Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In Stieg Larsson's Footsteps by Barry Forshaw

Barry Forshaw, British critic and author, guest blogs today about the changes he has made for the paperback of The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Life and Works of Stieg Larsson

Barry Forshaw has written for the Independent, the Express, The Times and Publishing News. He edits the fiction review Crime Time. He has acted as a judge for the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger He is the author of  Rough Guide to Crime Fiction; British Crime Film; Scandinavian Crime Fiction; Italian Cinema; The Encyclopedia of British Crime Writing; Directory of World Cinema, Film Noir;  Stieg Larsson: Life and Works

In Stieg Larsson’s Footsteps by Barry Forshaw
Well, the paperback has appeared – and my teeth are gritted. Writing the first book about Stieg Larsson, The Man Who Left Too Soon (there is a slew of such books now in the slips), I knew I was stepping into the lion’s den – a great many people have taken the late writer to their hearts, and are very, very proprietorial. Fiercely so! Earlier books I’d done, such as The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction and the British Crime Writing Encyclopedia had provoked some debate (mostly about the inevitable non-inclusions for space reasons), but the debate this time was different – I realised I had to prove to Stiegians that I’d done the bulk of the interviews. So for the paperback, I put back in the personal pronouns I’d originally omitted for every interview I'd done myself – which were a hell of a lot. (I spoke to many key players in the Stieg orbit – something I’d been doing from the first commission I had -- for The Times -- when the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was just starting to blossom). Still, as Roosevelt said, if you can’t stand the heat, etc. – so I’m sanguine about the response to the paperback. Particularly as it's rather a different book from the hardback.

For the paperback I’ve changed and updated a great deal (though Larsson-related events still seem to occur daily, and any cut-off point is arbitrary). Inevitably, with any phenomenon (such as the phenomenon the posthumous success of Stieg Larsson has become) there is something of a backlash, and as sales records continue to be broken by the Millennium Trilogy on an almost daily basis, it was perhaps inevitable that the Stieg naysayers would become more vocal -- and almost from the beginning (that is to say, with the publication outside Sweden of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), there have been those who have dissented from the enthusiastic chorus of approval the work of the late author has enjoyed. Interestingly, the bursts of negativity are very different from that accorded to other highly successful (but not critically highly regarded) authors such as Dan Brown and Jeffrey Archer; with these writers, it is almost a badge of honour among clued-in readers to mention reservations about the writing when discussing the impressive sales of these authors, but no such knee-jerk reaction may be found in most book club (or other literary) conversations about Stieg Larsson. His reputation as a ‘literary’ writer – along with that of a popular thriller writer -- persists (possibly due to two factors: firstly, that most readers continue to regard translated Scandinavian fiction as being more ‘worthwhile’ or ‘ambitious’ than more obviously mass-market fare; and, secondly, the cachet that undoubtedly came from Larsson's publication in the UK via the highly respected UK literary publisher Christopher MacLehose). Nevertheless, any admirer of Larsson will have encountered the phenomenon whereby any discussion of the Millennium Trilogy is quickly followed up with a remark from at least one participant along the lines of: 'But don't you think he's rather overrated?’ Such dissenting voices, however, are showing not the slightest sign of denting the author’s ever-growing posthumous popularity, and certainly the details of the author's life and the disputes over his estate seem to throw up new stories and revelations at least once a week. What’s more, these stories are reported in the national press of most western countries on the news pages of important newspapers, rather than being consigned to the ghetto of the books pages.

Several revelations concerning Stieg Larsson were to make dramatic appearances in 2010. According to Susan Donaldson James of ABC News, one of the most unsettling incidents in The Girl Who Played With Fire had an equally disturbing real-life antecedent. Readers who remember the scene in which two men bind and rape a young prostitute who has been co-opted into a sex trafficking ring will have noted it as an example of the author’s rigorous and unsparing attitude towards a certain kind of male sexuality. But Kurdo Baksi (who, of course, worked with the late author) revealed the fact that at the age of 15, the author witnessed a gang rape committed by people he knew, and he refused to intervene. Sometime later, Larsson, suffering agonies of guilt, pleaded with the girl to forgive him for his inaction, but she declined.

Larsson’s reading of American fiction was prodigious, and if this is a truthful relating of an incident that really happened in the author's life, it is nevertheless strongly reminiscent of a similarly gruelling scene in the classic novel by the American writer Nelson Algren, Never Come Morning, in which the too-pliable hero similarly allows a gang rape by friends to take place without doing anything to stop it. In the incident in which Larsson was involved, there are elements which were to leave a mark on him for the rest of his life. These elements begin with the fact that the girl was named Lisbeth -- the name, of course, which the author was to grant to his much-abused heroine. According to Baksi, Larsson’s moral desertion over the incident left a mark on him for the rest of his life, and was one of the engines for the writing of his novels. Baksi has apparently been making attempts to track down the real victim of the rape and has his own passionate desire to avenge the incident in some way. He puts down Larsson’s inability to act at the time to the fact that he was both young and insecure, and that his loyalty to his friends was a key factor in stopping him from acting in the way he should have. Obviously, the later shameful impulse would come to be one of the most painful and guilt-inducing elements in the whole incident.

With these few facts and many other things, there was much to add to the text and keep the Stieg Story as intriguing as ever. Soon we’ll have the David Fincher/Daniel Craig/Rooney Mara film adaptations of the Millennium novels, which will (we are told) be very different from the Swedish films. The Stieg Larsson phenomenon clearly has quite some distance to run.

The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Life and Works of Stieg Larsson is published by John Blake

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