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Hardly a biography ...
on 23 April 2010
I had high hopes when I first opened Barry Forshaw's biography of Stieg Larsoon, not least the hope that it would enable me to know more about the author of the best selling Millennium Trilogy. This hope was, however, shattered very early on. Forshaw's book is not strictly a biography of Larsson (though it does contain a biographical interlude at the beginning of the book). Rather it is a book about the Millennium Trilogy and the part Larsson has played as its author - the book remains (and its franchise) remains the main focus of the book, Larsson's life remains merely an interlude to the main action.
What biographical detail there is in Forshaw's book is dealt with fairly swiftly, at the beginning of the book. We are given a brief outline of the trajectory of his life as a journalist and of the controversy which has surrounded his legacy as an author. However, the biographical detail is merely a sketch, designed to give an outline of his life, with no colour or detail. We are told, for instance that Larsson enjoyed his period of National Service, but are given no details of what form his service took or why he enjoyed it so much. We are also told that his relationship with his immediate family was not close, but no why it was not so. Such missed opportunities mean that we do not get a full picture of who Larsson was, just an impression and one that is subservient to his role as author of the Trilogy. It is, however, interesting to note that for Forshaw, Blomkvist (in particular his work ethic), can be viewed as Larsson writing himself as a charecter in his novel, and that he services as an image of how Larsson saw himself. Indeed, Larsson seems to have written himself into the text through Blomkvist. It would be unfair, however, to say that Blomkvist is Larsson, he is not, it is more a case of art imitating life. One could also argue that we learn more about Larsson from the Trilogy (via Blomkvist) than we do from Forshaw.
As I noted above, this is a book about the Millennium Trilogy not Larsson. It deals with the Trilogy's franchise/ merhcandise - its reception in the UK/US and its translation from Swedish into English. The Trilogy itself is something of a zeitgeist novel - one which captures the popular imagination, and therefore the bestsellers lists. Other novels in this category include the Harry Potter novels (with their meta-narrative - Christian ethos) or the Dan Brown novels (with their emphasis on Gnostic knowledge/ secret histories). For the Trilogy, its meta-narrative(s) focus on women's' rights, the rights of the voiceless in Swedish society, human trafficking and Nordic fascism are all grist to Larsson's mill. (These are, of course, interests of Larsson - an anti-fascist, feminist socialist and investigative journalist, someone who had links with the far-left and the anti-fascist 'Searchlight Foundation' and magazine in the UK.)
A good portion (almost two thirds) of the book is a retelling of the three Millennium novels, working through the finer details of the novels and reading between the lines to further explore and expand our knowledge of the books. To my mind, this retelling is somewhat superfluous, especially when one is looking for a biography of Larsson. For those who have already read the Trilogy, a further retelling may serve as a diversion away from the main question, 'Just who was Larsson? What made him tick? And what caused him to write the Trilogy?' and perhaps most importantly of all 'What is it about the Trilogy that has captured the attention of so many readers, not just in Northern Europe, but also Britain and increasingly the US?' (Questions which remain unanswered by this book.)
What the book does do is throw up some interesting ideas which may not have occurred to the casual reader of the Trilogy. In particular the thesis that in Blomkvist and Salander, the traditional literary roles usually ascribed to male and female charecters, have been reversed. Salander takes on the traditional male roles (of thoughtful strength) more Blomkvist the female roles (he is impulsive, promiscuous - almost every girl falls for him and he uses this and them to his advantage). By challenging and reversing these traditional roles, and by turning them on their head, Larsson demonstrates his feminist credentials to good effect. (It is also refreshing to see this happen and I applaud Forshaw for highlighting this fact, which whilst obvious when highlighted, might otherwise have gone unnoticed.)
Forshaw places the book within the context of Swedish literature, e.g. that of Henning Mankell. (Though one will have to look to other sources to understand who 'Pippi Longstocking' is and how she relates to Salander/ Blomkvist.) Again, Salander is described as being 'Sociopathic' (which makes sense in the context of the novels) but is not explored in any great detail giving the impression of supposition without supporting evidence. There is a good book here, and it has to be said that Forshaw is a very engaging writer, but it is also a book that needs expanding (and building upon). More importantly, there is a need for a good biography of Larsson in English (Kurdo Baski's biography of Larsson is due to be published in September 2010, but Forshaw has already cast doubt on the veracity of what Baski has written his own book.) Unfortunately this is not that biography, better wait to Sept 2010 to see what Baski's one brings.