ponder at length.  One wonders if the very hiddenness of it constitutes its own kind of collaboration—and wonders, as well, how it actually affects Swedish culture.  For in the case of Nazism in Sweden, it’s harder to always characterize evil as ‘over there’ in Germany—it’s homegrown, and not yet fully accounted for.  

***For further reading: While Nazism is one theme among many in Larsson’s novels, readers will find that Henning Mankell’s The Return of the Dancing Master is entirely about Nazism in Sweden.  Besides, it’s a terrific book too! 


[1] Raoul Wallenberg’s disappearance at the end of the war remains a mystery.  He was arrested in 1945 by the Russians, who later claimed he was executed in 1947.  However, just last month (April 2010), new evidence came to light suggesting that he was alive after his supposed date of execution.  See an article about the latest revelations here.  

[2] Arguably, he ‘publicly’ renounced Engdahl’s group by canceling his membership.  Yet such a quiet sort of denunciation hardly seems satisfying.   

[3] The phrase ‘upper class Nazism’ is attributed to Karl N. Alvar Nilsson (Svensk överklassnazism 1996) in Sweden’s Relations with Nazism, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust (Ekman, Åmark, Toler eds. Kendall trans.  Almqvist & Wiksell International: Stockholm 2003).  In this book however, Jonas Hansson notes that “Nilsson devotes himself to name-dropping and it is never really clear to which extent the person is to be considered as being included in ‘upper-class Nazism’ or how they should otherwise be described” p. 148.  Point taken.  But however many ‘upper-class Nazis’ there were in Sweden, there still seems to be a special stigma attached to socially privileged Nazis, especially those who managed to cover up their past and forge ahead, continuing to amass wealth and power long after the war. 

[4] All page numbers attributed to Berggren come from: Berggren, Lena. “Swedish Fascism: Why Bother?” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jul., 2002), pp. 395-417.

Posted by: nordicnoir | April 28, 2010

Heart Troubles in Larsson’s Third Book

Of Prescience or Promotion?

Heart Troubles in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

 

SPOILER ALERT

Some minor plot elements of the third Millennium novel 

(The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest) are discussed in the following post.

 

      After the middle-aged, pudgy, yet somehow debonair journalist Mikael Blomkvist sleeps with his new love interest in the third Millennium novel, he wakes up to find that she has already been out and come back.

        “I’ve been running. You should come along.”

       “If I tried to go at your pace, I’d have a heart attack on Norr Mälarstrand.” (p. 483)*

      Anyone reading these lines will likely recall how Stieg Larsson died.  The elevators didn’t work one day, so he took the stairs and had a heart attack.  All his friends say he ate junk food, smoked, didn’t exercise, and was generally stressed from constant work—so his death was not all that surprising.

     What is surprising is the number of times that a character mentions or experiences heart trouble.  Just so, when Blomkvist runs out of the apartment in pursuit of a time-sensitive lead in the investigation, he muses on his poor physical condition:

         Blomkvist jogged down to Götgatan and sped up toward Slussen.  When he reached Slussplan he was badly out of breath.  Maybe Figuerola had a point.  He was not going to make it.  He looked about for a taxi. (p. 491)

      It’s not only Blomkvist whose health comes into question in this novel. Erika Berger takes over as Editor in Chief of SMP, replacing an older man who has heart trouble.  She meets with him at the beginning of her transition period.

                    “How are you feeling?” Berger said…

    … “You walk around feeling like a teenager and immortal your whole life, and suddenly there isn’t much time left.  But one thing is for sure—I don’t mean to spend the rest of it in this glass cage.”

                    He rubbed his chest.  He had heart and artery problems… (p. 200)

 Soon after, this ailing Editor in Chief keels over in his office and dies—without ever getting out of his glass cage.

       Even Erika Berger suffers the effects of job related stress.  After just three weeks at her new high status job, she begins to experience the downside of success:

         Berger had parked two hundred metres from the restaurant and was halfway to her car when she felt such strong heart palpitations that she had to stop and lean against a wall.  She felt sick. 

…She had been working fifteen hours a day since May 1.  That was almost three weeks.  How would she feel after three years?  (p. 355)

         It certainly sounds like Larsson was rather preoccupied by the thought of heart troubles.  And if all this doesn’t strike you as prescient enough, there is always the scene where Blomkvist laments the fact that his murdered colleague, Dag Svensson, will never see his work finally published—will never see his own success:

     For Blomkvist, it was at that desk that the Zalachenko affair had begun.  He wished that Svensson had been able to see the conclusion of it.  A pile of copies of his just-published book was on the table next to Blomkvist’s own about the Section.

   You would have loved this moment, Dag. (p. 680)

        It is hard not to feel a pang of sadness, thinking again about how Stieg Larsson himself ‘would have loved’ to witness his own moment of fame.  One wonders whether Larsson feared the unusual fate that befell him; indeed, it almost sounds like it was a minor obsession, as though he kept thinking, What if all my bad habits catch up with me just at the wrong moment?  Yet if he did think this, then I’d be willing to bet he followed that thought with, I’m glad I haven’t lived only in the glass box (important though it may be); if I have to be stressed, I’m glad I wrote something crazily entertaining as well! 

       At least I like to think of it that way.  But I can’t help wondering whether in the years since Larsson’s death in 2004 some savvy editors added in these elements themselves to promote the myth of authorial genius and the sale of ever more Millennium books.  I hope not, but I’m guessing they’d never tell us if they did.

*All page numbers refer to the British edition of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (MacLehose Press 2009).

Posted by: nordicnoir | April 17, 2010

Olof Palme and Swedish Crime Fiction

The Origins of Nordic Noir Part I: 

The Effect of Olof Palme’s Assassination

on Swedish Crime Fiction

[updates below – 8/29/12]

            Henning Mankell, author of the Wallander series, has written a play entitled Politik, which is set to debut at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater next fall (2010).  The main character will be Olof Palme himself, the controversial and popular Prime Minister of Sweden who was assassinated on February 28th, 1986.  This appalling crime naturally had a huge impact on the Swedish people.

            Americans also experienced a national trauma of a very similar nature—the assassination of JFK.  But what makes the Swedish experience unique has to do with Sweden’s, well,  naïveté.  Just think: in 1986, Sweden’s Prime Minister walked home from a movie house with his wife… all alone.  Taking the slightly less traveled route.  At 11:00 PM, with no body guards.  Which was not unusual for him.  And it got him killed.  The killer walked right up to him, apparently talked to him for a minute or so, and then shot him at close range.

While the figure and fate of Palme discernibly influences the stories of writers like Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson in subtle (or not so subtle) ways, for now, I will just sketch out the bare historical facts and suggest their effect on the psyche of the Swedish people, and thus on Sweden’s crime writers.  My primary reference book is Blood on the Snow: The Killing of Olof Palme by Jan Bondeson (Cornell: 2005).

a) The Shattered Ideal of Peace and Safety

As shocked and devastated as Americans were by JFK’s assassination (by sniper), the American public could fathom many reasons why Kennedy would be a target, and accordingly he possessed a full phalanx of bodyguards.  But Palme was the leader of a small, social-democratic country (about the size and population of California) whose generous health and welfare benefits lent the nation a cozy, peaceful atmosphere—at least on the surface.

For not everyone adored the articulate, talented, Kenyon College educated leader; a good many Swedes found his politics leaning too far to the left toward socialism, even while he clearly perceived and took action against the threat of Soviet communism.  Further, in the months after the assassination, untold numbers of Swedes reported their friends and neighbors and family members for having expressed severe hatred for Palme–for having even cursed him to death.

As the police scrutinized individuals and organizations for possible motives, the Swedish people got to see, up close, in their papers every day, the violent and disreputable characters in their midst.  Of course, they had been there for some time, but now decent law-abiding citizens were caught up in the lives of the most suspicious sorts of people.  It cannot have made anyone sleep better to know that sociopaths like Viktor Gunnarsson and psychopaths like Christer Petterson, ‘The Bayonet Killer,’ led full, despicable lives in the heart of their pretty cities.

Nor did it help to think that certain ruthless figures in the Kurdish ex-pat community might have reason to kill the Prime Minister of the country whose lenient immigration policies had allowed them a safe haven (the Kurdish organization, the PKK, was eventually absolved of any link to Palme’s death; but the murderous tactics of some of their members was brought to light and doubtless alarmed many people).

All things considered, then, the time had come for Swedish people to lock their doors and watch their backs.

b) A New Distrust of Authorities

If it is hard to imagine the leader of a country walking around town without any security detail, it is equally difficult to see how the authorities, once notified of the assassination, could have utterly bungled the whole investigation.  Indeed, because of police error, the case remains unsolved to this day, and is likely to stay that way.

For instance: there was a delayed response to the initial emergency call; police taped off only a very small area around the crime scene (just around the blood); bystanders threw flowers over the tape and onto the murder site; the crime scene was not guarded through the night and shoe prints old and new blurred together; the bullets could not be found by police technicians—but remarkably, one was found by a journalist across the street where technicians hadn’t looked, and the other was found right near the murder site the following day by a mourner. The list could go and on, as Bondeson painstakingly does in his excellent account of these events.

            In the first few days after the murder, Swedes had little idea just how badly things were going.  So as Hans Holmér headed up the investigation with confidence, good looks, and swagger, the country awaited a swift and reassuring conclusion.  Arguably, if the killer had been found quickly and brought to justice, Sweden would be a different place today.

But this was to be a story of the narrow-minded pursuit of wrong suspects, of corruption, of the petty desire for fame, of witness coaching and leading, and of improper interview methods (Olof Palme’s wife Lisbet got her way when she refused to be interviewed on tape and would only talk to specific individuals).

Time after time, the authorities dashed the hopes of the Swedish people as one suspect after another had to be let go.  Many felt and still feel that Christer Petterson, a violent drunk who had murdered before, was the killer.  But when he was brought to trial, it became clear that Lisbet Palme had likely been coached, or clued in somehow, before she picked him out of the line-up.  That said, Bondeson offers what I feel is an even better, highly compelling conspiracy theory as an alternative interpretation of events —and one that does not involve Petterson in any way. Yet it is easy to see how the guilty parties in his version might have been brought to justice if the early days of the investigation had been handled with any competence.

The point here is that within two years, Swedish faith in the ‘authorities’ had been severely damaged by all this bungling, and by a good deal of corruption too.  As a result, a hundred times over, the police and other authorities (groups or individuals) have been scrutinized for any possible involvement in the assassination.  Suspicions linger to this day.

c) Endless Coverage of the Murder Investigation

The investigation proceeded at full throttle until the acquittal of Petterson.  After that, work on the case slowed and regrouped, but continued to flounder.  In 1999, an official commission reviewed the efforts of the police  and judged them harshly for incompetence. Though the investigation is ongoing, and reports appear in the news about once a year, it seems unlikely the case will ever be solved.

But after the official investigation disintegrated following the acquittal of Petterson, dozens of “Palme Detectives” emerged—individuals acting alone or in small groups to develop new theories.  These independent investigators were so obsessed with the case that witnesses complained of harassment.  TV reporters (or ‘personalities’) continued to drum up interest by coaxing Petterson into being interviewed (at one point he actually confessed to the murder, but he had made so  many contradictory statements by then that his confession cannot be taken as any real proof).

Further, many books laying out new theories have also been published over the years.  Too often, they have been clear attempts to profit from the insatiable desire for new details and possible solutions–while offering little persuasive proof.  Bondeson’s Blood in the Snow is but one example of the better books; I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in true crime, police procedurals, conspiracy theories, historical mysteries, and/or the socio-political recent history of Sweden—not to mention the possible origins of Swedish Noir.

Conclusion

In short, one could speculate that the assassination of Olof Palme and the ensuing 24 year murder investigation drew in a whole generation of readers who might not otherwise have been so interested in crime fiction. Certainly one can argue that Sjöwall and Wahlöö, writing in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, offer proof of pre-assassination interest in crime fiction—and I agree.  The issue is rather one of degree of interest and subtle atmospheric differences in pre- and post-assassination novels (which I hope to explain in later posts).  To offer a taste of how I might argue this point, I can just point out the striking difference between the weary cops of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s who tend to get the bad guy and the conspiracy laden plots of Stieg Larsson, with Lisbeth Salander as an anti-authority, anti-hero battling the injustices of powerful people and institutions, including government authorities.

–Okay, okay.  I hear you Wallander fans.  Wallander is kind of like those ‘weary cops’ I just described, and Mankell’s Wallander novels were all written post-assassination.  But as I noted at the top of this post, Mankell is clearly preoccupied with Palme’s death, and I will have more to say, later on, regarding his more subtle reaction to ‘Sweden’s national trauma.’

Updates: For other theories regarding the Olof Palme murder, see the books written by Gunnar Wall. I’ve also posted more recently about an intriguing possible new lead in the Olof Palme investigation. Also see Andy Lawrence’s post on a new mini-series based on Palme’s murder.

Posted by: nordicnoir | April 14, 2010

Stieg Larsson Scandals

First things first, before I get to the origins of Nordic Noir, I’ll do a round-up of the latest chatter regarding Stieg Larsson—the battle over his estate and the question of whether or not he actually wrote the Millenium books himself.

Scandal #1:  Death…Success…No Will: Estate Battle

Most people know by now that Stieg Larsson died tragically at the age of 50, after having just signed a 3-book contract but just before his books came out—thus without any knowledge of just how popular his books would become.  Things got sticky when his ‘sambo’ (the Swedish term for live-in partner) of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson, was denied any control over Larsson’s estate; they were not married and Larsson had failed to draw up a will. The whole estate went instead to Larsson’s father and brother—with whom Larsson had been on very bad terms.

Not surprisingly, Gabrielsson is engaged in a legal battle with Larsson’s father and brother. In Sweden, public opinion falls sharply in her favor.  And yet in this Guardian interview with Gabrielsson, she says she “cannot win a case according to co-habitation law.” The whole scandal is covered almost weekly in the Swedish papers.  The father and brother are scrambling to repair their tarnished image as cold-hearted and greedy, while also alleging that Gabrielsson is mentally unstable (she claims she just sought therapy after Larsson’s death).

Scandal #2: Larsson Witnessed a Gang Rape       

As is common after anyone’s rise to fame, many of Larsson’s friends and colleagues are now rolling out article upon article and even books about the Larsson.  Two well known journalists, Anders Hellberg and Kurdo Baksi, have made some startling claims.  Baksi wrote a biography of Larsson and published an excerpt in DN in January. There he asserts, among other things, that Larsson witnessed the gang rape of a young girl when he was 15—too young and naïve to intervene (Gabrielsson has confirmed this).  He says this haunted Larsson.

“Consequently, women in his novels are headstrong and go their own way.  They fight.  They take a stand.

Just as he wished they could do in reality.” (translation mine)

Aside from the fact that many women ‘in reality’ are headstrong, do fight, and do take a stand (though lacking the superhuman powers of Lisbeth Salander), the real irony may be that Lisbeth Salander does what Stieg Larsson himself apparently couldn’t do back when he was 15.

Scandal #3: Larsson ‘Couldn’t Write’—Eva Gabrielsson Wrote the Millennium Novels

Anders Hellberg truly got everyone’s ire up by claiming that Stieg Larsson couldn’t write (the article is translated).  After reading Larsson’s work over the years, he developed a poor view of his friend’s linguistic abilities: “The language was weak, the word order was often incorrect, sentence constructions were simple and the syntax was sometimes completely mad.”  Hellberg suggests that perhaps his partner, Gabrielsson, wrote quite a lot of the material.  Kurdo Baksi stops short of agreeing, saying only (harshly) that Larsson was a mediocre journalist.

Many have been quick to defend Larsson.  And it is easy to see how a) Larsson could have improved his writing, b) Larsson’s old “friends” seem to be grabbing for attention and c) grammatical and narrative ability are two different things.

For her part, Gabrielsson has kept quiet.  She rejects the claim that Larsson was a bad journalist, but in the face of her battle over Larsson’s estate, she tells the Guardian, “I could now try to claim co-authorship but that is a very long process and it will be expensive.”  But she adds, “I’m very confident the truth will win out in the end.”

Just what does she mean by that?  We will have to wait for her book about her life with Larsson, which will perhaps earn her enough to pay those lawyer fees.  Or she could just write a fourth Millennium novel proving it was her all along.

To be fair though, Gabrielsson isn’t claiming sole authorship of the books; if she claims partial, or limited authorship, then she will have a good excuse for not putting out a thriller ever again.

Next post:  One more theory about Stieg Larsson’s ‘questionable’ authorship.

Posted by: nordicnoir | April 11, 2010

Introductory Comments

After visiting Sweden for the past ten years and at times day dreaming about moving there and living among the contented, efficient, practical minded Scandinavians who are as addicted to group sing-alongs as Americans are to baseball (indeed, it has always struck me as being a little like Whoville (see this youtube video) I began to notice something: these people have a passion for crime fiction.  But unlike Britain—whose taste for seedy procedurals makes sense, given the prevalence of real life acts of violence, the hordes of drunken juveniles scampering about attacking pedestrians or wreaking havoc in town after the bars close—Sweden is relatively serene

It might seem easy to say that the Swedes, after years of importing English language TV shows, which have always included the best British crime dramas, decided to copy the Brits.  ‘Proven formula + new setting = success.’  But such an equation ignores how Nordic settings inform the age old tales of revenge, murder, investigation, and criminal insanity (for these tales go back to the beginning of history).  I’m not just talking about frigid conditions and dark winters, though these are worth considering.  As any reader of Sjöwall and Wahlöö knows (the classic ‘60’s and ’70’s crime writing duo), the ‘serenity’ of Sweden apparent to outsiders such as myself is arguably a thin veneer overlying the turbulent depths of Scandinavian society.  For instance, Sweden’s disturbing history of Nazi collaboration and coercive social programs–like the forced sterilization of certain social groups–is often overlooked in light of its progressive aims.

So while many of us outsiders see a peaceful, happy land, free of the urban blight surrounding our major American cities, some of the most famous Nordic crime writers have been critical of their own countries’ ‘mere’ social-democracies.

            Is there something political at the heart of all this Nordic noir?  Are there deep historical roots to this peculiar version of suspense?  What sort of literary and artistic traditions inform it (Viking sagas, Ingmar Bergman, Astrid Lindgren…)?  How much arises from the very landscape, the long dark winters with sun only from 9am to 4pm?  Or is Nordic noir just the naughty playground of a happy, contented people?

Much there is to discuss…

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