Understanding Swedish society through Stieg Larsson's popular fiction

Blockbusters might not be great literature but they shape how we see the world

As they were in the age of Dickens and Victor Hugo, blockbusters with a social message are fashionable. They've become the way we adults, wearied by health reforms, or banking crashes, formulate our views about the world.

We may not grasp the niceties of Obama's health care reform; but we can comprehend the crazed behaviour of Sergeant McNulty in The Wire, who invents a serial killer to draw attention to his police unit, so starved of cash are Baltimore's finest. Spoilsports will say that there is a price to be paid if you immerse yourself in popular fiction, entering its delusory worlds. But why do we bother reading (or watching) such copious inventions if they don’t in some not always definable way alter the world around us?

These thoughts are prompted by weeks of immersion in the contemporary Sweden depicted by Stieg Larsson in the course of his three best-selling 600-page novels. These books have sold many millions of copies, and recently, after due silence on the part of highbrow critics, received the accolade of the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, who said they reminded him of the moment when as a child he sat down to read books like The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas. Good novels, Vargas Llosa suggested, needn’t always be perfect. This was a tactful, literary man's way of saying that Stieg's work wasn't exactly literature, but nonetheless something better than a good read.

Stieg Larsson's books were never meant to be, works of literature. But they do display many miracles of plot construction. They are irresistible, despite the flatpack, Scandlish prose and the fact that nothing in them is ever described, only enumerated, methodically and often with pedantry. And they do restore my faith - not in the powers of literature, which has never waned, but in the potential of journalism, which they chronicle lovingly, and in great detail, with a period nostalgia for the great scoop.

It's easy to feel these days that the bad are never punished, so high is the quota of stupidity or malignity in the world. In a simple, old-fashioned way, Larson's reporter hero Mikhail Blomkvist pursues the wicked with the energy of a Tintin. But a combination of Larsson's story-telling genius, and his own, strongly-held leftish views have has enabled him to outdo Herge. Where the chilly Belgian cartoonist, protestations notwithstanding, wrote boys' comic books, Larsson has created a wholly believable fantasy book for adults which also expresses a coherent view of how the world, if we so wanted, might be.

Stieg Larsson was born in northern Sweden, and it's clear that he remained a very unmetropolitan, unclubbable figure, like his chic-averse hero. He was fond of such Swedish working class pursuits as drinking beer and watching football, and not excessively sociable. He was also a science fiction addict. After a spell as a graphic designer he edited the Swedish Trotskyist magazine. I talked to Larsson a few times, when he was editor of the anti-racist magazine Expo, which he founded, modelled on the British Searchlight, for which he wrote. I was making a film about the far right in Europe, curious about what he described as its pervasiveness in correct, democratic Sweden.

Larsson seemed nice and unassuming, and he was certainly a very good reporter as well as a dedicated campaigner. He really didn't seem to care that his name was on every race hate site in Europe, and I found this admirable. His death after a heart attack at the age of fifty, months after handing the manuscripts of these books to a publisher, seems not to have surprised his friends, who were awed by his energy, his ability to do without sleep and his unScandinavian over-consumption of caffeine, cigarettes and junk food.

In Stockholm, I went to the spare offices of Expo, where I talked with his successor Daniel Poohl, who was youngish, nervous-looking, seated at a lap top behind security doors. Larsson's friends seemed surprised by the sheer success of the books, and by the writing skills.

"Stieg didn’t like posh literature, anything like that," Poohl said. "And he read lots of British crime fiction. You never got to see what he’d written, and he’d just say that it was pleasure for him, and would pay for his retirement." When I asked about the connexion between Expo, Stieg's day job, and the Millennium magazine of the books, Poohl laughed. "Sometimes I wish he'd spent as much time on Expo as he must have done on his imaginary magazine."

Friends were reluctant to talk about the many millions earned from the books, which as a consequence of Swedish law passed not to his long-term partner Eva Gabrielsson, but to his father and brother, leading to an ugly lawsuit. "Of course Stieg didn’t make a proper will, journalists don't do things like that," one of them said. "The whole episode is out of one of his novels - deplorable but somehow inevitable."

Stieg may indeed, as his friends believe, have written the books as a diversion from the stern work of identifying neo-nazis; but his view of the world is conveyed through the remarkable character of Lisbeth Salander, the punkish, abused, bisexual borderline autistic, sociopath-seeming computer hacker. Scandinavians tell me that she's a feminist icon modelled on the children's book heroine Pippi Longstocking. Salander accompanies Mikhail on his adventures, snapping at his heels when he goes wrong, and wandering off on her own when the fantasy takes her. You realize how central she is to the action by the third volume, which she dominates by her presence offstage, in a hospital bed and a prison cell. Her trial on charges of assault and attempted murder is a setpiece of dramatic writing. It is wholly effective despite the fact that the reader cannot be in any illusion about the outcome. In real-life, abused women don't usually fight back, destroying their abusers. Salander makes you believe that they should do.

I know some enthusiastic readers who find the violence in the novels excessive - for instance, the anal rape to which Salander is subjected in the first book by her pervert guardian, and the harassment she receives at the hands of male policemen. Larsson's title for the book (in Britain it was more conventionally renamed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) was Men Who Hate Women. He did believe in the linkage between repressed male violence and right-wing politics. Such men (and that there are many of them, in positions of power, everywhere in the world) do indeed hate women.

Larsson's books have sold more than 15 million copies to date. In the United States, Stieg's first book topped the best seller lists; and in Spain and France, they've outsold domestic competitors. In Denmark, 1.3 milion copies have been sold - which means that around one sixth of the population must have bought one. A film of the first book broke box office records throughout Scandinavia, and is to be released in Britain next year. These figures, staggering as they are, mean that one must now read the books with the knowledge that many millions must somehow have been affected by them.

In December, vetted by the censors, the first volume goes on sale in China, raising the interesting question of what citizens oppressed by the Chinese Communist party will make of the evils of social democratic Sweden.

Are Stieg's books at all truthful about Scandinavian society? What do they really tell us about the contemporary world? In relation to such queries, Swedes seem non-plussed, bemused. But a refrain emerged from my conversations at summer crayfish parties and editors' offices. It runs like this. Like any other society, Sweden has its own illusions, most of which are attacked in the books. In Sweden, as elsewhere in the world, the poser of money has proved overpowering. With their narcissistic sense of being the last progressives, intent on defending the cherished model of social equality, Swedes feel the change keenly.

The first book covers this terrain adroitly, through the double plot of a financial conspiracy to which Blomkvist is initially a prey as a consequence of entrapment, serving time in prison for libel, and the story of the Vangers, an old-style, Bergmanish family fallen on evil times, and with many guilty secrets.

"Stieg viewed aristocrats sentimentally,” a Swedish aristo friend said. "They are duller and nastier. But he uses them to show how greedy everyone is now in Sweden."

A second Swedish illusion is centred around the country’s attachment to high-minded neutrality, and this is given a good duffing-up from Stieg in the second volume, in which Salander’s father is revealed to be a psycho ex-KGB agent who defected, and whose identity the Swedish equivalent of MI6 have concealed in order to sell secrets to the West during the Cold War. Power does triumph here over ideals, and the possession of secrets, Larsson implies, confers special power in the most apparently open of democracies.

The third and most important Swedish illusion is that the State is somehow moral, representing the views of its citizens. This receives a pounding in the third volume The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (a much better Swedish title: The Air Castle that Blew Up). In case we hadn't guessed, Larsson tells us that civil servants in Sweden are as bad as anywhere else. They bug illegally, steal money, lie their way out of trouble, commit murder and harass the innocent. The most convincing of a gallery of villains is Dr. Teleborian, a sadistic pedophile psychiatrist with a near impregnable sense of self-regard. But there are good people, too, and in the world created by Larsson they are allowed to triumph

Larsson's propositions are well-known, but the fact that they are aired in an aseptic, modish context gives them a certain exoticism. Hypocrisy, according to these books, is a substantial national industry in Sweden. You can be surprised, intrigued even, by the prospect of so much villainy in a country in which citizens otherwise seem just to read left-wing books, visit the Konsum supermarket to buy deep pan pizza and have occasionally violent consensual sex, abetted by elaborate sex toys. (One of the least winning aspects of the books is the way in which Blomkvist, hardy in his investigations, drifts without volition and indeed much effort or conspicuous pleasure from white-sheeted Ikea bed to bed.)

There's a Stieg Larsson tour of Stockholm, and I walked from site to site in the summer sunshine, in between well-outfitted cyclists, couples pushing babies in ergonomic prams and well kitted-out elderly folk. I'd wondered at the blandness of the books, but I now found them astonishingly accurate. Blomkvist's apartment, viewed from the street, seemed a bit upmarket; but so did the working-class building in which Salander lives. So many cafes in which the protagonists hung out seemed on inspection to be images of bland, successful, rather bored contemporary Europe.

Do we care about the abuses to which women are subjected - do we even know that this happens, so familiar have the progressive mantras become? In his own life Stieg Larsson believed that we could be nudged into activism by journalism. His books show that he also thought that entertaining people was a way of bringing them over to his side.

I'm not sure that either of these propositions are entirely correct, but they did enable him to become a convincing writer as well as a popular one. Everyone should read Stieg for the quality of decency that he evokes on every page, as Orwell once did. I like to think of a Chinese Communist Party official reading Stieg, stirring restlessly in his sleep, shamed by the memory of so many women-hating, fucked up, parasitical and greedy old men. Maybe popular fiction can indeed change the world.

Nick Fraser is series editor of BBC's Storyville

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