Asni: Multimedia Art & Design
ARTWORK OF THE MONTH: Selected drawings available on Ebay. A different selection every month!
NEW SHEET MUSIC: Huete Dances vol. 3 now available for pre-order – ships early December
NOW AVAILABLE: New Zealand Film Locations map: A3 poster * Snowflake Christmas/seasonal card * Queen Galadriel holiday card * Easter greeting cards
TREAT YOURSELF TO SOME MUSIC:
Harp sheet music store * Travels in Middle Earth CD
Asni the Harper digital downloads: CD Baby ** Amazon MP3 * iTunes
Also available: Music CDs * Sheet music * Greeting cards * New Zealand photography
- In this newsletter:
- *** Party Time
- *** News and Current Projects
- *** Cool Things Friends Do: Marily Valkijainen
- *** Acts of Love: Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" Trilogy (part 5)
The call from the Dwarf which I received last month, was about hiring me to play background music for a function at the Green Dragon, the – fully functional – inn, or catering venue, at the – now restored – Hobbiton film set. That only took 11 years! So now I am the harper who performed in New York, Berlin, London, Stockholm, Rome, and Hobbiton. Sounds good to me!
I was told there would be some of the actors at the function, but it was all very hush hush, and not entirely clear who, or how many people would be there – only that it would be a Middle-earth themed evening. Well. I'd figured that much! :D
From the amount of secrecy involved – not even the catering manager at the venue had been told who would be coming – I was half expecting to end up at an official cast and crew party with a Hollywood A-list actor or two, or something of that sort. As it turned out, it was more of a private get-together of some of the New Zealand actors who play some of the dwarves. If there was another ulterior motive for the party, I haven't been told about it.
I've been to the film set before, of course – you've seen the photos! – but not since it has been done up again for the filming of the Hobbit movies. When I did the set tour back in the very early days – 2004, I think – they were operating minivans seating about 8 people, out of the Matamata tourist information centre. The location of the actual set wasn't signposted, and there were "no trespass" notices warning people sternly not to enter the farm property on their own.
Now the tours from Matamata are operating with large tourist coaches, and the formerly modest Shire's Rest has grown into a full blown tourist site, where people can park up and buy tickets to the set directly. I wasn't allowed to have a stroll among the restored hobbit holes – only glance at them from across the Water – and sadly, the few photos I took turned out severely overexposed, because I didn't pay attention to the settings on my camera (I've tried to rescue a few of them to post on this newsletter – just in case you wondered why they have this "arty" look).
The crew at the venue was really pleasant to work with – very professional, which means they were actually helpful and friendly, unlike so many other venues I have played here in New Zealand, where one often gets the impression that a live musician is just a spot of bother who gets in the way of the catering crew. They were quite thrilled to see a real live harpist – one guy came up and asked modestly if he would be allowed to touch the harp, did a quick glissando, and declared that he was now a happy person. Well, if it takes that little ... Another young man even volunteered to carry my amplifier! That's got to be a first.
The dinner party itself consisted largely of the invited guests trying to put away some truly stunning quantities of extremely lush looking food – this was cooking as visual art, one needed to see it to believe it. Hobbit style alright! I only got to look at the food, of course – being the music minion in the dark corner – but one person came up to me and expressed his appreciation, which is more than one usually gets on this kind of gig. I'd put some thought into preparing a good set list, and I'd taken along the small wire strung clarsach for some extra magic. I think it worked well – it's a great venue for this type of music, no doubt about that, and I was quite pleased with the job I'd done at the end of the night. I do hope the guests were, too!
In daylight, the re-done set looks a bit plastic – I wonder if they really put it back to how it was for the filming of Lord of the Rings, I don't remember it quite so smurfy looking. I almost preferred it in its derelict state, because it left more room for one's own imagination. But I am glad it has been restored and is now operating as a proper theme park. For all my reservations about the way the whole Hobbit franchise has been going, I do think preserving that film set and making it accessible to the public was absolutely the right thing to do.
Hobbiton at night is truly, truly magic. Especially when there is also a lunar eclipse, as there was that night! The trip was a nice break from my humdrum daily routine, and once I hit the Waikato there even was some sunshine and blue sky – unlike the south of New Zealand, which has had a very uncharacteristic spot of near constant rain and drizzle for most of the month.
I'd even managed to negotiate a halfway reasonable fee – though given that I spent a week practising up, and three days on the road, I would have made a better rate per hour in any minimum wage job. When I got there I found once again, that I was being handed a wad of cash that did somehow not include the GST on my fee, the assumption being that I am happy to make myself liable to prosecution by the tax office so that the people who hired me can save some bucks.
So now I am once again chasing up my money. It would have been the first gig I've had here in New Zealand where that wasn't the case! Well, I suppose it's better than not being paid at all (which has also happened), but that doesn't mean that this kind of systemic dishonesty and thorough lack of professional attitude sits well with me. New Zealand has a very long way to go yet fixing their attitudes toward people working in the arts and entertainment sector, if they want to style themselves a "creative economy"!
Self-importance is no substitute for integrity – and it impresses no one who is serious about the arts.
A week or so before this remarkable event, I was invited to another party, which was the opposite in almost every respect except for the lushness of the food: My friend Nani and her partner Auberon got married – they had a baby last year, so that was a pretty good reason – and were celebrating their wedding in style.
Nani had asked me to play harp at her wedding, but I begged to be relieved from that duty – I told her I'd much rather party! Seeing that she comes from a seriously musical family, I don't think it was a loss for anyone: they didn't end up having live music, but the DJ was playing a mix of the best of roots and world music, and I for my part was quite happy to sit there and broaden my musical horizons.
And what a nice party it was! That is saying something, because what with my solitary habits, hanging out with a lot of people trying to make smalltalk ("and so where are you from?") – while listening to loud music, is no longer at all my thing (if it ever was). Just a short while ago, I found myself fleeing from a friend's housecooling party because it just was too much for me. Apologies, you know who you are. :)
But this wasn't the noisy, crowded kind of party. They'd hired the Barn at Staglands, a beautiful rustic venue in a lush setting of native bush – so there was plenty of space to move around, and the number of guests was quite modest: mostly family and close friends, as it turned out, so I felt honoured to be included in that number. I haven't really known Nani and Auberon for all that long, but we hit it off with each other somehow.
The guests were treated to a luscious feast of homecooked Caribbean style food – provided by the bride's sisters – with a sprinkling of French influence from the bridegroom's mother. There was no alcohol, and it wasn't missed. This time, I was of course allowed to partake ... :D The people present were a mix of nationalities and shades of skin colour that seemed to cover the whole human range, and not a single person asked me where I was from. Probably because they all hated that permanent question just as much as I do! This was a crowd I felt at ease hanging out with – a feeling I have often been missing lately. :(
Nani and Auberon haven't been shy to post photos from their wedding on the internet, and I took some of my own which they told me to go ahead and post here if I wanted to. Aren't they a beautiful couple? And what a fabulous crowd! If I'd had to take my pick this month between Nani's wedding, and the gig in Hobbiton, I know which one I would have chosen – and I certainly know which one was the greater honour! For a whole variety of reasons. :)
Let's have some photos then, from the best wedding party in town.
New digital artwork: Mother of Waters
News & Current Projects
This month, after a brief sunny start which I failed to take advantage of, there has been nearly nonstop rain for two weeks – which put the proverbial damper on any new garden paintings I might have done. Now that the rains are over, the sunflowers are gone – so I will have to wait until next year – and the marigolds are also looking very poorly, though I hope they'll pick up now that the sun is peeking out again, and give me another flush of flowers to paint before winter sets in properly.
I also haven't made much progress on my children's book project this month – I needed to dust off the old harp and get the rusty fingers back into gear for that gig in Hobbiton, and as I have found on previous occasions, I find it hard to work on musical projects and visual art projects simultaneously. I'll dig my heels in this coming month: a friend pointed me to a children's book competition coming up at the end of June. Not that I calculate a huge chance to get my work chosen for publication by a proper children's book publisher, but it is always good to have a deadline. And if I don't submit my work, my chances will definitely be zero!
I have, however, one new artwork to show, which I finished at the tail end of March, too late to add it to the previous newsletter: Mother of Waters is a digital version of the Mermaid oil painting I did for the Myths and Legends show at Matchbox Studios last year. I knew I had a life drawing somewhere that I'd wanted to use as a reference for the drowning sailor the mermaid is carrying, but didn't manage to find it in my pile of drawings at the time I was working on the oil painting. Now that I have managed to dig it out, I thought I'd update the image – but as it turns out, the pose wasn't quite at the right angle, so I had to push it around and skew it, and I'm not sure it is really an improvement. You tell me!
The image is available as a fine art print through my DeviantArt gallery. They are good quality prints on proper art print paper – I have ordered one in the past so I can vouch for that – so they cost a bit more than regular posters. They're reasonably priced for what you get though – and you can opt for "no frame", which saves you the largest part of what DeviantArt charges. :)
I'll be looking into getting batch printed locally, too, and sell them through my online shop and Etsy store, like I do with the Galadriel's Farewell poster and New Zealand film locations map. I'll update you if and when they're available, but it may take some time. I'm waiting for the local printer to offer the option to do larger-than-A3 prints! :)
Open Polytechnic Illustrations: horticultural tools
The main art related project I've been working on this month was another paid commission – hurrah! Mary, my horticulture teacher, needed some more illustrations for the teaching materials she is writing. This time, for a horticulture course, which is even more down my alley than the cows and sheep I did last year. I think they turned out quite nice, and I know Mary liked them a lot, because she told me so! (she also paid me, on time, and didn't try to skimp on the GST). Plus, this way at least I have immortalized my sunflowers and marigolds in black and white line art. Hmmm – perhaps I should work them up into a full colour poster, too?
The other good thing about it is that the chunk of work I've done for her and gotten published, is now beginning to look a bit more substantial – so once I've got those children's book illustrations well under way, it will definitely be time to look at places to submit my illustration portfolio. Ok, I've been saying this for a year, but, you know … patience is a virtue, and sometimes it pays not to jump the gun before one actually has something to show. A lesson I learned in my past life as a musician!
Open Polytechnic Illustrations: plant growth cycles
ARTWORK OF THE MONTH: more life drawing studies! This month, I've selected one A3 sheet of quick gestural poses, one medium length pose of a woman sitting – this is also on an A3 sheet but covers only half the sheet and can be trimmed on request – and a half A3 sheet of another sitting pose, this time from the side. They are all from the same session, depicting the same model – so they make a proper set. I've made them extra cheap this month, so you could bid on more than one! :) View my Ebay listings here.
Artwork of the month: Nude pencil studies, now available on Ebay
On Amazing Stories, I've done what I usually don't do, I've re-posted the Interview with Tais Teng from my March newsletter. It was a case of time economy, seeing that that gig in Hobbiton came in at short notice. Plus, it was a good interview, and a good time to do it after my series of posts on the topic of time. — I've also had a look at representations of Yemanjá – Yemoja – Janaína – the Mother of Waters: the hopeful beginning of a series of blogs looking at fantasy-slash-religious art inspired by non-European traditions. Stay tuned! Visit my author page, with a list of all my blog posts on Amazing Stories.
My download sales on CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon Mp3, and a bunch of streaming services like Spotify, are rippling along merrily. In the past, the bulk of the downloads has been only a couple of songs – Tale as Old as Time and the theme tune from The Piano, The Heart Asks Pleasure First, were favourites on iTunes, and Dwarven Dub on the streaming sites. In the last few months the spectrum has broadened out a bit and I continue to be pleased that my own songs – Elvish Hymn, Dwarven Blues and Planxty Kerstin – continue to be among the favourites. Along with the arrangements from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack: Evenstar, Into the West, Lament for Gandalf, Hobbit Tunes – and in the last few months, Gollum's Song has really caught on for some mysterious reason.
Occasionally, someone downloads or streams one of the more esoteric pieces, like the Estonian tune Mustjala Kõrge, the Karelian Viima, New Zealand's own Me He Manu Rere, the medieval trouvère song Amour Dont Sui Espris, or the16th century Neapolitan Trabaci toccata. So – maybe I should schedule some time this year to work on some songs! Seeing that the Dwarven Dub has been doing so well, I might start with a few more remixes from the Travels in Middle-earth CD.
There hasn't been much happening in the garden this month: as I've mentioned, it has been rainy for large parts of the month, so all I could do was rescue the remaining vegetables, and wait for better weather. There are still tomatoes to be had, though they are more hesitant to turn a nice bright red in the cooler weather we are having now. I have quite a few capsicums going, but they are still a bright green, rather then the bright red they are supposed to be. So, maybe give it a couple more weeks. My second round of zucchini is now beginning to set fruit, though I suspect they will be rather smaller than the ones I was harvesting in March.
I've started seeding some winter vegetables, and will be digging beds and planting out lettuce and spinach as soon as the newsletter is done (weather permitting, of course!) I need to sow more carrots – the ones I sowed in spring are now nearly eaten up – and I need to put in some more leeks: the large batch I planted last month, seems to have entirely wilted in the hot sun and/or disappeared under the weeds. Then I need to find some pace for the turnips, red beet, silver beet, cabbage, cavolo nero, brussels sprouts, red kale, and onions which are just popping up in my seed trays!
There is also some house maintenance work to be done: I've been wanting to put a new coat of paint on the two back windows since last year, and have finally gotten round to buying some window paint, brushes, and glazing compound – the old putty was crumpling away big time when I started sanding the old paint off last week!
I have also bought a bucket of house paint for my shed – this is a bigger job, and it might be that starting by putting on a layer of paint, rather than doing the structural work that needs to be done – putting in a new door and new windows, and evening the floor – is saddling the horse by the tail. But at least this is a job I know how to do, and which doesn't cost me half a fortune in materials.
The door will be the next job: so far, the shed just didn't have one, but someone walked in and took my lawnmower the other week, so I guess it's time to do something about it. For now, I've put the decrepit old door back on its one not-yet-entirely-broken hinge, but I guess it would be a good idea to browse Trademe for a new door, and buy some proper hinges and a proper door lock. I've learned how to play a harp, program computers, paint with oils, and grow vegetables, so one would think that I'm able to figure out how to fix up a shed, would one not.
Cool Things Friends Do: Marily Valkijainen
This month, I've got a proper friend to feature: I met Marily – online, that is – on the London Art College student forum, when I was doing the Science Fiction and Fantasy Art course a couple of years ago. She was doing the Drawing and Painting diploma, and I immediately liked the bright bold colours of her work. We got talking on the subject of our respective blogs, and I found out that she is from Estonia – so that was an extra incentive for me to stay in touch with her!
But, let her tell it in her own words:
"My name is Marily, I'm from a small country called Estonia, but now residing in England. I lead a quiet village life in the middle of the picturesque Yorkshire Dales. I'm a stay at home mum for my 3 year old, and this has been giving me more opportunities to do what I like: CREATE something with colours."
"It started with a few sketches ages ago and its gradually been growing since then. My grandmother and grandfather both were quite gifted, and painted during World War II. Selling the paintings to the Germans and Russians who were taking turns occupying Estonia, was their main income. I didn't have a chance to see them working, because they didn't paint much after the War, but I still own a few of their paintings. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to ask why they choose not to do it anymore."
"I completed the Painting and Drawing Diploma course at London Art College and liked it very much. My tutor was great and supportive. It was my first ever online based course. You need to do quite a lot on your own, but this is normal for distance study. In the near future I´m planning do take the Pet Portrait course, and Children's Book Illustration as well. I actually think all of the courses there are quite good."
"I´m currently doing one of the 'Learn to draw' art courses at one of the other online course providers. Its nice to be back to basics again."
" For me, painting started as a hobby, but I've had loads of commissions now, and have been selling many of my paintings lately. Do am I professional now? Its probably how you think of yourself. I still consider myself as a hobby artist, but some day, who knows – I prefer to go with the flow and see what life brings."
"I don't have any particular favourite artist... I like them all! Every single artwork I have seen has left a mark. It's like I have some big picture bank in my head, and they will pop up randomly depending on my mood, and giving me ideas to make my own paintings."
"Nowadays I feel quite frustrated when I haven't been painting for a few days, and the itchy feeling doesn't end until I create something. That's how it usually starts. I mainly work from photos, and for me it's always work in progress, where I never know how it will end. I´m still surprised every time I manage to create something. Sometimes some reference photo will give me an idea, but sometimes its vice versa and I have to look at the photos to get my ideas out of my head.'
"I like to work with different media. If I get bored with one, I will choose another for change. Watercolour, acrylics and pastels are my favorites. I like to paint quick, and I want to see the result right away, so I´m not a big fan of oils, but I still try using them as a change sometimes."
"I haven't thought why I paint so many animals. They are much easier to do than people, maybe. I paint whatever I feel and like, but looking back, the big cats and owls seem to be my favorite subjects."
"I sell my paintings and ACEOs on Ebay. I often like to participate and donate my work to the charities. I truly believe that what you give you get. Here are a few links: Running With Brushes * Wildlife Art and Photography (royalties are donated to the South West Deer Rescue and Study Centre)."
Acts of Love: Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy – part 5
*** SPOILER WARNING: this essay reveals major plot points in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy : Men Who Hate Women (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – The Girl who Played with Fire – The Cloud Castle Blew Up (aka The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest)
At the beginning of the story, Mikael gives the impression of a man who has given up trying for something better in his life. He is successful in his profession, though it is not quite what he really wanted to do: his dream was to become a crime reporter, but he winds up as a financial reporter instead. Although there certainly is an overlap, as it turns out when Mikael begins to investigate Eric Wennerström's financial imperium! In his personal life, Mikael has settled for being Erika Berger's personal toy boy, as well as whatever opportunities for casual affairs might come across his path. He suffers from a sense of inadequacy after the breakup of his marriage, and does not seem to ever actually fight for a relationship – until he meets Lisbeth.
Mikael has some difficulty processing his own emotions: we learn this in the first few pages, when he has just been handed the verdict of the Wennerström trial. He'd resigned himself to inevitable defeat and sat calmly through the trial without feeling anything in particular, but afterwards he suddenly has a strong physical reaction, as he ponders the consequences of the verdict for his finances, and his professional credibility.
This is a trait which plays out in Mikael's relationship with Lisbeth: to the observant reader, it would appear that right from the start, Mikael acts very much like a man freshly in love. Even from their first meeting, he seems to feel that she is someone special: he remarks that he feels as if they are old friends, even though they have only just met. Their brief visit to London, when they tap Anita Vanger's telephone in order to locate Harriet, feels like a mini honeymoon: one imagines that Mikael enjoys booking a posh hotel, and showing Lisbeth around the city. Mikael brings up the possibility that their relationship might turn into something long term fairly early on – even though he expresses it in negative terms: "No, you can't ignore our age difference. It's no sort of basis for a lasting relationship". On this occasion, it is Lisbeth who shies away from discussing an "awkward topic", and suggests that they have sex instead. The very fact that Lisbeth practically moves in with Mikael while he is in Sandhamn working on the Wennerström book, is obviously different from the usual pattern of Mikael's casual affairs – and it is certainly different from Lisbeth's solitary habits!
But Mikael insists on calling their relationship "friendship" rather than love – just like he also calls Erika Berger his "friend". He and Lisbeth are doing just fine as long as they live from day to day and don't reflect too much on the nature of their relationship. It is only when Lisbeth admits to herself that she has fallen in love – and when she begins to crave a sign of love returned, not just friendship and camaraderie, from Mikael, and instead sees him heading off to make love to Erika – that she can't cope with her own feelings, and radically breaks off the relationship.
The first book sets up the themes that will play out through the rest of the trilogy. The very first scene shows us Henrik Vanger bursting into tears when he receives a framed dried flower as a birthday present, from an anonymous sender – just as he has on every birthday for the last 38 years: ever since Harriet, his favourite niece, disappeared. Henrik is convinced that she has been murdered, and that a member of his own family did it. Mikael, when he is told about it, immediately points out that since Harriet's body has never been found, one cannot be sure that she is dead. Harriet has persisted in sending Henrik a flower every year, hoping that he will interpret it correctly and know that she is still alive. Henrik, even though he has convinced himself that it is Harriet's murderer who sends the flowers in order to taunt him, refuses to give up his efforts to find out what became of her, even after nearly 40 years. Their eventual reunion teaches Mikael a valuable lesson about not giving up on those we love. It sets the tone for Mikael's own undaunted efforts to have Lisbeth back in his life, in book two and three.
Mikael's and Lisbeth's investigations into Harriet's past, in retrospect, seem like a practice run for the events in book two and three, where so much more is at stake for both of them personally. The parallels between Harriet's and Lisbeth's experience are obvious: both have fathers and brothers who are insane killers, both have suffered from domestic abuse, and both have mothers who are in some way inadequate: Harriet's mother practises denial, and Lisbeth's mother is too intimidated and frightened – or perhaps too emotionally dependent on her tormentor – to seek help. In both cases, it is the children who suffer.
Mikael is emotionally invested in his investigation of Harriet's supposed murder in a low-key sort of way: he dimly remembers Harriet from his childhood, and he has taken a personal liking to Henrik, who becomes something of a mentor. Henrik is an old school industrialist: he belongs to a generation who still adhered to the old feudalist idea that an employer owes it to their employees to look after their well-being, and that of their families. Mikael, who initially mistrusts Henrik as a representative of "big money" and a potentially corrupt corporation, recognizes and respects this attitude: it contrasts sharply with modern age entrepreneurs like Wennerström, whose business does not produce any real value, but consists exclusively of stock market speculations and shady financial transactions – and who have not an ounce of concern for how their actions impact other people's lives, or society in general.
In terms of fairy tale stereotypes, Henrik is the "wise old wizard" – a benevolent character who watches over the hero, and sets him a task which sends him on his journey. Henrik knew Mikael as a child – the son of one of his employees – and has been following his career from afar. He has a high opinion of Millennium magazine – an unusual choice for a high profile capitalist, given the magazine's decidedly left-wing liberal reputation. His decision to offer Mikael a well paid job after the professional disaster of the Wennerström trial, and his financial support of Millennium magazine by buying a share, are a strange mixture of self interest, and a genuine desire to offer Mikael a helping hand when he finds himself in troubled waters. Henrik, via his lawyer Frode, also plays fate in bringing Mikael and Lisbeth together.
Throughout the first book, Mikael is a victim. He is someone who lives so scrupulously by the rules that Lisbeth can't even find a speeding ticket in his name when she does her background report for Henrik Vanger. But he falls for Wennerström's ploy to discredit him professionally, and learns that living by the law does not protect him from finding himself on the dock, or on the wrong side of the journalist's microphone – one experience he comes to share with Lisbeth.
Mikael is manipulated by both Henrik and Erika: Henrik uses the information from Lisbeth's background report to skillfully bait him to take on the job in Hedeby, instead of working on overturning the libel verdict and clearing his name. Erika makes a deal behind Mikael's back that gives Henrik – and Martin, when Henrik falls ill – the means to pressurize him into toeing the line. Mikael is put in prison, slandered, shot at, and eventually becomes the victim of a violent assault which is quite deliberately framed in terms of the kind of sexual violence which is more typically experienced by women: another experience he shares with Lisbeth, although at this point Mikael knows nothing of Bjurman's brutal rape.
Lisbeth, on the other hand, is very much in charge of things. In the first book, we learn very little of her background, and how she has been victimized in the past. We are told that she has been declared mentally incompetent and is under legal guardianship, but not for what reason. We know that her mother has been severely injured and lives in a care home, but not how the injury came about. We learn that there is a traumatic event in her past which she refers to as "All the Evil", but we are left to wonder what happened.
The reader, just like Mikael Blomkvist, perceives Lisbeth as spunky and competent, but slightly mysterious. She is evidently damaged in some way, but seems capable of dealing with whatever life throws her way.
Even when her new guardian Nils Bjurman uses his control over her finances to extort sexual favours, Lisbeth's loss of control is only temporary. She hits back so quickly and decisively, that even the sadistic rape he subjects her to, becomes a means to an end: Lisbeth sets up the meeting, knowing that it means subjecting herself to more sexual abuse, and she records Bjurmans brutality with a hidden camera. This evidence allows her to take back control of the situation: she blackmails Bjurman into staying away from her, and giving her control of her own bank account, by threatening to send the recording to the relevant authorities and to the media. She also tattooes a message on his abdomen, which will effectively prevent him from taking his clothes off in front of anyone in future! The tattooed message will later give the police investigators a pointer that things may not be what they seem in their seemingly straightforward murder case, and the video of the rape becomes a crucial piece of evidence, which turns the tide in the trial against Lisbeth at the end of the third novel.
Lisbeth is aware of Mikael Blomkvist's existence long before he is of hers – he is a successful journalist and a public figure, and his trial for libel means that he has been in the headlines lately, so she would likely have heard of him even if she hadn't been hired to do a personal investigation of his background. Lisbeth does an extremely thorough job: it is in the course of this investigation that she realizes that Wennerström's libel accusation was likely a setup – falsifying evidence simply does not fit Mikael's profile as an extremely conscientious and cautious person. She also puzzles over his relationship with Erika, and accurately concludes that it was this which caused the breakup of Mikael's marriage.
Lisbeth continues to visit Mikael's computer even after her work assignment is finished, and follows his investigation of Harriet's case with interest – looking over his shoulder, as it were, without Mikael being aware of it. In her spare time, she also hacks into Wennerström's computer, and finds the documentation which eventually will give Mikael the proof he needs to rehabilitate himself, and bring down Wennerström's criminal imperium. Mikael clearly fascinates her, but she has no expectation to ever interact with him in real life.
When Mikael suddenly walks into Lisbeth's life – and into her flat, where strangers usually don't have access – she is quite out of her depth. Mikael is vacillating between anger at her invasion of his privacy, and admiration for the quality of her research work, but he takes an instant liking to Lisbeth when he actually meets her. The purpose of his visit is to hire her as his research assistant, and so Lisbeth joins Mikael in his cabin in Hedeby, where the two of them spend practically every waking minute together, bouncing ideas back and forth, trying to figure out the trail of serial murders Harriet's notes have pointed them toward.
There is none of the stereotypical emphasis on sizzling physical attraction, which one would expect in such a situation, in the writing. The attraction between Lisbeth and Mikael is between minds, and personalities. Neither of them even tries to flirt, but they are curious about each other and spend time thinking about the other, trying to figure each other out. When Lisbeth eventually crawls into Mikael's bed, it comes across not as an aggressive seduction – Lisbeth is very careful to gauge Mikael's reactions and make sure he is ok with it – but rather as an acknowledgement of something they have both been aware of for some time. Lisbeth plays no games: instead of going through the motions of the courtship dance, she simply tells Mikael that she wants to have sex with him – after all, her background research has given her every reason to believe that he is unlikely to say no.
The action of the novel then gathers speed at an alarming rate: the first time I read the book, I was under the impression that Lisbeth's and Mikael's relationship carries on for several weeks while they are in Hedeby, but the series of events that leads to the unmasking of the serial killer takes up all of two days. During this time, it is Lisbeth who watches over Mikael's safety: she sets up hi-tech surveillance equipment purloined from her workplace, to protect their cabin from intruders. She tends to Mikael when he is shot at while jogging in the forest, and she rushes in with a golf bat when he foolishly steps into the lion's den and is dragged down into Martin Vanger's basement and subjected to a couple of hours of torture, culminating in being hanged in a noose and nearly strangulated.
What Mikael experiences is very much like a rape. There is no actual sexual abuse – though it might be that Martin was about to get to that part when Lisbeth rushed in – but the powerlessness, humiliation, and physical pain are all there. It is also a typical "damsel in distress" situation, where Mikael plays the part of the damsel, and Lisbeth is the valiant knight who comes to the rescue.
Lisbeth remains in charge of the situation until Martin Vanger has found an untimely end by driving head on into a truck on the motorway. She orchestrates how Mikael, Frode and Henrik deal with the aftermath. She removes some of the evidence, making sure that Martin's video footage of his victims will never be seen by anyone else. When Henrik and Frode try to buy Mikael's silence, it is Lisbeth who suggests that it would be best if he went along with their request, but that the victim's families should be found and notified, if possible, and that the Vanger corporation should make a permanent financial contribution to a charity for victims of domestic abuse.
If this novel was a regular whodunit, we would expect that after the unmasking of the murderer, the book would wind down very quickly within another dozen pages or so – perhaps with Harriet's "resurrection", and her reunion with Henrik. But after the denouement in this novel, there are still over a hundred pages to go. The focus now shifts to Mikael and Lisbeth's relationship, and back to the Wennerström affair. Lisbeth's past also begins to catch up with her: instead of taking the plane from London to Australia with Mikael, Lisbeth is urgently called back home because her mother has just died – a late consequence of Lisbeth's father's violent abuse.
Mikael and Lisbeth have quickly fallen into a pattern of living together as a couple – they already share a house, and the dramatic events that unfold don't give them much time to reflect on their relationship. They look out for each other: When Mikael finds himself a helpless prisoner in Martin Vanger's torture chamber, his greatest fear is that Lisbeth might come knocking on the door, demanding to know where he is. Lisbeth tends to Mikael's wounds and watches over him while he is in shock after his ordeal. She also makes sure that others leave him alone while he is recovering, and that nothing of the night's events leaks out beyond a very small circle of people, for the same reason that made her destroy Martin's video tapes: she wants to avoid that Martin's victims will be raped a second time over, by becoming a media sensation.
A pattern is also set up of Lisbeth running away from Mikael – this generally happens when Mikael comes dangerously close to touching on the secrets in Lisbeth's past. The first time, Lisbeth reacts to Mikael's remarks on her "photographic memory": to Lisbeth, this is something that makes her abnormal, a "freak", and she is not pleased that Mikael has discovered it. She storms out of the house as far as the boat harbour, but Mikael manages to convince her that he thinks her extraordinary memory is a pretty good thing! She soon returns with him to the cabin.
The second time, Lisbeth and Mikael return to Hedeby after Mikael's trip to Australia, and Lisbeth's mother's funeral, which Mikael has attended with her. Lisbeth is in a terrible mood, and lashes out at Mikael when he asks her to stay the night with him at their cabin, instead of returning to Stockholm. He is aware how bad she feels after the funeral, and tells her again that he wants to be her "friend", but she accuses him of just wanting her to be there so he can have sex with someone. She drives all the way to Uppsala, a trip that takes several hours, but eventually realizes that it is not Mikael she is angry at, and decides to return. This is the first time they have a fumbling conversation about the nature of their relationship – and Mikael betrays that he does think of it as something potentially long term.
The third time, Lisbeth is on her way to Mikael's flat because she feels she needs to tell him that she has fallen in love with him – and she sees him leaving a café with Erika in tow, clearly on their way to make love. This time, it takes her two years until she is prepared to open her door for Mikael again. Might this pattern be a clue how the author intended their relationship to continue after the end of the third book? So far, Lisbeth has always come back.
Mikael mirrors Lisbeth's emotional reaction when he storms out of their cabin after finding out that Henrik, for all his friendship, has been manipulating him all along: Mikael cannot publish the story of Martin Vanger's basement, because it would harm Henrik and Harriet, who sit on the board of Millennium – and the incriminating information about Wennerström which Henrik had promised him, is useless: it was just a bait to get him to accept the job of investigating Harriet's supposed murder. Mikael is angry at having wasted all this time with no results to show, and it goes sorely against the grain of his professional ethic to participate in the cover-up of a whole series of murders. He runs off to be alone, just like Lisbeth would have done. She, in turn, gets exceedingly worried and eventually goes to find him in the middle of the night – just like Mikael did on a previous occasion.
Later that night, Lisbeth makes the decision to give Mikael the information she herself has dug out about Wennerström. She has hesitated to do this, first because she considered it none of her business, and second because it will reinstate Mikael at Millennium, and put him back in Erika's sphere of influence. Lisbeth herself has to remain an anonymous source, because she obtained this information by illegal means. The publication of this material propels Mikael into national celebrity status, and greatly improves his economical situation, as well as stabilizing Millennium magazine's finances to the point where they no longer need the support of the Vanger clan. Ironically, it is Erika who, as editor in chief of Millennium, gets the lion share of the credit for Lisbeth's work.
But Lisbeth manages to turn things to her advantage in her own way: after studying how Wennerström's financial imperium works, she is able to help herself to a very substantial sum of his now ownerless money – enough to make her financially independent for the rest of her life, which means she will never again be vulnerable in the way she was when Bjurman forced her to meet him in his flat if she wanted money for food and other necessities. The only person who knows about Lisbeth's coup is Mikael: he recognizes her from a security camera snapshot that is being published in the media, when it is discovered that the money is missing.
While Mikael is working on his book about Wennerström, he and Lisbeth continue their uncomplicated living-in arrangement at his cabin in Sandhamn. They function well together as long as no one else intrudes. Mikael is keeping Erika at bay, who is not pleased by the fact that Mikael does not tell her what he is working on, and does not want to see her. Mikael is probably quite aware by then that his girlfriends have a tendency to terminate their relationships with him once Erika appears on the scene, and he tries to shield his relationship with Lisbeth. Eventually, he is forced to introduce them to each other when he shows Erika his manuscript: Lisbeth is his source, and Erika is his editor in chief.
Lisbeth is very reluctant to meet Erika, whom she perceives as a "distant perturbance in her life" while she is happy with Mikael in Sandhamn, and she instantly dislikes her when she meets her. Erika, for her part, barely acknowledges Lisbeth's presence until Mikael tells her that she saved his life up in Hedeby. Then she feels compelled to give Lisbeth a hug – which Lisbeth does not appreciate at all! Erika always tries to establish that Mikael's other girlfriends are only there by her approval – she does this with Cecilia and Monica Figuerola, and perhaps this unexpected hug is an attempt to make the point with Lisbeth. Lisbeth does not fall for it. But she does get to observe how Mikael and Erika relate, and the familiarity and trust which obviously exist between them.
Mikael and Lisbeth also spend Christmas together at Sandhamn, after the Wennerström bomb has dropped. It is the first time they spend time together without any excuse of work. It is also the first time Mikael has someone to spend a holiday with – previously, we have always seen him lonely at Christmas or Midsummer, when everyone else celebrates with their families. By then they have been "seeing each other" for nearly half a year, which in Mikael's terms at least, is beginning to look like a pretty serious relationship. There is no indication that he has any intention to break it off – but he is swept up in the media circus caused by his revelations about Wennerström, and perhaps a little too focused on his professional vindication, to be very careful about Lisbeth's feelings. He takes her for granted, and her sudden, unexplained decision to break off all contact with him comes as a complete shock.
Both Mikael and Lisbeth struggle with a sense of inadequacy when it comes to relationships – and they are both convinced that they aren't the right person for the other. Mikael is hung up about his age: he is twenty years older than Lisbeth, and he feels that going out with someone this much younger makes him a "dirty old man" – that he is not much different from the punters we meet in book two, who buy or coerce sex from underage prostitutes. Clearly, his reasons for feeling attracted to Lisbeth are completely different from these men's hankering for young, pliable flesh. She is not at all his "type", for generally Mikael feels attracted to mature women, preferably with generous curves.
Lisbeth, who has after all done a thorough study of Mikael's life, both professional and private, is perfectly aware of this. She feels that with her thin, spare body and lack of breasts, she doesn't have much to offer. She feels immature and insignificant in comparison with Mikael's other friends – particularly Erika – who all have achievements and careers, and "plenty of adult points". She wonders why he would bother hanging out with her – maybe just to fill time until his perfect woman comes along? – and she is worried what he will think if or when he finds out about her legal guardianship, and what a "rat's nest" her life really is. She is extremely reluctant to talk about herself – a fact that Mikael has noted, and puts down to an excessive need for privacy – but she does challenge Mikael, twice, to do his own investigation of her life if he wants to know: "You're the journalist, find out!".
During their Christmas holiday in Sandhamn, Lisbeth comes to the realization that she has fallen in love. Her reaction is panic: she has no idea how she is supposed to deal with it. She doesn't believe that their relationship has a chance to last, and "it will hurt so much when it ends". Mikael instantly notices that she seems a bit more distant, as if there is "something wrong". A few days later, back at home, Lisbeth decides that she has to tell Mikael how she feels about him. Her pain, when she sees Mikael and Erika together, is so sudden and strong that she instantly decides to give up all thought of continuing their relationship, and a few weeks later she leaves the country to avoid running into Mikael by accident, and stays away for a whole year. She has put up with all sorts of violence, brutality and injustice in the past, but in the end it is Mikael who hurts her the worst.
Most of the reviews I have read see the Millennium trilogy as a paean to free sex. It is true that most of the "positive" characters – including, of course, Mikael and Lisbeth – have a very liberal attitude toward sexual relationships. Mikael's most steady partner is a woman who is married to another man. Miriam and Lisbeth don't expect of each other that they should be sexually faithful. Mikael does not expect it of his partners, and neither does he allow them to expect it of him.
Lisbeth is still of an age where she is establishing an identity, trying things out. The only people who criticize her for it are people who take pains to appear "respectable" while indulging their sexual perversions in secret, sometimes at Lisbeth's own expense: Bjurman and Teleborian, who abuse their professional positions, and the authorities who have appointed them.
Mikael's ongoing promiscuity at his more mature age is seen – by himself and by the reader – as something of a character flaw, and it has kept him from having a family of his own. But his sexual urges are certainly a whole lot less harmful than the sadistic brutality, domestic violence, abuse of professional authority, rape and murder committed by people like Bjurman, Martin Vanger, Peter Teleborian, and Lisbeth's father Alexander Zalachenko, in order to satisfy their libido.
The arrangement between Erika, her husband, and Mikael, in particular, is often cited as a positive example of a truly liberated relationship, which is based on mutual respect and attraction, rather than jealousy and possessiveness. But as I have already pointed out earlier, the arrangement mostly works for Erika, and for her husband – they are a couple who like to experiment, and there is more than a hint of a suggestion that Erika's infidelities with Mikael are a part of their game – adding spice to their sex life, as it were. Mikael is the one who gets the short end of the stick in this arrangement – he is being used, and Erika takes pains to keep him available for herself, but she does not return Mikael's emotional investment in their relationship to the same degree. She is the woman he can't have – Mikael, for his part, would have liked to move in with her, and he has been emotionally faithful to Erika for 20 years.
Mikael isn't a "notch-in-the-bedpost" womanizer who regards seduction as a sport, and who would boast with his conquests. His problem is that he can't say "no" when a woman wants to seduce him – and since he appears to be entirely without feelings of jealousy himself, he fails to understand how his infidelities can hurt those of his partners who want more than just a casual affair. He does seem to be looking for someone he can genuinely connect with, and who would be willing to return his emotional commitment – which Erika doesn't. While he is seeing Lisbeth regularly, he doesn't look at another woman – except Erika, who is his "bad habit", much like smoking, or eating junk food: something he knows is not really healthy, but which he does anyway. Kicking a bad habit requires some positive effort, and at the end of book one, Mikael definitely hasn't got there yet.
I don't think the author is trying to make a case that promiscuity and multiple-partner relationships are the solution we should all be striving for, although he does present it as a better alternative than domestic abuse, and violence against women. There are several instances where characters refrain from getting sexually involved with someone they feel attracted to: Lisbeth and Armansky for instance, or the police officers Modig and Bublansky. The author presents this as a positive, moral choice – in contrast to Mikael's and his various casual partner's penchant to give in to their urges even when it might create an awkward situation, as with Cecilia Vanger, or Monica Figuerola.
Perhaps the reason for the confusion is that, at least in English speaking countries, Sweden is perceived as a culture with extremely liberal sexual mores. I believe this image is mostly due to a flurry of Swedish porn movies produced in the 1970s, which achieved a certain amount of international, well I'm not sure if "acclaim" would be the right word. This image of their culture would probably come as a huge surprise to people in places like Norrland – Stieg Larsson's own birthplace – which I would imagine are about as morally tight-laced as any traditionally Lutheran, largely rural area can be. Stieg Larsson himself lived in a long term, apparently very committed relationship with his partner Eva Gabrielsson, and while Mikael Blomkvist is clearly based on the author himself, the promiscuity part of his character seems to be entirely fictional – or, as Eva Gabrielsson claims, based on one of Stieg Larsson's colleagues at his own magazine Expo.
The opposite is the case: in his investigation of the plethora of relationships which his characters form, Stieg Larsson points out the emotional price there is to pay for all this sexual liberation. If sex is free for the taking whenever, and with whom ever one feels like, what happens to commitment? How do we even know if the relationship we are in is casual, long term, or somewhere in between? And does our partner feel the same way about it? In the absence of a prescribed process of courtship and formal commitment, how are we to gauge these things? And how do we avoid getting terribly hurt by making a wrong judgement?
To Mikael and Lisbeth both, it feels much safer to keep all their relationships on a superficial level – and when they begin to realize that their relationship to each other goes deeper, they feel very threatened by it. Lisbeth simply runs away, and when she comes back and sees Mikael again, she is at pains to convince herself that "she now has no feelings for him" – it's as if she has to convince herself of that to be able to interact with him at all. Mikael for his part, all the while he is showing truly remarkable persistence in trying to get in touch with Lisbeth and find out what happened, continues to tell himself that "he is not in love with her", that she is a "friend", and that this should be explanation enough for his actions.
One recurring theme in Mikael's various relationships is that at some point, his partners realize that they have become emotionally invested, and begin to worry about "how much it will hurt when it ends". This is what causes Cecilia to break off their relationship, and it is what troubles Lisbeth when she makes her ill fated attempt to see Mikael and tell him how she feels. It is also what Monica Figuerola stresses about, when she is trying to nag Mikael into giving her some promise of commitment. The only person who never seems to worry about this is Mikael himself. Yet he, too, is hurt not just by Lisbeth's sudden desertion, but also by Cecilia's rejection of him – even if he didn't regard their relationship as something particularly "serious".
What makes the end of the first book so poignant, is that it is such a brilliant illustration of precisely why a partner's infidelities hurt: Lisbeth may be able to intellectually accept that Mikael still wants to see, and have sex with, Erika, his long term lover and best friend – but feelings are another matter, and jealousy is real. Seeing Mikael with Erika brings back all of Lisbeth's insecurities and self doubt – is she fooling herself when she thinks that she could be someone special in Mikael's life, the way Erika is? Lisbeth has trouble talking about her feelings at the best of times. It has taken her several hours to work up the courage to go see Mikael and tell him that she is in love with him: it took her only half an hour to work up the courage to walk into Bjurmans' flat with her hidden camera, knowing that she was going to be subjected to another sexual assault! So the reader really feels her pain.
Is there still a place for "true love" in a society that values sexual fulfillment over loyalty and commitment? *Can* there be true love, when violence and systematic injustice against women destroy the foundations of trust and love themselves? And what would such a love look like – if it is to be based not on some form of co-dependency, where one or both partners give up part of their identity, but rather on equality and personal freedom? A love that is based not on an inability to live without the other, but on wanting the best for the other, regardless if it means living together or apart? I think these are the questions the author is investigating with his story of Lisbeth and Mikael.
*** To be continued
Arohanui, from Asni