By the Book: Larsson’s take on Strauss-Kahn case?

08/26/2011 11:48 AM |

Men. Women. Power. Money. Sex. Truth. These are the final winding down days of the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the alleged rape of an African hotel maid, and I keep wondering what Stieg Larsson, the journalist, would have had to say. Stieg Larsson was the author of the Millenium Trilogy — “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” — published posthumously to huge success after his death at age 50. While he was alive, he wasn’t known as a novelist. He was a crusading left-wing, feminist, anti-racist journalist who published magazine articles and books that put him under death threats from Swedish Neo-Nazi groups. He had spent a year in Africa training female guerrillas how to use rocket launchers. He had strong feelings about sexual violence toward women. He might have had something interesting to say about the Strauss-Kahn story.

Now that he’s dead and can’t say anything at all, there are two new books out about him: “Stieg Larsson, Our Days in Stockholm: A Memoir of a Friendship” by Kurdo Baksi and “ ‘There Are Things I Want You to Know’ About Stieg Larsson and Me” by Eva Gabrielsson, his life companion of 32 years. It is interesting how slippery word portraits are when they try to describe a person. Photographs taken by different people, in different lighting, at different ages, all are somehow believable as describing the same person. Written accounts by best friends, colleagues, girlfriends, seem to be better at describing the writer of the account than the subject.

I feel I know quite a lot about Kurdo Baksi and Eva Gabrielsson, who seem like perfectly decent people, although neither is a particularly gifted writer or original thinker. Neither seems to be writing a book that they are internally compelled to write. They have written books that will sell because the subject is of interest, and they have written books that champion their own sides of the story.

Eva’s is more compelling because she was Stieg’s lover for most of their lives, although you really don’t get much of an understanding of how their domestic and romantic life functioned on a day-to-day basis. He wrote her a love letter when he was 22 and returning from a near-death experience in Africa. She says he usually cooked dinner for her. Kurdo says his friend couldn’t cook at all. Kurdo says Stieg suffered from terrible insomnia and hardly slept. Which would explain how he managed to hold down a full-time job for money, work at least an equivalent of full time doing his own investigative reporting, editing and publishing, while reading voraciously both science fiction and murder mysteries, and last but not least, actually writing three, four, maybe five long novels.

Eva would have us believe that they slept together, although she really doesn’t give us any sense of the physical intimacy between them. She’s Swedish and shy and I’m not asking for prurient details, but I am curious. There is plenty of sex in his novels, of all sorts, described with great accuracy. If he was committed to Eva since they met at 18, were they each other’s only sexual partners? It seems highly unlikely, but there is no conflicting or corroborating information in either of these nonfiction books.

One story that both tell is that Stieg related a terrible event that happened when he was 15 years old. He was close by when three of his friends raped a girl they all knew, and he did nothing to stop it. A few days later he went to the girl and apologized for his inaction, but she would not forgive him and said he was just like the others. It’s a curious story, one that he tells about himself, one that “explains” both his political writing and his fiction. When will some investigative reporter go up to northern Sweden and try to find the people involved, or some other witnesses? Is this a true story or a story that a novelist might tell a few people to illuminate some deep truth about himself but that a journalist who respected truth would never write down or publish? In the book about honor killings that he co-wrote with Cecilia Englund, he says, “The cultural and anthropological models used to explain these tragedies speak to the form of oppression involved but do not explain it. And so in India, women are set on fire: they are murdered in the name of honor in Sicily: they are beaten up on Saturday night in Sweden … Yet culture does not explain why women all over the world are murdered, mutilated, mistreated by men.”

This was a problem he set out to understand and solve in different ways, and the sad thing is that he had only completely finished three of the planned 10 books of the series, whose working title was “The Men Who Hate Women,” when he died. If only he were still around and working, we would have more complicated books, whether mysteries like “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” police procedurals like “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” political thrillers like “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” or nonfiction exposés about honor killings or hate crimes. He would be even closer to being the grown-up embodiment of both his childhood literary heroes, Pippi Longstocking and Kalle Blomkvist, characters invented by Astrid Lindgren and beloved by children all over the world, just as his own characters Lizbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are admired and beloved by adult readers all over the world for their courage against injustice.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.