Asni: Multimedia Art & Design
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ARTWORK OF THE MONTH: Selected drawings available on Ebay. A different selection every month! ** DIGITAL PRINTS now available on Ebay
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:
- *** Home Comforts / Mischief Managed
- *** News and Current Projects
- *** A Farewell to Patrick O'Brien
- *** Acts of Love: Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" Trilogy (part 8)
As far as I am concerned, in these latitudes July just needs to be endured. The winter has finally caught up with us, with steady rain and temperatures dropping, so there's been a lot of sitting on the sofa next to the woodstove lately. Fortunately, I always got stuff to write. Or things to look up on the internet – activities which are eminently doable while cuddling up with a laptop on my knees.
I have also made some tentative steps toward home improvement. Last month, I acquired a drawing chest from a fellow artist at the Wai Art Group. A lucky buy: I've known for a while that I needed something like it to keep up with storing away all those drawings and random pieces of artwork, but I had absolutely no idea where I was supposed to go and look for such a specialized item of furniture! So now I have a fighting chance to create something approaching order in my studio.
On occasion of installing this new item, I had a go at removing the carpet in my studio, which is covering up some rather nice wooden boards. This in turn inspired me to have a tentative look at wallpaper, just to get an idea what is available, and how much it will cost me: I've always been meaning to remove the carpet in the rest of the rooms, too, and make the walls look nicer. As luck (or misfortune, depending how you look at it) will have it, I nearly immediately found a wallpaper design which is 110% perfect for my living room, so I think there is nothing for it, I will actually have to go ahead and shell out for it. And guess what: it's from Sweden, available through an online store in Hawke's Bay which imports these things.
I've been having a bit of a craving for some Scandinavian design lately (what with being immersed in the Millennium trilogy and learning Swedish and all) – and feeling quite nostalgic about certain happy summer work stints in Stockholm. And why o why is there no Ikea in New Zealand? Putting new wallpaper on my walls – and getting rid of the carpet, and polishing the floorboards, and painting the ceiling, and sorting out the electric wiring in my house, which needs to be done and should probably be done before putting wallpaper on the walls – sounds like a major project, so I'll have see what the rest of the year brings, and when I will be able to set apart some time for it – and save up some money.
In the short term, I satisfied my most urgent Scandinavian design cravings by ordering an Önsjö ceiling lamp from Ikea, and having my mom mail it out to me. It's one of those newfangled lamps with built-in LED lights which will supposedly last several years without changing, and save you a stack on your energy bill. It ships in a handy compact package, so it was perfect for testing the system, and I felt like Christmas when I found it on my porch and unpacked it eagerly. Then I had to buy a ladder and teach myself how to do electric wiring, but now it is happily installed on my ceiling, and I am a very happy Önsjö lamp owner indeed.
It took me a couple of evenings to adjust to it, as it is quite a bit dimmer than my old electric light, and the light colour is considerably less yellow – but it is quite a pleasant sort of light, closer to daylight but still quite warm. If I want to read a book I'll need a reading lamp, but it struck me that it is an ideal light for watching things on screen – working on the computer, watching tv, playing games, reading e-Books. I wonder if this is the future of lighting?
On the last weekend of June, the New Zealand Centre for Investigative Journalism (yes, such a thing exists!) put on a conference, inviting all and sundry with an interest in the topic, professional journalist or not. Since I am sundry – and since I have thought for a little while that some decent investigative journalism is something this country is very badly in need of – I boldly signed myself up.
The conference, and the organization, were the brainchild of Nicki Hager, who caused an international stir a little while ago with his investigation into the role of the New Zealand Secret Services in the international espionage network Echelon, a collaboration between the secret services of all the major Anglo-Saxon countries – his book Secret Power is available as a free pdf download.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect – some assembly of semi-professional bloggers and writers for student magazines and such, I suppose, but as it turned out, the attendants included a large percentage of well established professional journalists working for major New Zealand news outlets, including substantial contigents from TVNZ and Maori Television, and several people from the Auckland based New Zealand Herald. I was the only self confessed blogger in the crowd, which made most everyone else eye me with suspicion. Ah well, I'm pretty used to that by now!
To compound the effect, I was also one fo the few people who didn't already know everyone else, though someone else knew me, which was a bit flattering. Yes, I thought I should mention that ... :D Unsurprisingly, this was also someone operating independently, and online. But we were a tiny minority among the largely traditional media oriented crowd.
The conference consisted of a series of talks on one day, and some more member participation oriented sessions the next. The talks were interesting: one person openly asserted that there is such a thing as corruption in New Zealand. Another, to my flabbergasted surprise, even dared to openly use the R-word, stating bluntly that the New Zealand criminal justice system has a problem with racism. Wow, I thought. This is different!!!
My problem with New Zealand public opinion in general, and New Zealand news media in particular, is their reluctance to address uncomfortable issues, or things that don't conform with New Zealand's self-image of being the perfect society, where injustice, discrimination and inequality, or corruption, or environmental harm, simply don't happen – to the point of refusing to see things right smack in front of their eyes: I think of my former friend whom I mentioned in an newsletter a while back, who denied that New Zealand could ever have an environmental problem, with the filthy water of Lake Wairarapa lapping right at her feet.
I think this is a very dangerous state of affairs, in that it prevents all sorts of burning issues from being properly addressed. It also allows prejudice and plain old faschist attitudes to breed undisturbed. I grew up in a country where this has happened in the past, and therefore the importance of openly addressing issues of this kind has been drilled into me throughout my entire school education. I do know what I am talking about.
So here was my chance to state that opinion in front of the assembled crowd of New Zealand professional journalists. Who cares if it doesn't make me popular: one can only hope that some people bother to think about what was said. The fact that a conference like this could even happen, gives me some hope. Time to wake from your sleep!
I also have to confess that I quite enjoyed being the thirteenth fairy, who wasn't exactly invited and came to rub everyone the wrong way. Mischief managed.
News & Current Projects
This month, I've made some real progress on my children's book. When I wrote the last newsletter, I really wasn't sure if I'd make the deadline for the contest I was planning to submit it to. I knew that by that stage I was really, really pushing it – but I am glad to say that my submission has now found its way to Belgium and (apparently) been accepted, even though it got there a couple of days after the deadline. Well, it was "date of postage counts" – I sent it a week in advance and paid for courier, and by rights it should have been there the day after the deadline at the latest, along with the submissions of every other procrastinator and deadline pusher who left it to the very last minute (I trust there were a few! It's a professional disease). But of course, when it really matters New Zealand Post is sure to let you down ... well, it got there in the end.
One of the requirements for the contest submission was "a full scale pencil drawn dummy" – i.e. a set of sketches tucked together like a book, that specify what pictures go on each page and where the text blocks are going to sit. After humming and hawing over that storyboard I knew I needed to do at some point, since the beginning of the year, this turned out to be the better way of working anyway: rather than bother with thumbnail sketches, I did a three day marathon sitting drafting my 24 illustrations straight into the dummy I was going to submit.
This is, of course, an insane way of doing it -- no margin whatsoever for error allowed! -- but I'd left it for so late that there was no time to do drafts first, and then sketch them out clean. The fact that I was able to pull that off at all, seems to indicate that I've got a whole lot more confident about my drawing skills! Fortunately I had already done the three colour plates that were also required, though all three of them needed a bit of polishing, which is why I had to give myself the extra weekend, rather than sending it off on Friday as originally planned.
I'm going to have to be a bit cautious with posting finished images on the internet from here on – I don't want to jeopardize whatever chance I might have to actually find a publisher for this. These people seem to frown on things that has been published previously, which if strictly applied would also include "here on this newsletter". But I trust I am safe to post a couple of teasers: One finished plate without the text, the updated hopping hares from the birch forest sequence I posted last month, and a couple of pages from my dummy.
So this book is now a thing: I've held it in my hands and turned its pages, and it's looking pretty good if I say so myself! All I need to do from now on, is work the pencil sketches up into finished illustrations – which will take a bit of time, but much less creative agonizing than I have invested so far. And then we'll see how we'll publish it. :)
After that burst of creative productiveness in the first week of the month, I needed a bit of a break. I took a long drive out to Akitio beach – a bit further north than my usual range of local beaches, and I hadn't been there before. It was a solid 2 1/2 hours drive on small windy Wairarapa roads, and I didn't get there until an hour or so before dark – but it is a lovely drive, and it satisfied my craving for exploration and adventure. When I got there, I found a lot of driftwood – so I took some pictures to decorate my newsletter with. How does that old saying go? They say that the key to a successfull freelance carreer is to re-purpose things – so there you go.
I don't think I will be doing any big trips this year – I'd rather get on with re-decorating my house – but this felt almost like a proper holiday, and I could still sleep in my own bed at the end of the day.
The rest of the month was spent on gradually working up some more hares, and on a paid web design project, which has so far been progressing pretty smoothly. I've submitted my design drafts and all-but have them approved, so next week I expect to be coding, and hopefully the site will be up well before the end of next month. And I will be paid! :knocks on wood:
I haven't been doing any outdoor painting in a little while – the weather hasn't been like it, and there isn't all that much that wants to be painted in my garden at the monent, although I would really quite like to have a go at my blossoming rocket. They are quite pretty, those. But last week I had a chat with Jane Giles, who is organizing Wai Art Scape, an initiative to get local businesses to exhibit and sell art from local artists. It's a good way to get the things "out there", and I've been participating since the beginning of the year, although so far I haven't sold a thing. Which seems to be a bit of a problem for other participants, too! Jane wanted some feedback and ideas how she could do things better, and I now feel motivated to get back into the swing of doing a painting (at least) a month. The spring blossomy season will soon be upon us, and I have planted all those fruit trees ... I'm looking forward to that.
Then last week suddenly everyone on my Facebook feed was posting pictures and remembrances of my old teacher and mentor Pat O'Brien in New York, and it wasn't hard to figure out what had come to pass. So I spent a couple of days pottering about in the garden and grieving, and then I planted a tree in his memory and recorded him a song. But he deserves a proper tribute, so more of that below.
Artwork of the month: Pine tree studies, now available on Ebay
ARTWORK OF THE MONTH: I've been doing quite a few sketches round the local neighbourhood as studies for my hare book, so in honour of my successful meeting of a deadline, I thought I'd select a few of those this month: a series of local pine trees. The third from the left is the tree that wound up in the book. They are now available on Ebay, strictly only until the end of August. View my Ebay listings here.
On Amazing Stories, this month I've been contemplating Death and Taxes – yes, you guessed it, my annual tax return was due round that time! Another deadline successfully met. For some strange reason, my search for tax related art led me to a whole ream of Apocalyptic Space Art, which is the subject of my second blog post this month – and I have a bit more of that up my sleeve, so make sure to check back next week when the third July blog post will be due. Visit my author page, with a list of all my blog posts on Amazing Stories.
It is tree planting season, and this year I decided to go wild with my pear trees. I planted one tree two years ago, and have been harvesting the first couple of fruit this year, but suddenly I felt dissatisfied and decided to have some more. Eating a pear that is just at the right stage of ripeness does, after all, rank pretty high on the reasons to live.
After a bit of investigation, I settled on three more varieties: a Seckel (because I hear so much about them and they intrigue me), a Winter Nelis (as a pollinator and cooking/baking/keeping pear), and a Taylor's Gold, which is variety that developed here in New Zealand and is similar to the lovely Doyenne du Commice, but even sweeter and juicier – I bought some of those pears last autumn and was instantly converted. My old tree is a Doyenne du Commice and Red Bartlett double grafted tree. I decided to plant them all quite close together in a lump, so if things go as planned, eventually they will grow into one big giant pear tree growing five different varieties of pears. I'll be out-doing Herr von Ribbeck and his magical whispering pears! I only hope I'll live to see that. :)
The nursery up in the Waikato where I bought two of my pears (the third is from the local garden centre) also had hazelnuts on offer, so I bought a bundle of five and now have plenty enough to grow into a proper hazel hedge all along my back fence. My neighbours have finally finished felling the giant willow tree that was growing on their side of the fence and sucking a lot of water from my garden, so I can now go ahead and finish the garden pond I started digging two years ago, without fearing that they'll drop a giant willow branch into it and damage the pond liner. Said pond liner arrived in the mail last week, so it is really happening this year! Now I'm just waiting for a good day.
The area behind what is to be the pond has grown a bit wild – the pond creates a barrier to accessing it easily, and I have moved all my vegetable beds closer to the house now, so I decided that my best bet will be to plant that corner of the garden fairly thick with a few more trees. I plan to go for an "old fashioned Central European fruit varieties" theme: A sloe and a damson plum, a medlar, and another sour cherry. I am currenty trying to hunt down a proper German Schattenmorelle, but failing that, the nursery guy in Upper Hutt who is my go-to person for things a little off the mainstream, besides promising me that he will have sloes available this summer, also has sour cherry trees on offer which, if not precisely the right kind, are at least a red fleshed and not a white fleshed variety.
But I may have to hold back on that until next year, after splurging on all those pears and hazelnuts! Well – I might just have a budget for that other sour cherry. It's definitely a better use of money than buying lots of shoes!
Dear Pat, ––
I don't know if you knew this, but to me you were like the supportive granddad or uncle I never had. Well, you weren't nearly old enough to be my granddad – you always seemed quite ancient to me somehow, but in reality, you would have been a youngish uncle, just barely old enough to be my dad. It's been quite a while since I've last seen you, but I'm glad we caught up on Facebook again not so long ago, even if we only talked briefly. You were worried about your wife then – she was undergoing some painful and complicated medical procedure, and you were clearly distressed by it, thinking of a loved person's pain. Now she's the one who is left behind.
The first time I met you must have been at the Historical Harp Symposium in Basel, back in 1986 – such an important event in my life in so many respects! You were sharing your research into the function of the hand, which was a blessing for me at the time, since I was having some trouble with my fingers which could have cut my aspirations to be a professional harper very short.
Then I met you again at the first Lutes and Harps summer school in Bremen, another pivotal point in my life and soon-to-be professional career. I remember your enthusiasm talking about the good qualities of other people – that is perhaps what I most remember about you. You were undoubtedly a geek like any when it came to digging into the mysteries of the musical past, and unearthing long forgotten musical techniques. But where other people got lost in ego trips and competitiveness, or else buried themselves in their passion to the point of forgetting about every other aspect of life, you always saw the person, as well as the musician, in all of us.
Someone told me a good long while ago, that you had had a stern word with a former significant person in my life about the way he was treating me, which you felt wasn't right. At the time, I resented it a bit – none of your business, busybody, thought headstrong young Asni, and after all everyone is entitled to make their own mistakes. Funny that – when I heard that you were gone all so suddenly, it was the first thing that sprang to my mind. You cared – and I think you saw how things were pretty clearly – when other people who were closer to me just let me run ahead.
I remember well my visits to your studio in New York, which was always bursting from the seams with stacks of music and books and instruments. You always made time for me when I was in New York, especially in the beginning when I was still very new to being a full fledged professional, and very insecure of myself in many ways. You made it seem almost like a favour that I was doing you, to come and have a chat and a bit of a lesson that you wouldn't charge me for, and I'd leave with stacks of new music, some of which I'm sure I never really got round to learning. It might still be sitting somewhere on my shelves. Might be a reason to dust off the old harp sometime.
I don't know and never asked if you approved of the choices I have made for my life – coming to New Zealand, quitting the harp, focusing on something else. I figure you would probably berate me for giving up too soon. Your comments about my playing weren't always flattering – I remember when I worked with you on that solo passage in Monteverdi's Orfeo which I was about to record, you told me the way I played it sounded "canned" – lacking in spontaneity. You also told me once that you didn't think I'd make a good stage personality because my features were too pale, didn't stand out enough from a distance. These things stung a bit – as you can see from the fact that I still remember them! Well, you may have been right about the one thing and not so right about the other, but your criticism was always fair and well founded, and there was never a sense that you were trying to undermine my fragile self confidence, which has happened with other teachers I have had.
Looking back, it occurs to me that you must have seen something in me that made you think it was worth giving me all of that time. It's not like you didn't have plenty of things to do, plenty of other people to look after. I don't think I really appreciated at the time, just how pre-eminent a personality you were in the world of early music – particularly in America, but you certainly made your influence felt in other places as well. When I read through the tributes on your Facebook feed, it looks like a who is who of early string players, lutes and harps and others too, all of whom you have mentored or taught or worked with at some stage.
I didn't even know you were ill, or that you'd been taken to hospital. So like you – you were never one to make a fuss about yourself. Now you're gone. And it leaves a hole. Sleep well, and much love.
Thanks to Andrew Maginley for supplying the photos of Pat O'Brien posted here
Memories of Patrick O'Brien – photos supplied by Andrew Maginley
Acts of Love: Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy – part 8
*** 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)
An author who wants to write a novel about violence and injustice against women, needs to be very careful indeed about the kind of love story they write. Relationships – just like justice, or equality, or democracy – are an ongoing process, something that requires permanent effort – not something that reaches a point of perfection and then remains static, as the literary trope of the "happy end" will have us believe. The illusion that a couple at one point starts "living happily ever after", is in some sense a dangerous myth.
One of the inspirations for Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy was a real life murder case: Melissa Nordell, a woman in her early twenties and a photo model known to Larsson personally, was killed by her former lover – a significantly older man – after she terminated her relationship with him. Stieg Larsson wrote an article about the case, comparing it to the murder of a Kurdish woman, Fadime Sahindal, and looking at how the two cases were treated very differently in the media, despite the fact that they had very many things in common. The article has been translated into English and published in The Expo Files, an anthology of Larsson's journalistic writing.
It would be tempting to see Mikael as inspired by this older man: someone who also cannot let go of his substantially younger girlfriend – and to accordingly interpret the final scene of the book as an acknowledgement that Mikael can't "have Lisbeth back" as his lover. But by all accounts, the real life murderer had more in common with Magge Lundin and his gang of bikers from Svavelsjö MC. Mikael's behaviour seems to represent an alternative course of action a man in this situation could have taken – if he had actually cared about the girl, rather than regarding her as a possession which no one else was allowed to have. In fact, it is one of Mikael's hang-ups that he does not want to be seen behaving in the same way as certain other middle aged men we meet in the course of the narrative, who have a preference for girls Lisbeth's age, or even younger.
Besides, the author makes it perfectly clear that Lisbeth's problem is certainly not a lack of independence and self-determination: her problem is her inability to form close relationships with other people. Mikael is the one person whom she is capable of feeling completely comfortable with, and whom she is able to trust implicitly. It is not that she does not want to have a relationship with him – quite the contrary. Her hang-up is her lack of self confidence in personal matters, and a profound inability to believe that having the kind of relationship she would like to have with Mikael, is within the realm of possibility. She is also scared of the tendency for violence she observes within herself, and of the way that her feelings for Mikael could prompt her to turn that violence against people who do not deserve it: for instance, someone like Erika.
Lisbeth and Mikael are both extremely reluctant to let themselves be dragged into the emotional maelstrom of falling in love. Mikael is used to being able to keep his relationships on the surface: normally he brushes off rejection and just moves on. But when Lisbeth abruptly cuts him out of her life, he is completely bewildered and does not understand what could have her made act in such a way. He misses her company, and he wants an explanation – his visits to her unresponsive doorbell become a bit of a ritual over the course of the next year, even though he tells himself that his behaviour is futile and foolish, and that Lisbeth has every right to terminate her relationship with him. He spends quite a lot of time cursing her for making him feel that way: to him, she is "that damn troublesome person" who forces him to act in such an irrational, and possibly inappropriate manner. Where is the line between being caring and persistent, and acting like a stalker?
Lisbeth, for her part, avoids Mikael at all costs precisely because she is so overwhelmed by the bewildering, contradictory and painful feelings he provokes in her. Lisbeth's trouble is not that she feels too little – though she appears cold as a fish to most people – but that she feels too much, and that she has never learned to properly deal with her emotions, or even interpret them correctly. So she bottles things up and keeps a tight control on her feelings, and instead relies on rational analysis to guide her interactions with other people. The years of domestic abuse, and especially the time she spent in isolation in the psychiatric unit, have stunted Lisbeth's emotional development: she simply has no idea how to relate to other people on an emotional level. When she continues to interpret her emotional reaction to Mikael's presence as "being annoyed", what annoys her is that she can't ignore how he makes her feel – these are emotions that she has to deal with, and they make her feel woefully inadequate, and not in control.
To Mikael (and to a lot of other people), Lisbeth seems like someone who cannot be fazed by anything. And it is true that she has survived, and seemingly been able to brush off, experiences of excruciating brutality, both physical and mental. But these brutalities were always committed by people whom she disliked and distrusted anyway. She doesn't seem to ever have met anyone whom she could really like or trust for their own sake – even her old guardian Holger Palmgren, one of the few supportive people in her life, was an authority figure rather than a proper friend.
When Lisbeth meets Mikael, she experiences for the first time what it is like to be with someone whose company she enjoys for the sake of who he is, and who accepts her in return and does not permanently want to change her. She wants to hang on to that so badly, and at the same time thinks it so unlikely that Mikael could return those feelings, that the simple reminder that there are other people who are important in Mikael's life (i.e. Erika Berger) makes her immediately discard the possibility that their relationship could have any future, and sends her into a tailspin that makes her break off all contact with Mikael, and leave the country just to avoid bumping into him by accident.
If Mikael's thoughtlessness, and his inability to understand how his infidelities hurt the women in his life who take their relationship with him seriously, hurts Lisbeth, then her abrupt disappearance from his life, and her refusal to communicate or give him any opportunity to remedy things, hurts Mikael too. Both attitudes are based on a poor self image: Mikael has failed in a serious relationship before, and does not believe himself capable of sustaining anything more committed than short term casual affairs. Lisbeth struggles with the simplest social interactions and does not believe herself capable of dealing with something as complex as being in love. Neither of them can imagine that they are important enough to the other person, or that their avoidance behaviour would be hurtful to them.
Neither of them seems to think that they have a right to stand up for their own feelings either, or fight for their relationship. Their selflessness and their ability to put themselves in another person's shoes – the very attributes that attract them to each other – now become obstacles. Mikael gives in to his "better sense" and decides to stop his regular visits to Lisbeth's flat, only a few weeks before she returns to Stockholm. Lisbeth, when she spots Mikael in a bar, doesn't have the confidence to go up to him and say hello, especially since she sees him surrounded by other people. So they would each just have got on with their lives – and doesn't it happen all the time in real life! – if it wasn't for serendipity, or Higher Intervention, that brings them together again.
What, then, is so scary about being in love? Apart from the obvious potential for being terribly hurt and disappointed, there is also the fear of what it could make a person do. The most extreme example of this is Martin Vanger, the villain in book one, for whom erotic satisfaction and violence, sex and murder, are two inseparable sides of the same coin.
Mikael has his darkest moment at one point in the second book: he is desperate to solve the puzzle of Dag and Mia's murders but hasn't been making any progress for a while, and he is intensely frustrated that Lisbeth is so reticent and cryptic, despite the fact that it is she who would benefit the most from uncovering the truth. Mikael is sure that Lisbeth is not the murderer, but he is equally sure that she is connected to the events in some as yet unfathomable way. He pays a late evening visit to the Millennium offices and sits pondering. A fleeting thought occurs to him: "Could Lisbeth have been the reason for the murders?"
This, as it turns out, is a fairly accurate hunch: the train of events was set in motion when Lisbeth's legal guardian Bjurman commissioned Zalachenko to get rid of Lisbeth, who has been blackmailing Bjurman with her video recording of the brutal rape he subjected her to in book one. Having great hunches is one of Mikael's talents, an ability which has already stood him in good stead when he was solving the mystery of Harriet Vanger's disappearance. But in this case, it is also a reflection on Mikael's own state of mind: a moment of realization that Lisbeth is a woman who could well drive a man to such a pitch of frustrated passion that they might consider murder. Himself possibly included.
When Mikael is asked during a police interrogation, if he considers Lisbeth capable of murder, he replies that in his opinion, everyone is capable of killing another person if sufficiently threatened or provoked. What he does not believe is that Lisbeth had any reason for doing so, or that she would have chosen someone like Mia Bergman, who is an ally in the fight against men who hate women. Mikael is fully aware that Lisbeth would have killed Martin Vanger if it had been necessary – but she would have done it in order to save his own life. Short of a provocation of that order of magnitude, he does not believe that she would have resorted to that degree of violence. He considers Lisbeth to be a very moral person, who would not hurt anyone for no reason.
The reader, in fact, has already seen Lisbeth kill someone: during her stay in the Caribbean, Lisbeth observes a married couple staying at the same hotel, who obviously have domestic abuse issues. When she spots the husband in the process of murdering his wife, in the middle of a hurricane, she knocks him over the head with a piece of plumbing. He is washed up dead a few days later, presumed a victim of the forces of nature. Again it is a situation where the choice is between the life of an innocent person, and the life of someone who threatens that person – and Lisbeth makes her choice because under the circumstances, she has no other option. This time, Lisbeth isn't defending someone she particularly cares about on a personal level, but she feels solidarity with the mistreated wife, and she cares passionately about seeing justice meted out to men who turn violent toward their partners.
As Mikael – and the reader along with him – finds out in the course of his investigation, Lisbeth is capable of quite conspicuous acts of violence – though, as he has already suspected, never without a pressing reason. It is interesting to note that when Lisbeth attacked her father as a teenager, in a desperate bid to protect her mother, she resorted to arson: this links her to Martin Vanger, who has also burned people (or animals) on several occasions – and to Ronald Niederman, who has a propensity to burn down the locations of his crimes in order to destroy the evidence.
Lisbeth herself has identified arson, along with cruelty to animals, as pointers that indicate a sadistic personality. What distinguishes her from Martin Vanger or Ronald Niederman is not that she does not have these urges: it is the fact that she controls them, and makes sure every way she can that she does not put herself in a position where she might harm innocent people. What scares Lisbeth most about the emotions Mikael wakens in her, is what they might drive her to do: it is her sudden urge to hurt or kill Erika that frightens her into giving up any thought of trying to continue a relationship with him.
At one point in the second book, Lisbeth employs one of the intimidation techniques she has learned from Martin Vanger, to pressure the punter and petty criminal Åke Sandström into giving her information that could lead her to Zalachenko: she suspends him from the ceiling with the same kind of rope device she has seen Martin Vanger use on Mikael. Unlike Martin, she has no intention to actually kill or seriously harm Sandström: she just needs to give him a reason to answers her questions. Even Mikael is copying Martin Vanger, when he gives Niederman the choice to submit to being tied up, or get shot in the knee cap.
When Lisbeth sets out to track down Zalachenko and try to kill him, she is provoked into taking this action by the news that her friend and lover Miriam has been kidnapped and brutally beaten. And when Mikael decides to follow her to Göteborg, he arms himself with her revolver, without fully considering why he is doing so: Mikael doesn't acknowledge it to himself, but obviously the reason is that at this point, even someone as kind, mellow and law-abiding as he is prepared to consider using the weapon to hurt or kill someone, in order to protect Lisbeth. Mikael is also prepared to withhold evidence from the police, and tell the odd lie, in order to cover up some of the less than legal aspects of Lisbeth's life.
In all these cases, characters resort to violence, or consider resorting to violence as an option, *because they love* – and in all cases, it is about protecting someone who is innocent. A threat to a loved one, or a threat to a principle or an ideal one cares about, can be a greater provocation even than simple self-defense: the main difference between Lisbeth and Harriet Vanger is that Harriet killed her father to protect herself, while Lisbeth attempted to kill her father to protect her mother.
It was Lisbeth who pointed out that if Harriet had been less selfish, she would not have hid herself away in Australia for several decades: she would have exposed her brother for the sick bastard that she knew him to be, and Martin would not have been able to go on killing women for all this time. And it is selfishness: when Harriet learns that Lisbeth is accused of murder, her concern is not how she could help the young woman who has played a crucial part in restoring her to her family, but what consequences it might have for her own reputation, and if there is any danger that Lisbeth might reveal what she knows about the Vanger family.
Both Lisbeth and Mikael care intensely about fairness and justice – a justice that isn't about punishing a wrongdoer, but rather about protecting others from their continued wrongdoing. This also implies that when injustice happens to themselves, running away or turning the other cheek is not an option – although they are both initially tempted to act in this way. Mikael fails to defend himself in his trial against Wennerström, and then hides out in Hedeby. He only finds the courage to fight back when Lisbeth tells him that she has a copy of Wennerström's hard drive on her computer. Lisbeth's first reflex when she finds out that she is accused of murders she has not committed, is to wait things out until she can leave the country and create a new identity somewhere abroad. As soon as she is able to think and move again after her injury, she starts to plan her escape from the hospital.
It is Mikael who convinces her to undergo the trial, even though it will mean dragging the most private aspects of her whole life out in the open: his argument is that she has already been so vilified in the media, that it can hardly matter any more. Lisbeth agrees to try his strategy, which if successful will not only allow her to escape in another way, but also make sure that others don't suffer at the hands of the people who have done her wrong. In the end, "it is her desire for vengeance" which prompts her to accept Mikael's proposal, and to agree to work with Annika as her lawyer.
Lisbeth also knows that although she has won the trial, she is not safe as long as Ronald Niederman – her half-brother, and the executor of the three murders Lisbeth was accused of – is still around. It is never stated explicitly, but one reason Lisbeth continues to stay away from Mikael might be that she is afraid he could be targeted by Niederman, just as Miriam was. He becomes the last obstacle she has to get out of the way, before it is safe for her to open her door for Mikael again.
Another theme which winds its way through their entire relationship, is Lisbeth's propensity to deprive Mikael of sleep – starting from the day they first meet. Back in Hedeby the same evening, Mikael lies in bed and can't go to sleep: someone has been in his cabin and looking through his research material, which may be one reason, but when he gets out of bed again he "stands naked by the kitchen window … and lights a cigaret" – and puzzles about the decidedly odd girl he met that morning. When Lisbeth decides to join him in his bed for the first time, it is emphasized that Mikael "only got two hours of sleep" – none of his other relationships seem to interfere quite so drastically with his circadian rhythm.
It gets worse in book two: again, Mikael is unable to sleep and puzzling about Lisbeth, this time in order to make up his mind if he can believe that she murdered his friends in cold blood, or to figure out how she might be connected to the murders. Or he sits in front of his laptop for several hours in the middle of the night after an exhausting day, hoping that she will reply to his latest message. As the plot accelerates, Mikael's sleeping hours seem to dwindle, and by book three, he is working through the nights on his book about Lisbeth, while also keeping up his regular work schedule, and trying to keep the various women in his life satisfied – so one wonders if he ever sleeps at all.
Lisbeth also seems to be reinforcing Mikael's smoking habit, which he had successfully kicked some time ago, but takes up again in Hedeby even before Lisbeth arrives. For Mikael, it seems to become a quiet revolt against Erika's hold on his emotional life: she is a non-smoker who has imposed strict non-smoking policies in the Millennium offices, which Mikael furtively, and later not so furtively, disregards – and she lets him know that she disapproves of his smoking when he does it in her presence, though not quite as aggressively as Monica Figuerola will later do. In book two, when he first learns that Lisbeth is a murder suspect, we even see Mikael resort to alcohol, which is otherwise really not one of his habits, except on social occasions.
The author clearly plays on the "older man driven to distraction by young femme fatale" story type which was so popular throughout much of the 20th century: from Lilith, Lulu and Lolita to the gun-toting, chain-smoking heroines of film noir, and lately, The Bride from Kill Bill, or River Song from the Doctor Who series. Throughout books two and three, Mikael is being worn down to the core. The author uses one of his marvelously mundane metaphors to express this: during the chase for Dag and Mia's murderer, Mikael hasn't had time to do the laundry, and by the time he sets out to follow Lisbeth to Göteborg, he is down to his last clean shirt. He then has to wear the same ill-matched shirt for three days, and eventually, back in Stockholm, he is forced to stop by a store and buy a set of new shirts. Which takes "losing one's last shirt" to the logical extreme!
Lisbeth has some of the attributes of a stereotypical noir seductress: she plays with guns, she chain-smokes, and she is mysteriously attractive to men despite the fact that her physical appearance doesn't conform at all to what is generally regarded as "sexy" in women. Like The Bride, she is hell-bent on revenge, and prepared to kill in order to achieve it – the Alexander Zalachenko storyline in book two and the beginning of book three seems to owe more than a little to Tarantino's cult movie.
But in other ways, Lisbeth doesn't conform to that stereotype at all. For one thing, she is not mysterious to the reader. A large part of the narrative is told from her point of view, and we are privy to her thought processes, her emotions, her insecurities and her vulnerability. femmes fatales are never characters from whose point of view a story is told – they are always characters whose motivations and thought processes mystify the reader or viewer, as well as her fellow characters. Lisbeth is mysterious to Mikael initially: I have already pointed out earlier that to him, Lisbeth's mystery initially is part of the attraction – that is, he casts her as a femme fatale.
But the whole development of their relationship is precisely about Mikael's process of getting behind that mystery: by finding out about her past, he comes to know and understand her, which in turn deepens his feelings for her: from a fairly non-committal attraction, to the unconditional support he offers her later in the story. One is reminded that in biblical language, to have a sexual relationship with a woman is "to know her": a phrase that implies far more respect than the pejorative terms we tend to use for the sexual act, which often double as swear words. No wonder our culture has a problem around intimate relationships!
For another thing, unlike the typical femme fatale who uses her female wiles and physical attraction to manipulate men, Lisbeth is not at all manipulative. She is the exact opposite: she says straight out what she thinks and what she wants, and she addresses any emotional issues that might arise in a completely rational and straightforward manner – such as when she asks Armansky straight out if he feels attracted to her. Or when she walks into Mikael's bedroom and tells him that she wants to have sex with him. She doesn't flirt, she doesn't beat around the bush, and she never resorts to emotional blackmail of any kind.
In fact, it is Mikael who resorts to using his sex appeal for achieving his goals: his aim when he pays Ceciia Vanger an evening visit that ends in her bed, is to find out from her what kind of person Harriet Vanger was. With Monica Figuerola, he pulls a complete Mata Hari. And his relationships with Harriet Vanger and with Erika Berger have some tangible advantages for advancing his professional career. Part of his attraction to Lisbeth also has to do with her professional skills, and the vast opportunities they offer him to gain precious information which he can turn into successful stories. He certainly seems to embrace Lisbeth's illegal hacking activities without a moment's hesitation! But in order to have access to Lisbeth's skills, he does not have to seduce her: he simply hires her. When they begin to have an intimate relationship, it is the result of the pleasure they find in each other's company, and in working with each other: there is no hidden agenda for either of them.
Rather than playing femme fatale to Mikael's entranced older lover, one could even read Lisbeth's storyline as the "young girl awakening": when Mikael first knocks on her door, she "wakes up abruptly" quite literally. Usually, this plotline involves a girl who is sexually innocent and has grown up in sheltered surroundings, and who is seduced by a more experienced man. Lisbeth is neither sexually inexperienced, nor has she grown up in sheltered surroundings – quite the opposite! – and her awakening is not erotic, but emotional. Up to this point, Lisbeth has been using sex as the only form of closeness she knows or is capable of, and she lives in the expectation that anyone who takes a personal interest in her or shows her kindness, does it because they want to have sex with her. Through Mikael, she comes to realize that there is a lot more to being close to another person, than physical intimacy.
Unlike just about every other love story I have ever read or seen on screen, where the relationship always culminates in the sex scene or the proverbial Hollywood kiss – or, in older stories, the marriage proposal – Lisbeth's and Mikael's relationship develops and deepens while they are kept physically apart for the space of two entire novels. The sex scene happens right at the beginning of their relationship: we do, after all, no longer live in a society where sex is only allowed after the lovers have committed to a marriage. After that, what Mikael and Lisbeth have to negotiate is not physical intimacy, but their degree of trust, and of commitment to each other. A lot of the work Mikael has to do, is to convince Lisbeth that even though he is physically attracted to her, his desire to be with her is not about having sex. Sounds like a dilemma which more than one man has to face in this day and age, in a society which regards sex as the single most important building block of any close relationship – but which at the same time still regards it with distrust, as something "dirty".
One thing the internet has brought about, is the realization, by anyone who has ever seriously engaged in online socializing, that physical presence is not necessary for one person to feel attracted to another. We form perfectly valid friendships, even fall in love, with people whom we know only through their words, and through the way they act and interact in a community. It is one of the great attractions of the internet, that it enables us to cut right past the physical impressions which inevitably colour all interactions in "meatspace": we are no longer judged and categorized, in the first few seconds of every new acquaintance, by our gender, our ethnicity, our age, the way we dress, our fitness or lack thereof – unless we choose to give those details away.
Lisbeth and Mikael are, among other things, archetypal representatives of their respective generations. Mikael is a child of the swinging 60's: he believes in free sex, and experimenting with unconventional forms of relationship. As an investigative journalist who is not afraid to play squeaky wheel and address uncomfortable issues – and who suffers the consequences of doing so – he is a typical hero figure of that period.
Lisbeth is an embodyment of the hacker generation: she lives her social life online and has difficulty interacting with people in "meatspace", and she does not respect distinctions of gender – neither in the way she acts, nor in her choice of partners. Her brand of social conscious hacking very much has taken over the role of traditional investigative journalism, of playing watchdog for an open and democratic society, calling out crime and corruption in governments and other powerful organizations. The way events in the novel seem to have played out in real life, after the book was written, is quite uncanny! We could easily see Lisbeth on the team at WikiLeaks – and Mikael as well, for that matter, once he has familiarized himself with the technology.
One of the most brilliant aspects of Stieg Larsson's writing, to my mind, is how he manages to capture this new brand of online social interaction and activism, and the eroticism of it. In a culture and a literary tradition which constantly emphasize the importance of physicality and sex, and which have for a long time idealized "irresistible physical attraction" as the one thing that makes lovers surmount all obstacles to be together, it is refreshing to read a story which is far more realistic in its descriptions of how people who are attracted to one another really interact in our society, and our day and age: what seems to be insurmountable for most people is not our physical attraction, but our fear and self doubt when it comes to committing to another person.
Larsson offers an alternative to the standard romantic plotline, which is optimistic without being unrealistic or saccharine. And the key to that seems to lie in the fact that his lovers aren't irresistibly driven to have sex with each other, and only each other, in the face of all odds – and they never reach a point where they can take the other's consent for granted, which seems to be what the traditional romantic "happy end" is all about. Instead, they regard sex as just one aspect of their relationship, and one which they continually have to negotiate with each other. Their commitment is to supporting each other in all aspects of their lives – private or professional, intellectual or emotional or social or spiritual. Wouldn't that be nice.
The perfect antithesis to this is Mikael's relationship with Monica Figuerola: their relationship has "physical" written all over it in bright bold letters – the author emphazises this to the point of caricature. But Figuerola demands total subjugation: she offers Mikael sex whenever he wants – in fact, one suspects, rather more often than he really wants – and in return she expects his complete commitment to their relationship: she thinks she can demand that he changes his habits and makes promises, because she assumes that what she is offering him will be irresistible.
In view of the literary conventions which I have analysed earlier, it is perhaps unsurprising (if rather disappointing) that so many readers, fans and reviewers seem to have bought Mikael's supposed sudden infatuation with Monica Figuerola at face value. This kind of relationship would be the easy option: Mikael only needs to conform and obey, and in return he would get all the sex he ever wants. None of the frustration and heartache, the constant uncertainty and negotiation that is involved in having a relationship with Lisbeth! But it is the easy option in the same way that Faschism and Totalitarianism are easier than Freedom and Democracy. It is always easier to follow than to lead: to do as one is told, and to abnegate responsibility, rather than making the effort to think for oneself and stand up for one's ideals.
One thing that comes through in Stieg Larsson's writing is a palpable warmth and love for humanity. Most if not all of his characters are flawed in some way, but the author – and the reader – can spare some sympathy even for someone as manipulative as Erika Berger, as bossy as Monica Figuerola, or as pigheaded as criminal investigator Jan Bublanski – as long as they are basically decent people who act to support fairness and justice, and who don't let prejudice dictate their actions.
The characters who receive no sympathy and no excuse at all, are men like Bjurman and Teleborian, or for that matter the out and out misogynic police officer Hans Faste, who abuse their professional authority and their position within the system, to live out their prejudices, their desire for control, their penchant for brutality, and/or their sexual perversions. Zalachenko and Martin Vanger at least have the excuse of having been subjected to intolerable abuse themselves when they were young: though as Lisbeth reminds us, living through an abusive childhood is not sufficient justification for becoming a brutal abuser and murderer oneself. Everyone has a choice who they want to be, and Lisbeth works hard at suppressing any impulses in herself that might put her on a level with someone who inflicts pain for no reason, and who enjoys doing so.
The odd villain out is Ronald Niederman: he is responsible for most of the physical violence and all the murders in book two, and he completely lacks anything approaching a conscience. But he is so deficient, and so haunted by the demons in his mind, that the reader almost feels pity for him. He is Zalachenko's tool, and he simply follows orders. But unlike other people who also make "I followed an order" their excuse, Niederman is unable to function without being told what to do, and he simply does not have the mental or moral capacity to question Zalachenko's instructions. In that regard, he is also a victim: someone who didn't get the social and medical care he needed, and who fell in with the wrong people and is being used by them. At the same time, there is no way to condone him: he is beyond help, and this is what Lisbeth realizes when she sees to it that the bikers from Svavelsjö MC get to him before the police does – because putting him in prison will only mean that he will be on the loose again 10 or 15 or however many years down the track, and there will be more innocent lives at stake, including very much her own.
Then there are the characters who lack spine and moral integrity, and who indulge in forms of abuse and brutality which continue to be condoned by our society: they include prosecutor Ekström, who is too easily maniputlated into playing along with the Section's efforts to rig Lisbeth's trial – as well as all the prostitute's clients we meet in book two. Most particularly Gunnar Björk, who turns out to be the Säpo agent who collaborated with Teleborian to have Lisbeth committed to the mental hospital, and Per-Åke Sandström, the journalist and petty criminal who trades drugs in return for getting free turns with Zalachenko's girls. And there is the geriatric conspiracy of paranoid Cold War relics who drive the action in book three, and who feel justified to walk over several dead bodies, and orchestrate a major miscarriage of justice, in order to protect the secrecy of their organization, in the mistaken belief that it serves the good of the nation.
The heroes of the story, on the other hand, are all people who go beyond what is expected of them, in order to do their jobs well: Anders Jonasson, the physician who protects Lisbeth's interests even to the point of breaking the law. Annika Giannini, who chooses to work with economically and socially vulnerable clients, instead of making a brilliant career as a lawyer for the rich and powerful. Sonia Modig, who puts up with the blatant misogyny in her workplace and sees to it that people like Miriam and Lisbeth are treated fairly, and who goes out of her way to find the truth. Her boss Jan Bublanski, who actively supports her against attempts to undermine her professional position, and who despite his irritation with Mikael Blomkvist's private investigation into the Salander affair, really just wants to get to the bottom of the matter, and soon finds himself on Lisbeth's and Mikael's side.
Lisbeth and Mikael themselves are also in this category: Mikael's patience and persistence, and his utter refusal to ever give up, bring Harriet back to life and save Lisbeth from dying, or being buried alive in a mental hospital. Paired with Lisbeth's toughness and skills, and her no-nonsense approach to seeing justice done, the two of them can make stock markets shiver and governments tremble.
The story's most obvious topic is violence and injustice against women, in its various forms: The first book investigates sexually motivated murders (Martin Vanger), the second book revolves around prostitution and human trafficking (Dag and Mia's research), and the third offers an extremely well observed case study of workplace bullying in the Erika Berger storyline.
The focal point of most of the forms of injustice addressed in the books is Lisbeth: she is subjected to severe domestic violence, being pathologized as "insane", kept in a position of legal dependency by declaring her "incompetent", financial coercion and abuse of authority by her guardian Nils Bjurman, being wrongly accused of crime on the basis of prejudiced assumptions, subjected to public slander in the media on the basis of those same assumptions, brutalized, confined in isolation first in the psychiatric unit, later in the hospital and then in prison, and forced to defend herself against accusations that turn her prior attempts to defend herself against her. Which sounds like a catalogue of all the mechanisms feminists have identified as being used in order to keep women in a position of dependency in our society, and patriarchy safely in place.
Another overarching theme is violation of personal boundaries and invasion of privacy – these occur in a variety of ways, not all of them necessarily negative.
Rape is just one instance of this, where privacy and personal boundaries are violated in a very obvious and physical sense, and with intent to inflict pain and humiliation.
But where do Lisbeth's hacking activities sit? Or the personal investigations she is paid to do by Armansky? The surveillance practised by private firms like Milton Security, as opposed to government agencies like Säpo, or, possibly, people within government agencies who use it for their own personal ends? How does a person's right to privacy balance with the need to protect individuals, and society as a whole, from those who would inflict harm?
What about investigative journalism? Police investigations? Both rely on disregarding privacy in order to uncover truth, make justice happen, and protect innocent people.
Where do stalkers come in – people who practise personal surveillance on the object of their fixation, and who may want to draw their attention or intimidate them, or even threaten them with blackmail?
And how about surgery? Digging around in someone's brain, as Doctor Anders Jonasson does, has got to be the ultimate violation of personal boundaries, but it is necessary for Lisbeth to survive and heal.
What about sex in a loving relationship, for that matter? Where is the boundary? When does persistence become stalking, and when does intimacy become rape? Is there ever a clear cut line, or is it more like a spectrum, where "acceptable" and "unacceptable" must be constantly negotiated?
*** To be continued
Arohanui, from Asni