Friday, August 28, 2009

Stieg Larsson — debut novelist

Two of the rare measured comments I've read about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo suggested that Stieg Larsson wrote too much like the journalist he was and that, like many another first-time novelist, he wrote long.

I liked the comments because they humanized the man behind the astonishing Larsson phenomenon. Once you start becoming the focus of conspiracy theories and notorious court cases (in Europe) and once your books start getting displayed next to volumes about Michael Jackson (in Philadelphia), calm discussion starts looking for its coat, making its excuses, and glancing nervously at the door.

So I regard with affection what I take to be traces of the first-time novelist in the first two hundred or so pages of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. One such trace is the occasional wordiness in routine exposition. Ordinarily I don't like that sort of thing; here, it made Larsson seem more human.

But I especially liked co-protagonist Mikael Blomkvist's rants against his fellow financial journalists, and I take Blomkvist as a stand-in for Larsson. Here are two examples:

"In the last 20 years, Swedish financial journalists had developed into a group of incompetent lackeys who were puffed up with self-importance and who had no record of thinking critically."
and

"The article was written by a columnist who had previously worked for Monopoly Financial Magazine ... who cheerfully ridiculed anyone who felt passionate about any issue or who stuck their neck out. ... The writer was not known for espousing a single conviction of his own."
If that's a first-time novelist failing to separate himself from his character, so be it. Those passages are fun, and that's what reading is for.

(Stieg Larsson's English translator, Steven T. Murray [a.k.a. Reg Keeland], will be a member of my panel on crime fiction and translation at Bouchercon 2009.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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26 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Once you start becoming the focus of conspiracy theories and notorious court cases (in Europe) and once your books start getting displayed next to volumes about Michael Jackson (in Philadelphia), calm discussion starts looking for its coat, making its excuses, and glancing nervously at the door.

I love this sentence. What a great use of personification.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Larissa Kyzer said...

Thanks for this observation. I hadn't considered it before, but you're right--Larsson's impassioned, yet often very novice writing style does a lot to demystify him in the midst of his posthumous celebrity.

Is Steven T. Murray translating the last installment of the trilogy into English? I thought that Reg Keeland was Larsson's primary English translator.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

A mystery discussion group I'm in selected _The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo_ several months ago. I hadn't realized that he was becoming newsworthy in his own right.

Just what are the conspiracy theories emerging about him? Do you have a good site for reviewing these?

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I don't know the theories. I did read a reference to a book about an alleged conspiracy theory involcing Larsson's early death. I had not heard of the book's being published in English. The language may have been french or Italian.

The real headlines have come from the struggle my Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson's longtime girlfriend, to claim
a share of his inheritance. Swedish law apparently does not recognize any such thing as common-law spouses when it comes to inheritance law. There may be some irony in this, as a short passage in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo holds forth against women's former lack of recognition under Swedish corporate practice..

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Loren. Once one starts writing, the personification just keeps on coming. It helps that I get nervous in the presence of nuts and pontificators.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Larissa, Reg Keeland and Steven T. Murray are one and the same. (McKinley Burnett, translator of Karin Alvtegen's novel Shadow, is another alias.) They're all the same person, and Steven. T. Murray is his real name. He has also translated Larsson's third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Ok, thanks. I was just curious. I had heard a little about the problems his girlfriend was having.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Larissa Kyzer said...

Thanks, Peter. I had no idea that Steven T. Murray had a pseudonym, let alone several. I have been aware of his work for some time--he's translated such a wonderful variety of novels--but now it seems I owe even more of my reading pleasure to his translations.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

I have always seen Larsson as very human and never regarded his novels as flawless literature. What is new about them is Lisbeth Salander, and perhaps that he does not care too much about realism and credibility (so critics who reject the books because Lisbeth´s hacking abilities are too much have, I think, missed a point).

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Larsson's commentary about Swedish financial journalists is largely true of their American counterparts. Nearly every article I've read in the business pages of my newspapers over the past 20 years has addressed its readers as though they were investors first and workers second.

CEOs have been routinely glorified in the financial press (Jack Welch great!) even as they took axes to their workforces. The papers stopped employing reporters whose main beat was labor a long long time ago (arguably understandable, I suppose, because labor unions have had a diminishing role in American worklife over the past thirty years).

I probably nodded to myself as I read that passage and just went on, rather than stopping to think about it.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, the inheritance case is a cause celebre. I believe a Web site has been set to collect money for the girlfriend, and I think she or someone else is writing a book about the case.

Like other observers, I was surprised that liberal, progressive Sweden would lack provision for unmarried partners in the case of someone who died without a will. I have read that Larsson deliberately refrained from naming Gabrielsson in a will because are public record, and he wanted no trail linking her to him because he was a target of hate groups. It's an interesting case.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Larissa, a Wikipedia article on Steven T. Murray includes a partial list of his translations, some in collaboration with Tiina Nunnally, who is his wife. It’s quite a list. You can keep track of his recent work on his blog.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, I long resisted reading Larsson because of the hype. Along the way, I read lots of nonsense about him, both pro and con. Maybe readers in the Nordic countries knew about him before the hype grew to such unmanageable proportions.

As for Salander, look for my next post.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're dead on, Linkmeister. My theory is that most business journalists don't understand their subject and are happy to let corporations speak for them. As for modern CEO worship in America, that goes back to Lee Iacocca. And damn, it's much more glamorous for a reporter to write about high-flying, money-pushing CEO superstars than about working men and women.

Even knowledgeable, critical business journalists tend to consider labor only in the abstract, as just one in an array of issues that face business. But generally, I'd say business journalism in America is a mouthpiece of business.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

What astonishes me most is all these putative journalists' inability to recognize and then write about investment bubbles. They missed the dot-com bubble and then turned right around and missed the housing bubble.

Then they wrote credulous stories about the borrowers being at fault in the sub-prime mortgage business, rather than the unscrupulous mortgage brokers who sold terrible loans to the financially-unsophisticated people who just wanted homes.

Sure, there were some people who knew they were getting in over their heads, but when ARMs that reset at 5 points higher were sold as mortages with locked-in rates, then it wasn't the buyer at fault.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

The Stieg Larsson phenomenon is yet to happen in Mumbai bookstores, but I'll definitely keep a watch, the title of the book is absolutely delicious. And his fictional attack on journalists is so direct!

We are still getting introduced to Asa Larsson (I know, no relation, but are they from the same country?) here.

And I agree with Loren, that was a very good use of personification.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Apropos of financial columnists, I have heard the skeptical question "Have you ever met a rich financial columnist?"

The first suggestion I read -- and it came after the housing bubble, which makes it less impressive than it might otherwise have been -- came from, you guessed it, Barney Frank.

I wonder how many Pulitzer prizes have been won for financial reporting.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sucharita, Åsa Larsson is, indeed, Swedish, as was Stieg Larsson. I read and recommended one of her novels, Sun Storm (Released in the UK as The Savage Altar).

I believe we have discussed the subject of English-language mysteries in India briefly. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is such a phenomenon in so many places that I'm mildly surprised to hear it hasn't found its way to Mumbai. For that matter, how much European and American crime fiction is available in India in languages other than English?

A more experienced novelist might have made his attack less direct than Stieg Larsson did, but Larsson's way is invigorating. I like to think I would feel the same way even if I were not a journalist myself.

Thanks for your compliment. You are grace personified.

August 28, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I don't know about anyone else here, but the events of the last year have made me rethink the whole notion of 'experts', financial or otherwise. There are several large castes of people who I think we thought knew better than we did, by virtue of their expertise, but either they were not able to see things that should have been obvious to them--like making dubious loans, for instance--or seeing them, chose to ignore them. I can't say how many times I've watched some news program in the last year or so, and heard of some shenanigans with enormous financial consequences, which any ordinary person with an average endowment of common sense would have seen right through if they'd been asked, or trusted their own sense of the world.

v word=upgame

August 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, would not "downgame" have been a more appropriate v-word?

Good god, I wouldn't mind all this chastening, retrospective wisdom if only I could be satisfied that it was entirely retrospective. Somehow the phrase "sadder but wiser" comes to mind, though someone ought to odd "poorer" to that.

No, wait, This is America. Pessimism is verboten here.

August 29, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

I'm surprised at Sweden also, since they seem to have a propensity for lecturing others from a position of moral superiority.

I had heard from someone else the reason why he left her out of his will. As it turned out, he probably would have been wiser to have put her in, and there possible would have been less fuss in the news in comparison to the present situation.

August 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think Americans assume Sweden's moral superiority without needing to be lectured. In any case, those Americans may not have read Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö or Stieg Larsson.

August 30, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Or Henning Mankell?

August 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mankell, too, I suppose, but none of the books of his that I've read is as fired by righteous indignation as is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

As I'm going to read Dragon Tattoo in a month or so, I'll let you know what I think.

I don't think I remember much righteous indignation in Mankell, but more sadness and dismay at the way Sweden was changing.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's probably an accurate recollection of Mankell. But Larsson, while he can tell a good story, was a campaigner, too, notably against financial abuses and lickspittle financial journalists. He's probably better known for his righteous anger about violence against women, but that is not as much to the fore in the first book as I think it is in the second.

August 31, 2009  

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