By now, the books have acquired their own creation myth: Long-suffering investigative journalist decides to write a mystery novel (the proceeds of which he and his longtime partner plan to retire on), bangs out three lengthy volumes in two years, then, in 2004, not long after submitting the manuscripts, drops dead from too much coffee and fast food. He does not see the books become international bestsellers, nor is he around to see his partner shut out of his legacy when his father and brother claim his estate—including control over his work—for themselves.
That partner, Eva Gabrielsson, has spent the last several years fighting for the right to determine how novelist Stieg Larsson's name and work (runaway best-sellers The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest) are used. But it's not just a desire for creative control that she wants now, as she makes clear in her new memoir, which just came out in France and Sweden. (I read the French edition, Millénium, Stieg et moi; the quotes that follow are my own translations.Seven Stories Press will publish an English language edition in June.) Gabrielsson also wants something that Larsson's heroine, Lisbeth Salander, pursues throughout Larsson's Millennium series: revenge. As she writes, "For Stieg, Lisbeth was the ideal incarnation of a morality that enjoins us to act according to our convictions. A kind of biblical archangel, she is the instrument of God's Vengeance, working title of the fourth volume of the Millennium series." How's that for a teaser?
Gabrielsson fell in love with Larsson in 1972, when they were both 18. She describes their life together in moving detail, and in so doing, begins to stake her claim as the Millennium saga's rightful heir: "It was from our lives and our 32 years side by side that the books were formed," she writes. "They're the fruit of Stieg's experience, but also of mine. Of our combats, our engagements, our travels, our passions, our fears … . That's why I can't say exactly what, in Millennium, came from Stieg, and what came from me." Rumors that Larsson didn't write the books have circulated since they were first published—some have claimed he didn't have the necessary writing skills—but Gabrielsson refutes this idea. The books' abundant detail – about security systems, the white power underground, computer hacking, and Swedish political history—all trace back to the causes and interests to which Larsson and Gabrielsson had devoted their lives, she writes. The neighborhoods he describes are their neighborhoods; the cabins in Sweden's north, their vacation spots; the mathematical theorems, their obsessions.
In Gabrielsson's view, Larsson's work was his life, and his life was also her life, and now all of it has been hijacked. Moreover, as she tells it, Larsson's father and brother, Erland and Joakim, were all but estranged from Larsson and have benefitted from his work due only to a bizarre quirk of the Swedish legal system, which does not recognize common-law marriage. Their sudden interest in Larsson after his death is, she says, all about financial gain. Gabrielsson insists she doesn't care about the money, and indeed the battles she's been waging—battles that were detailed in the New York Times Magazine last year— have revolved more around control of Larsson's work than around the revenue it brings in. A key element of the ongoing dispute is a laptop containing the unfinished fourth volume of the Millennium series, which is in Gabrielsson's possession, and which the Larssons very much want in theirs.
In interviews, a stony-faced Gabrielsson has scoffed at "the Stieg industry," saying she has no desire to pander to those who obsess over what he ate for breakfast. She clearly blames Erland and Joakim for allowing Stieg's name to be commercialized to the extent that it has been. "The way things are going," she writes, "how long will it be before I see his picture on a bottle of beer, a packet of coffee, or a car?" By providing a more serious presentation of Larsson and his beliefs—which she believes has been neglected by the Stieg industry—she sees her memoir as the first step in righting a long series of wrongs. What she offers, to that end, is an intellectual, political, and personal history of their relationship and of the books. Her descriptions of the Maoist and Trotskyist political groups she and Larsson were involved with make for great reading, but it is the account of Larsson's (and by extension Lisbeth Salander's) feminism that is most fascinating. Famously, this feminism is said to have originated in a rape that he witnessed as an adolescent. Gabrielsson confirms the story, explaining that he was horrified by the way modern society ignored violence against women.
And so Larsson dreamed into existence Lisbeth Salander, an asocial young woman with a dark past, a superheroic skill for computer hacking, and a deep desire to exact revenge, both on her own abusers and on a misogynist society at large. As Gabrielsson writes, the Millennium trilogy formed a "repertoire of all the forms of violence and discrimination that women are subjected to," from physical brutality to discrimination in the workplace. And yet the ferocity of Larsson's view has sometimes been tamed as Millennium has been translated into other languages. Gabrielsson reminds us that Larsson's working title for the series was Men Who Hate Women. It survived as the title of the first volume in Sweden, though Larsson had to fight his publisher to keep it. But the French title was (after his death) watered down to Men Who Don't Like Women, and the potent violence of the original was lost entirely in the English version, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
This is just one of the things that enrages Gabrielsson. She also has issues with the ways the Millennium movies have been made and sold, and, perhaps most important, she believes the series' profits should go to causes Larsson supported. He would have wanted the majority of the books' earnings to go toward helping female victims of violence; financing Expo, the anti-fascist magazine he founded; and funding anti-fascist investigative journalists. It is this concern above all, she tells us, that propels her to fight for control over his work and its distribution.
By its end, the book is a vengeful battle cry. In one particularly incredible scene, Gabrielsson exorcises her grief and fury by performing a pagan ritual, complete with a torch and a goat's head on a spike, in which she recites a poem to the Norse gods, cursing all those who crossed Larsson in life and in death. In another, she speaks to a crow she believes has been sent to her by the god Odin and which she thinks may be an embodiment of Larsson himself. She wraps up the book by swearing not only to continue her fight for the legal right to make decisions pertaining to the ways Larsson's works and name are used and distributed, but to take revenge upon those who have wronged Larsson and herself. The phrase "a woman scorned" came to mind again and again as I read: Gabrielsson's rage is Dido-like in both its determination and its mythological breadth. Whether this is the mild eccentricity of a grieving woman with a thing for Nordic myths or a sign that she's going around the bend remains to be seen.
A final and more intriguing option, though, is that Gabrielsson is a much savvier marketer than she might admit. By so skillfully portraying the novels as the outgrowth of a life that was as much hers as it was Larsson's, she has written the perfect resume for herself: If Eva Gabrielsson practically is Stieg Larsson, who better to take up the disputed laptop and not only finish the fourth volume but write further volumes, too? And not only is she Stieg, but—wronged by an unjust, patriarchal society—she is Salander. Fans can now root for Gabrielsson, too, just as we have for Larsson's heroine.
If she ever triumphs and gets the legal authority she is seeking, who knows: Gabrielsson just may rise like an avenging angel from the ashes of Larsson's death and pay back our loyalty with the ultimate reward: More Salander, more Millennium, more Stieg Larsson novels.