Death and Money: Stieg Larsson's Controversial Legacy
Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author of the Millennium trilogy, only became world-famous after his death in 2004. His long-time companion Eva Gabrielsson is still fighting for her share of the inheritance, but says she no longer plans to finish his fourth book.
Eva Gabrielsson is already waiting on a sunny park bench. She is a middle-aged woman with a penchant for black clothing, both mild-mannered and proud, approachable and shy. Sticking her book into her bag, she suggests taking a walk to show me a building on a hill at the end of the promenade. It has a wonderful view of the Baltic Sea and the series of islands that make up Stockholm. Up there, says Gabrielsson, pointing to the large building, is where Lisbeth Salander lived.
Gabrielsson talks about how Lisbeth Salander simply showed up in her life one day and took possession of it. She admires Salander for her indomitable spirit and the right she assumes to eradicate the injustice that was done to her.
The building on the hill really exists, but Lisbeth Salander is a fictional character, a creation of Stieg Larsson, and a brilliant one at that. A hacker with a photographic memory and little use for other people, this young, anarchic woman is the heroine in Larsson's Millennium trilogy, in which she fights to the death with intelligence agents, the police, her father and her half-brother. But Salander also wreaked havoc on the lives of Larsson and Gabrielsson.
Gabrielsson has to smoke a cigarette now. She lived with Larsson for 32 years. Together, they moved from rural northern Sweden to Stockholm. Larsson was a moderately successful journalist who, at some point, began to write a crime novel. He invented a few characters, but they all seemed too virtuous for his taste. Most were the kinds of characters he would have encountered in his surroundings, little more than extensions of his real life. But Salander was his inspiration, the product of his fantasy, and she became a third party in the relationship.
When Larsson felt pleased with a chapter, he would give it Gabrielsson to read. He became increasingly confident in the crime story, until he eventually said that he had 10 books in his head about Salander and the insanity she encounters. But then he died. One day when the elevator in his building was out of order, Larsson had to climb the 197 steps to his office. He had a heart attack when he reached the top. He had just turned 50.
Shortly before his death, Larsson had submitted the third volume in the trilogy to his publisher Norstedts, but not a single book had yet been printed. Today more than 63 million copies of the Millennium trilogy have been sold.
Death carries great power. It was probably inevitable that the small world in the small country of Sweden in which Eva, Stieg, their friends and Stieg's family had lived for so many years would fall apart in an instant. The explosion didn't happen immediately, but only after the Millennium trilogy had become a global success. Gabrielsson describes the effects of Larsson's death and of the millions generated by his books in her own book, "'There Are Things I want You to Know' About Stieg Larsson and Me," which will be released in German translation next week.
The book is based on the diary she kept after Larsson's death. She was in the central Swedish city of Falun on that day, Nov. 9, 2004. By the time she arrived at the hospital, it was too late. It was a death without goodbyes, and she remained shaken by it for a long time, during which she was in therapy. Her book conveys her efforts to regain control over her life, and it contains many moving passages. But Gabrielsson aims to achieve more than that with this book. She wanted to examine what actually happened during that time, she says. After this point in the conversation, her quietly spoken sentences are peppered with a few strong words that tolerate no objections, words like truth, justice, human rights and core values.
Blood Trumps Love
Gabrielsson and Larsson weren't just a couple, but also a leftist action group. First they were Maoists and then Trotskyists, voicing their criticism of the Swedish welfare state from a leftist point of view. She was an architect, while he worked for a news agency. They managed to make ends meet, and had no children. Like many Swedes of their generation, they were anti-bourgeois.
In their social circle, while couples may have been monogamous, they didn't marry. But under Swedish law, a member of an unmarried couple doesn't inherit anything from his or her deceased partner, no matter how long the couple was together. Blood trumps love, unless a will exists, but Larsson hadn't written one. For that reason, the rapidly growing proceeds from the sale of the books and the film rights went to two biological relatives, Larsson's father Erland (his mother Vivianne is dead) and his younger brother Joakim. "The money went to us, but we didn't ask for it," says Erland Larsson, 76. They could have turned down the inheritance, but that wasn't what they wanted.
The father and the brother still live in northern Sweden, in a city called Umea. The father occasionally visited his son in Stockholm and tried to convince him to get married, but the son only laughed at his father's suggestion. The brothers, Stieg and Joakim, were not close and rarely saw each other.
After Larsson's death, when his novels suddenly became such a huge success, the widow who isn't a widow under the law sat down with Erland and Joakim Larsson to discuss what should happen next. An agreement seemed possible. But then attorneys took over the case, and an inheritance war ensued -- one in which the Stieg Larsson fan community has participated extensively.
The inheritance dispute is being waged publicly. It culminated when Gabrielsson and Joakim Larsson went on Swedish television to explain their respective positions on the dispute. The widow, invoking a higher form of justice, said that the money had made the two Larssons greedy. Joakim Larsson defended his right to the inheritance and, in his modesty, came across as likeable.
A Moral Legacy
The lives of the Larssons in Umea have changed very little. They haven't bought any new houses or new cars. They've established a foundation and support projects that fit Stieg Larsson's image. They offered Gabrielsson a portion of the assets and a seat on the foundation board of directors several times, but she refused to agree to a compromise.
Almost eight years have passed since Stieg Larsson's death. One would think it would be enough time to resolve the dispute. No, says 58-year-old Gabrielsson, there is no peace in sight, nor is there a bridge between the parties or even a mediator. Death and money, she says, bring out of people's true character. She explains what she means in her book. One day, Stieg's brother proposed that she marry his father so that she could gain access to the Millennium treasure, she writes. A marriage of convenience, he was quick to add.
Joakim Larsson, 55, says it was a joke, an attempt to relieve tension during a difficult meeting with the attorneys.
Gabrielsson argues that it isn't about all the money, but about Larsson's moral legacy. She insists that she knows best who Stieg Larsson really was and what he intended to achieve with his books. If she is to be excluded from the material side of his inheritance, she says, at least she wants to retain the right to interpret his work.
She says that she finds it strange that she is now expected to share Stieg Larsson with millions of readers who have formed an image of Larsson as a writer that has little to with Stieg, her soul mate. Readers see him as the inventor of a fantastic story filled with horrific murders and depraved people, a story that keeps coming back to Lisbeth Salander's life story. Everything else, the right-wing conspiracy among intelligence agents, the flood of prostitution and corruption, merely serves as the glaring background to the story. Crime novels are entertainment, a venue for good to prevail over evil, nothing more.
Gabrielsson says that the real Stieg Larsson was concerned about injustice in society, both in life and in his books, about truth between people and about solving the crimes that men commit against women. All three books were originally supposed to be titled "Men Who Hate Women." It was Larsson's wish, but one that his publisher, Norstedts, did not fulfill.
Larsson's main character, Salander, isn't a victim. She is a furious woman, a warrior who strikes back with the same brutality she was forced to endure. She is no victim, but rather a perpetrator, a character in a grim world who is turned into something mythical.
Real Author in Question
Who was Stieg Larsson? What did he want? And did he even write his books himself? Many legends have arisen in the years since his death, and Gabrielsson has contributed to some of them.
As a journalist, the real Stieg Larsson was not a great writer. He was saddled with the reputation of not being able to write at all, and it was the blemish of his life. He worked in layout at a press agency for 20 years. He added graphics, sidebars and similar secondary material to articles others had written. On the side, he also wrote selected reviews of new crime novels or new science fiction books, but that was the exception. When he wanted to switch jobs and become one of the editors at the agency, his boss turned him down, saying that writing just wasn't his thing.
Later on, he became one of the founders of Expo, a small leftist publication devoted to the fight against right-wing extremism. Larsson's strength was in research, and his knowledge about neo-Nazis in Scandinavia was encyclopedic. And this was the Stieg Larsson who was supposed to have written the multilayered, sensationally successful trilogy?
When he was dead and his books became successful, a few of Larsson's friends gave interviews and others wrote books, all claiming that they had no knowledge of Larsson's literary skills and wondering who the real author was. Some suspected it was Gabrielsson. She had co-authored a number of books about urban planning and was considered the more intellectual of the two.
Soon she too was giving interviews that attracted attention. She never claimed directly that she had written the books or even played a major role in co-writing them, but she did drop elaborate hints that her part in the books had not been insignificant at all. It sounded as if she had been Larsson's ghostwriter.
These interviews are embarrassing to Gabrielsson today. She says that she constantly discussed the progress of the book project with Stieg. In fact, she says, they were so close that there were times when she didn't know which of them had expressed a new thought. After Larsson's death, says Gabrielsson, she found notes for other projects that she believed were his, but with her name at the bottom.
A Fourth Book?
Gabrielsson finds the struggle over interpretation difficult, because it is also a struggle to survive. "When I lost him, a huge part of me was lost with him," she writes in her book.
She fought against despair with a ritual that she describes in her book. She found it in the "Edda," an ancient Norse collection of epics. It describes a curse, a "Nid," against one's enemies. A stake with the head of a horse impaled on it is rammed into the ground, with the head pointing in the direction of the mortal enemy.
On a New Year's Eve night, Gabrielsson went with a group of friends to the tip of Stockholm's Reimersholme island, where, in the torchlight, she read a long Nid she had written for the "Evil, sly, (and) cowardly": "You who think yourselves above others/You who lead them to misfortune and death."
Larsson planned to write 10 books about Salander's adventures. When he collapsed in his office, he was carrying his laptop in his backpack. There are still many rumors on that laptop, which has become famous because the hard drive allegedly contains the almost complete fourth volume, which Larsson had been working on during the last few weeks of his life. The laptop went with him to the hospital, where Gabrielsson allegedly had it in her hands.
And where is it now? Gabrielsson says that she doesn't want to talk about it.
But will she?
Oh no, says Gabrielsson, she has changed her mind about that. "Stieg is dead. There are three books. We should leave it at that."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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