Asni: Multimedia Art & Design
On a Good Day
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:
- *** Elderberries, Hares and More MOOCs
- *** News and Current Projects
- *** Acts of Love: Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" Trilogy (part 9)
Elderberries, Hares and More MOOCs
I have been pondering a few different ideas how I could turn my property and my newly acquired horticultural expertise into a revenue stream, but here is one that actually worked: I've made a swinging trade with my elderberry cuttings this month. I had a few cuttings sitting around from last year's pruning: Loath to waste them, I'd stuck them in a pot with dirt, and they all took root, so I bought a pack of planter bags for approximately $ 6, and filled them with potting mix, to the tune of maybe $ 10 if it is much.
They sold like fresh baked muffins, at $ 10 each, or $ 15 for a bag with two plants, when I put them on Trademe (the New Zealand equivalent of Ebay). I sold out in just over a week. Total cash intake: $ 115, minus the listing fees (less than $ 10). That's what I call a good return on investment! And one that really wasn't very work or time intensive, other than having them sit around for a year to take root. I'll so definitely be doing more of that! I am already scouring my garden for other plants I could sell.
Elders are a good plant. They are hardy and unfussy, they can be used in hedges and as wind break, they have a reasonably attractive growth habit and sweet smelling blossoms in early summer. The blossoms can be used to make my favourite cordial, and the berries are full of vitamin C – they make a nice jam or juice, which is good against those nasty winter colds. Plus, the bark and leaves have some additional medicinal properties. They have that old fashioned European cottage garden charm which goes really well with the idea of the lifestyle block.
There are a few of them growing wild here in the Wairarapa, though they are not nearly as prolific as where I grew up. The very first thing I did when I moved out to Featherston, was to get a couple of cuttings and plant them next to my shed. They've grown to an impressive bush in the intervening less than five years, and I've started harvesting my own blossoms last summer. Up to that point, I had been foraging the three wild stands I had spotted in the bikeable neighbourhood, for my supply of blossoms.
My elderblossom cordial seems to have acquired a certain amount of local fame: I've been selling it on the Featherston Christmas markets a couple of years in a row, though with a recent change in consumer law, I can no longer sell homemade foodstuffs that have not been processed in a commercial kitchen. Bummer that: every time an old woman figures out a way to feed herself, they have to change the law.
However, about half of my elder shrubs sold locally, and two of the people who came to pick them up mentioned in passing that they'd tried that lovely elderblossom drink someone was selling at the Christmas market a couple of years ago .... ......... ...................... ..................................
So not only have I potentially unearthed a viable business idea, I have also seemingly managed to make an impact on New Zealand culture. Isn't this a wonderful illustration of the butterfly effect? Small random acts which literally change the landscape. My work here is done! If I died tomorrow I would die happy.
Errr, not so fast. There is still some stuff I would like to get done – which brings us to the hares. Make sure to read on in the News and Current Projects section!
I have signed up for a few more MOOCs this month – I find it a pleasant way to spend a cold winter evening, curled up on the sofa with a blanket by the fire, and learning something useful or simply entertaining. My favourite of the lot was Subsistence Marketplaces, taught by Prof. Madhu Viswanathan at the University of Illinois – which offers a series of other MOOCs on topics of sustainability, both in the ecological and in the economic sense.
This was strictly a business course – but unlike most other business seminars I have attended, where I was always put off by the greed mindset they promoted, Prof. Viswanathan offered a different perspective than your average Western capitalist, and an approach to business which I can subscribe to. My own experience being self employed in the arts sector has a lot more in common with what the course defines as "subsistence marketplaces": people living in relative, but not necessarily abject poverty, and running a business to get by and pay for their daily needs – than with the hurrah optimism of never-ending growth potential which more conventional business classes eternally try to instill. I really have no ambition to take over the world with elderberry cuttings – or garden paintings, or hares. The lifestyle I have right now suits me just fine, just as long as I can support it! Well – a bit more travel money might be nice.
There also was a MOOC on Music Production, offered by Berklee College of Music, which was just great because it answered a number of questions I have had in my mind ever since I've started dabbling with my own recording gear and music editing software. I found that I already had a fairly solid level of knowledge of the topic, learned by good old trial and error, but now I have a much better grip on what I am doing. I'm already working on this year's Christmas carol!
The Online Gaming MOOC I signed up for turned out to be less enlightening than I'd hoped – and I didn't manage to install the game on my computer and get gaming, which is what I really ought to do. It turned out to be more about narrative tropes in genre literature, and specifically Lord of the Rings, but as such, it was quite interesting: I can apply that perspective directly to my reading of Stieg Larsson!
Coming up is a course on Scandinavian Film and Television, offered by the University of Copenhagen, which I am really looking forward to. Afterwards, I will probably have to rewrite that whole long essay, but well, that has been the plan all along anyway.
I have also decided that it is time I slimmed this newsletter down a bit. It has been a comfortable format for quite a substantial portion of those 80 newsletters I have written to date, but it does eat a lot of time. I wouldn't call it a waste of time, since this writing has been an enormous help with giving some structure to my working life: setting myself goals and sticking to them, and having a place to catalogue my work on a month to month basis.
It has also been a place to reflect on a variety of topics that occupied me at one time or another: I've enjoyed writing up long meandering essays on things like the Stieg Larsson books, and I am sure it has been therapeutic, but then the question is, who actually reads the stuff? If I want to do writing of that ilk, I need to find myself a different platform. It's becoming hard to justify the time investment, otherwise.
Also, I am seriously running out of friends to feature in my Cool Things Friends Do series! Besides, I do write the fortnightly art features on Amazing Stories, so this section has become somewhat redundant. I am also having thoughts of starting a dedicated gardening blog to support my budding business activities (mind the pun). So I think in future, I will concentrate on the News and Current Projects, and whatever life observations I feel I really must share – and merge the Cool Things Friends Do feature and the reviews section, doing either one or the other, and perhaps even making it altogether optional – for those really busy months. See how that will work!
News & Current Projects
The bad news is, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked this month with working on my hare illustrations. Yet another family drama went down earlier this month, which meant that (yet again, I might add) I lost the best part of a week of work to feeling upset and physically sick. That was a week I could have worked on my illustrations. It's a loss of work time I can very ill afford, given that I am actually trying hard to take positive steps to do something about that vexed money problem. Which I didn't need to have in the first place, if I had been doing what I am doing now, fifteen years ago.
The good news is – and I should say in this case, it easily outweighs the bad – that to my utter astonishment and flabbergasted surprise, I found the title of my book on the list of 37 submissions for the Key Colours Illustrator's Award, which have been selected to be exhibited in the City Museum of Hasselt, and will go on into the next round of the award. Remember that contest I almost bungled the deadline for? I thought I was doing it just as an exercise in how to professionally submit this kind of work, and as a way to give myself a deadline.
This turns my whole view of the universe on its head – according to which Nothing I Do Is Ever Good Enough No Matter How Hard I Try. I'm still coming to terms with the thought. I keep checking their website to see if it was somehow a mistake. Nope – still on the list. At least as of this writing!
The official winner and runners-up will be announced on 27 September, and I won't be putting any finished images online until this contest is finished. But work on the book will be at the top of my priorities list next month, you bet! The last thing I want to happen is to have someone actually interested in publishing the book, and not have it ready.
It's the springblossomy season! I've been out in the garden painting again – you have to grab them while you can, and I didn't want to miss out on a chance to paint my almond tree, and my spectacular irises. These paintings, as usual, are for sale – please email me if you are interested. The Almond Monavale sells for NZ $ 180 / € 120 / US $ 150 (plus shipping) and measures 31 x 60 cm / 12 x 24 inches. The Iris can be had for NZ $ 250 / € 160 / US $ 210, plus shipping, and measures 36 x 92 cm / 18 x 36 inches. Please click on the links, or the thumbnails at the top of this section, for a full view of the paintings.
I also got my portrait drawn: Matchbox Studios is now organizing "portrait days", where people can come and pose for a group of artists, and then buy (or not buy – it's entirely optional) the resulting portraits, for all of $ 10 each. I've been curious to check it out, so one sunny Sunday I drove into Wellington, and ended up with a happy smiling comic version of myself, done by the lovely Shu Fen Tether, aka ksf – here is her blog with all her drawings from this session. I would have bought the whole set of my own portraits, but in the interest of home economy I decided in advance that I was only allowed to buy one. There went my chance to own an original Brendan Grant. Maybe next time.
Then I spent the afternoon in Wellington, re-discovering what an insanely beautiful city it is. At least on a good day. I wandered round the Chaffer's market and stocked up on vegetables, seeing that my own supply is still a bit slow growing. Then I drove out to Seatoun and sketched a rock I remember sketching seven years ago, when I was really getting started with that whole sketching and holding pencil properly thing – just to see if I have at all improved (well – at least I *have* gotten faster). Wellington on a good day, as the saying goes, makes you believe there is not just one, but at least five different benevolent gods.
Earlier this month, I landed another illustration job, though not a paid one: through the Subsistence Marketplaces MOOC, I found a link to the UN Volunteers website. Turns out that doing illustration work, and particularly working with Adobe Illustrator, is a sought-after skill – at least judging from the number of illustration related volunteer opportunities which were listed there.
One of them was to create illustrations for the English as a Second Language online courses at PEOI (Professional Education Organization International) – an organization which aims to offer free vocational education on the net. Sort of like MOOCs, but at Polytechnic level. It's an ambitious project, and still very much under construction, but it seems like a good idea! The opportunities the internet offers to make education globally accessible are really staggering when one thinks about it, and I'm really happy to be involved in that sort of project.
But my main reason for applying was more self-serving: I am still working on making my portfolio of published illustration work look more impressive, and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to achieve that aim, while doing something useful and saving the planet at the same time. There is no particular deadline, but I will be aiming to do one illustration a week (maybe excepting newsletter week!). It's much like the Illustration Friday challenge I used to participate in: a language course offers opportunities to create illustrations for a really wide range of topics, and I was told to take my pick, so I started with some music themed illustrations – of course.
Further on the work front, I have completed – and been paid for, no fuss! – another website, for Hayley Johns Language Services, offering German to English translations, and an English proofreading service. Hayley has been great to work with, very organized and professional, and I am sure she will bring the same approach to her translation business. She also had a really clear idea how she wanted the site to look, and what was to go on it, which made my job a whole lot easier: the end result is heavily based on the design draft she sent me, polished up a little and translated into HTML and CSS.
Hayley is usually based in Plymouth, UK, but she is about to start an exchange year at the University of Tübingen in Southern Germany. Have a look at her site – and, you know, if you need a translator she'll be happy to help!
Artwork of the month: Blackhead beach, three sketches now available on Ebay
ARTWORK OF THE MONTH: This month, I've dug up some landscape sketches from my short holiday at Blackhead beach, up the coast toward Hawkes Bay, a couple of years ago: a view of the beach with the old Maori pa site towering over it, some driftwood and rocks, and a peculiarly shaped coastal tree. They are now available on Ebay, strictly only until the end of September. View my Ebay listings here.
On Amazing Stories, following on from last month's Apocalyptic Space Art, I have selected a number of pessimistic end-of-world scenarios by largely European artists, under the title Exodus. Further in this vein, this month there have been Explosions -– or how we aestheticize catastrophe. Black Holes, for most artists, seem to represent a state of mind and a spiritual concept, just as much as an astrophysical phenomenon – which would be hard to depict anyway, seeing that black holes famously gulp up all light, and are therefore by definition invisible. Visit my author page, with a list of all my blog posts on Amazing Stories.
I now have a garden pond! With water in it! After two years of living with a great big hole in my backyard, it's great to see it all take shape. I only just managed to put the pond liner in this month, and fill it up with water – I still need to tidy up and bury the edges of the liner, and then I'll need to plant up the margin, and find some sand and pebbles to put in the bottom of the pond. I've already bought a couple of oxygenating water plants which I expect to receive in the mail this week, and then I'll be shopping for some fish! I hope I can handle the emotional commitment. Best start modest – then maybe eventually I can work my way up to chickens.
Instead of the sour cherry which I thought I might just have a budget for this month, I went for a damson plum to plant against my back fence. I still haven't quite given up the hope to find a Schattenmorelle tree, though I have also decided to move the red currant bushes, which have been growing in the corner behind the pond, closer to the house. That way, they'll get more sun and more attention, and can provide a much needed wind break for my vegetable beds. Which means there will be space for one or two more trees in the back corner ... which means that I could buy that Serbian variety of sour cherry which I can get my hands on now – and which might be better suited for the Wairarapa climate anyway – and still have space for a Schattenmorelle, if I ever find one, later.
I'd better find some stuff I can sell on Trademe next month, to finance my fruit tree fetish!
*** 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)
To wrap up this long meandering essay, let us have a look at the wider literary tradition – or traditions, plural – in which Stieg Larsson writes, and at some of the sources he may have drawn from. Larsson was obviously well read: he is known to have been an avid reader of murder mysteries, following on from a teenage infatuation with Science Fiction. Most analyses of the Millennium Trilogy which I have read so far, place him firmly in this context, and it is an obvious place to start.
But his reading must have ranged well beyond that – the degree to which his text resonates with references to other literary works, both contemporary genre fiction and older so called "literature", is remarkable. Sometimes these references are explicit, but often they are less obvious – and they go all the way back to medieval romance, antique myth, and the bible.
This is not an author who aims to be "original" in the sense of writing something no one else has yet written. On the contrary: he helps himself to bits and pieces from a wide range of sources, which he then re-interprets to subvert the very tradition he is quoting – and in doing that, me manages to create a web of associations which is entirely original, and which makes it impossible to place these books in any one genre.
It is a writing technique which strikes me as the literary parallel to musical sampling, which is such a staple in contemporary music, especially hip-hop: Wikipedia defines this as "the act of taking a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a sound recording in a different song or piece."
The purpose here is not to "steal", or to plagiarize other people's work: on the contrary, it is a gesture of respect and appreciation for the artists quoted. It also breaks down the boundaries of the individual work, and instead creates a conversation, as it were, between the work of different artists, which adds context and meaning by creating a rich web of mutual references and relationships.
It is the direct opposite of the19th and early 20th century ideal of the monomaniac genius, the truly individual and original artist, worshipped as an almost godlike creator. Not a healthy attitude, let me tell you, toward the creative process! Our time is far more comfortable with the idea that works of art are the result of a collaboration – which they, of necessity, always are, for no one operates in a vacuum, and every artist in any genre has always referred to and borrowed from the tradition they came from, and the culture that surrounded them. The prime art form of our time, film, is quintessentially teamwork.
Larsson himself gives us several pointers to his sources of inspiration, by referring to books his characters are reading: most notably Mikael, who is evidently an avid reader of murder mysteries himself. During his stay in Hedeby, Mikael is seen to be reading three crime novels in particular: The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid, an unnamed novel by Sara Paretsky (assuming that Mikael is reading her latest, this would be the 2003 novel Blacklist ), and an unnamed novel by Sue Grafton (presumably the 2002 mystery "Q" is for Quarry ). All three authors are notable not not only for being successful female crime writers (then again so was Agatha Christie), but also for having their novels center around a female detective.
The inspiration that Val McDermid's extremely gruesome mystery provided for Men Who Hate Women (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is obvious – Stieg Larsson helped himself to a fair portion of this book's climactic scene, mutatis mutandis of course. I take his explicit reference to this novel in his text as a way to acknowledge his source – much as an academic would in their footnotes.
Sue Grafton's "Q" is for Quarry is an unusual book in that it was written to give some publicity to a cold case of an unidentified murder victim from the 1960's, in hopes that someone might still come forward with information that might lead to identifying the victim: a teenage girl found murdered in a quarry. Again, the parallels with Larsson's book are obvious, if less direct than in the case of Val McDermid's novel.
I haven't been able to read Sara Paretsky's novel Blacklist yet – I did get it out from the library, and it is sitting on my coffee table waiting for me to finish this newsletter – so I can't tell you what the relevance of this story might be to Stieg Larsson's book: except that he seems to have named one of his characters after a character in Paretsky's novel. From the blurb, I know that the story involves a murdered journalist, so it stands to reason that Larsson found some inspiration there.
I did pick up one of Paretsky's more recent novels the other day, her 2012 mystery Breakdown. It features all of the following: the lingering legacy of Nazism, people being locked up in mental hospitals, a brother killing a sister, imagery of fire and burning playing a prominent role, and two important characters whose last name is Salanter. Seems like a really nice way to pay a tribute!
Another writer who is named, in a different context in the third book, is Dashiell Hammett – author of the noir genre classics The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man , and The Glass Key. He helped create the stock character of the jaded drinking, smoking and womanizing detective, on which Larsson's Mikael Blomkvist is a pun. And like Larsson, Hammett was also prominently involved in antifascist political activities. I can see how his understated, reporter-like writing style might also have been an influence on Larsson. I have only read The Glass Key, but it seems to me Larsson is deliberately quoting a scene from this book when he has Mikael standing at his window in the nude, contemplating Hedeby church, and thinking about Lisbeth Salander, the night after their first meeting.
Another crime writer who is not named, but who is often quoted in connection with Larsson's writing, is Henning Mankell. Mikael does share a few characteristics with Mankell's police inspector Kurt Wallander: he is also middle aged, divorced, and has a daughter whom he rarely sees – the daughter appears in a short scene in the first Millennium book, and provides a crucial clue toward solving the Harriet mystery. But Mikael is a lot more easy going and happy-go-lucky than Mankell's permanently anxious and notoriously dyspeptic Inspector Wallander – though he does share some of his poor eating habits. In the second and third Millennium book, Mikael's daughter and ex-wife somehow drop below the radar – it might be that Larsson lost interest in setting up Mikael as an anti-Wallander of sorts.
The assonance Salander – Wallander is also hardly coincidental. But if there are any direct references to Henning Mankell to be found in the Millennium trilogy, it would be to his 2001 novel Tea-Bag (translated as The Shadow Girls), which is not part of the Kurt Wallander series.
The story juxtaposes the fates of three illegal immigrant women in Sweden – one from Russia, one from Iran, and one, the eponymous Tea-Bag, from an unspecified country in Africa – with the first world troubles of Jesper Humlin, a once successful writer of poetry who meets the young women at a poetry workshop and instantly becomes fascinated with their stories, though his attempts to help are ultimately self-centered and unconstructive.
One of the young women in Mankell's story is a victim of the sex trade from Eastern Europe, another has to fight her conservative family's attempts to shut her up and lock her in – the book also features another character, the Iranian woman's sister, who has been deformed by an acid attack for not wanting to marry the (clearly unsuitable) man her family chose for her. Like Lisbeth Salander, she lives a secluded life in a flat where there are no pictures or other ornaments, nothing of a personal nature.
Tea-Bag, the spunkiest of the three although she has arguably had the hardest journey, seems to be Mankell's take on Pippi Longstocking: she has an imaginary pet, a monkey who travels on her back. Perhaps this connection explains Lisbeth's sojourn in Gibraltar toward the end of the Millennium trilogy: the British enclave is the port of entry to Europe for many African refugees, and Tea-Bag has spent quite a long time there living in a refugee camp, looking for a place to go and a way to get there.
Larsson has explicitly modelled his two main characters on two of Astrid Lindgren's heroes: Lisbeth is "an adult Pippi Longstocking", the girl who is strong enough to lift a horse, has a suitcase full of gold coins, and lives her life without adult interference, sharing her house with her horse and her monkey.
Mikael is a grown up version of Kalle Blomkvist (Bill Bergson in the English translation), the boy detective who solves a series of crimes in his hometown, Lillköping. Mikael, whose full name is Carl Mikael Blomkvist, has been nicknamed "Kalle Blomkvist" ever since, as a young journalist, he identified the perpetrators of a bank robbery – a crime which is very similar to one of the crimes Lindgren's hero solves.
While Pippi is something of a child superhero, whose special gifts enable her to successfully battle authority and lead a completely anarchic life, Lindgren's Kalle Blomkvist is a most ordinary boy – he is neither particularly strong, fast, courageous, or good looking, and he is probably a little stout. His main qualities are persistence, imagination paired with logical thinking, and the ability to follow the clues and acknowledge that untoward things could happen even in his sleepy little hometown, something which all the adults brush off as far too unlikely.
Both Pippi and Kalle have two best friends: Pippi is befriended by the neighbourhood siblings Tommy and Annika Settergren: Like her namesake Annika Giannini, who is Mikael's sister and Lisbeth's lawyer, Lindgren's Annika tends to be cautious and tries to stick to the rules of the adult world, while her brother Tommy – like Mikael – is far easier to convince to participate in Pippi's unconventional projects and schemes. But Annika also occasionally prevents the two from harming themselves.
Kalle Blomkvist's closest friends, and his allies in their ongoing playful neighbourhood game at "War of the Roses", are Eva Lotta Lisander – Lisbeth Salander appears to be, among other things, a play on her last name – and Anders Bengtsson, the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Anders Jonasson, Lisbeth's physician at Sahlgrenska hospital, was originally going to be named after a personal friend of the author, who eventually asked for his name to be removed, in protest against the way Larsson's lifelong partner Eva Gabrielsson was being treated by Larsson's family, who have inherited all of Larsson's assets including the rights to the three novels. But the character was always going to be called Anders, for symmetry's sake.
Neither Mikael nor Lisbeth are particularly happy with being compared to their literary counterparts: Lisbeth resents being called Pippi Longstocking – an association which more than one character in the novel makes. And Mikael detests his official nickname Kalle Blomkvist.
Knowing this, Lisbeth at first avoids using the nickname. In the first book, she generally refers to Mikael as "Bror Duktig" – which as far as I can make out, means "Know-it-all": the term "duktig" can refer to a whole spectrum of positive qualities from "good" and "morally sound" to "clever" to "capable", but Lisbeth regards Mikael as an officious and naive "do-gooder" even though she acknowledges that he is one of the few really decent people she knows. The English translation renders the term as Practical Pig, referring to the Disney cartoon character who is indeed called Bror Duktig in Swedish, which may well be the association Larsson intended, given his propensity to refer to popular culture icons. To my mind, it does create an unfortunate association with the idea that "men are pigs", which could be seen as a pun on Mikael's promiscuity but is as far as I can tell, absent in the Swedish original.
After she has broken off her relationship with Mikael, Lisbeth makes a point of referring to him as "Kalle Jävla Blomkvist" – which is adequately rendered as "Kalle Fucking Blomkvist" in some of the English editions, though others tone it down to something less four-letter-wordy. Again, a translation which is adequate in and of itself, creates associations which aren't present in the original: "Jävla" is a generic swear word in Swedish which is used (liberally) much like "fucking" in English, but etymologically it is derived from the word for "devil", not for the sexual act: again, it is tempting to read it as a play on Mikael's propensity to sleep around, but this association is not present in the original (unless I am missing something, which is possible since my Swedish is far from fluent).
Mikael, in his turn, teases Lisbeth by giving her a password derived from "Pippi", but he is also able to identify her flat when he notices the nameplate Lisbeth is using, V. Kulla – a reference to Pippi Longstocking's abode, Villa Villekulla.
Lisbeth herself uses the handle "Wasp" when she operates on the internet, and this is how she is known to her community of hackers, who for the most part have no idea of each other's meatspace identities. It is also the password Lisbeth uses for her alarm system, which Mikael is able to guess correctly, and the name of the company she sets up to handle her financial assets, Wasp Enterprises. The nickname was bestowed on her by Paolo Roberto and the members of his boxing club, and Lisbeth seems to take some pride in it – she even wears it as a tattoo. It is presumably a reference to the Marvel Comics character from The Avengers, who shares Lisbeth's resourcefulness and diminutive size.
I have already pointed out the parallels between Stieg Larsson's story and one of Selma Lagerlöf's most famous novellas, En Hergårdsägan (The Tale of a Manor) – particularly in the symmetry that exists in the relationship between the two main characters, and in the way the romantic relationship is treated. Both stories focus on the process of healing from trauma and mental illness (though in Lisbeth's case, the mental illness was never real). Lagerlöf's character Ingrid, in turn, was inspired by one of the most influential literary creations of the 19th century, Mignon from Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
It has occurred to me to wonder if Larsson deliberately borrows elements from this 19th century bestseller, far fetched as it may seem. The cultural influence of Germany is definitely stronger in Sweden than it is in the Anglo-Saxon countries, and Wilhelm Meister has been vastly influential in its time, and belongs in the canon of literary classics which continue to be routinely taught and read in schools and universities. I haven't read the books myself, so I am relying on the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, but the characters of this novel are certainly familiar from the repertory of 19th century German Lieder, which I do know quite a few of.
Like Mikael, Wilhelm Meister enters a series of relationships with various women in the course of the narrative. It might even explain the theme of Amazons in the start-of-section inserts in the third of the Millennium books: the woman Wilhelm Meister eventually takes off with, is described as an "Amazon", i.e. in this context, a self reliant and self determined woman. It also hasn't escaped my notice that the crucial scene at the end of book one, when Lisbeth goes to tell Mikael that she is in love with him, but finds him heading off to make love to Erika, has a direct parallel in a pivotal scene in Wilhelm Meister, when Mignon wants to steal into Wilhelm's bed but finds him there with another woman. She is so profoundly hurt that she goes and wastes away from consumption, in the proper 19th century manner. Mignon is still a child – if a rather precocious one. But then Lisbeth is often taken for much younger than she is, because of her small stature and because her body has failed to develop some of the adult female features – like proper breasts. Pippi Longstocking, after all, never wanted to grow up.
There certainly is a 19th century romantic flair to Larsson's story: I am not the only one who has made the association with Dostoyevsky. Larsson himself hints at the connection when he has Lisbeth read Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment while she is sitting in a cafe in Göteborg, keeping watch on Zalachenko's post box and waiting for someone to pick up the mail and lead her to his hideout.
As an avid reader of science fiction and speculative fiction, Larsson is likely to have been acquainted with Ursula Le Guin's work. I am thinking particularly of Tehanu, the fourth book in the Earthsea series: Tehanu, the eponymous heroine, has been severely mistreated as a young child, culminating in an attempt to burn her alive, which leaves half her face permanently disfigured (in the Millennium books, this is more or less what Lisbeth does to her father, rather than the other way around). She is adopted by Tenar, the main character of the second of the Earthsea books. As it turns out, Tehanu is in reality a dragon, and eventually takes on her true form: it is hinted that Lisbeth may have a similar ability, and that the famous dragon tattoo is more than just body decoration – Niederman clearly perceives her as a dragon when he finds that she has risen from the grave he has just buried her in.
On the other hand, Lisbeth may owe her tattoo to another feminist fantasy author, Robin Hobb, and her character The Fool, who sports a tattoo of several dragons across his back. I have no way of knowing if Larsson was familiar with Robin Hobb's work, but Lisbeth does share quite a few traits with The Fool: both characters are extremely private and solitary, both are the constant target of bullies and have difficulties forming normal social relationships, and both are "different", androgynous, and possibly even supernatural. Both have exceptional capabilities of skill and intelligence, which help them survive despite being physically small and frail. Both have one person in their lives whom they are able to open up to and trust, and who is also their main ally in saving the world and fighting the powers of evil – but if anything, FitzChivalry Farseer is even slower in recognizing the extend of his feelings for The Fool, than Mikael is in acknowledging his love for Lisbeth. Both characters go through an episode of death and resurrection (near-death in Lisbeth's case, actual death in The Fool's), and both survive only because that other person refuses to give up on them.
I wonder if there is any work in contemporary genre literature that has not been influenced by Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Larsson throws in a few references, and he has Mikael watch the Lord of the Rings movie in the cinema in Hedestad, and reflect on the fact that "orcs are a whole lot less complicated than humans".
Most of all, I seem to find echoes of its structure in the Millennium trilogy: there is the obvious fact that it is also a continuous and fairly epic narrative about the struggle of good versus evil, which is split into three books. The first book is geographically, and plot-wise, removed from the later events of the story: it takes place in small town rural Sweden, which has some aspects of The Shire, except that all is definitely not well under the uneventful and respectable surface. There is also a fair amount of traveling involved: we visit various places in Northern Sweden, London, and a sheep farm in Australia. Despite the dark events of the past, there is lightness and companionship, especially in the interactions between Lisbeth and Mikael: at times it feels like they are on a happy summer holiday, rather than hunting a dangerous serial murderer.
The second book splits the action into two distinct strands, which cover the same events and the same time period, once from Mikael's and then again from Lisbeth's point of view – and Larsson is possibly even more meticulous than Tolkien in plotting out the chronology of events, although he replaces Tolkien's references to phases of the moon and other natural phenomena to indicate the synchronicity of events in the two different narrative strands, with his more computer age date stamp method. And just like The Two Towers, the book ends with a cliffhanger, which leaves the reader in doubt if the main character will survive.
The third book of Larsson's trilogy, much like Tolkien's Return of the King, pulls all the strands of the story and all its actors together for an epic legal battle, fought on several fronts at once. Lisbeth's journey through the institutions of authority: the hospital, the prison, and finally the courtroom – might be seen as her trip into Mordor and toward Mt Doom, while Mikael is busy assembling the troops and supporting her by creating "a diversion". There even is a somewhat extended coda, after the reign of evil has been blown over and Teleborian and the Section have met their deserved fates: Lisbeth's final confrontation with Niederman might be something like the Scouring of the Shire. Unlike Frodo, however, Lisbeth does not sail off to Valinor – she has the chance to heal, and enjoy the fruits of her victory.
Even further back in the history of literature, there are a number of allusions to medieval romance and chivalric literature. In particular, the story makes me think of Wolfram von Eschenbach's version of the story of Parzival, the pure but extremely naive knight who inadvertently stumbles across the Holy Grail, but fails to grasp the chance by asking the right question, and is dismissed with disappointment and anger. In Wolfram's version – unlike his French source text – Parzival does get a second chance, after he has persisted in seeking the Grail for many years, shouldering all manner of toil and trouble, as well as separation from his beloved wife and young children.
The Millennium trilogy is also about second chances: Mikael, whose private life is a shambles, has his chance at a relationship with a soulmate presented to him on a silver plate, but bungles it through carelessness. He refuses to give up on Lisbeth, and eventually she lets him back into her life and into her flat, which is a magic hidden realm much like the Castle of the Holy Grail, and can only by accessed by the person who has the right password and the right key – just like the Castle of the Holy Grail only reveals itself to those who have been chosen to find it.
There are also echoes of the Orpheus myth, both in the resurrection of Harriet from her supposed murder, and particularly in Mikael's efforts to retrieve Lisbeth from her emotional death as a victim of violence and extreme injustice, in danger of being permanently buried alive in a psychiatric ward. Like his mythical counterpart, Mikael fights with the power of his words. The scene in the third book, when he is summoned to an impromptu meeting with the Prime Minister, and has an emotional outburst, telling the assembled high ranking state officials exactly what he thinks of a government which allows a twelve year old girl to be shut up in a psychiatric ward on a cooked up diagnosis of mental illness, in order to protect a sociopathic crook who happens to be useful to the powers that be, for all the world reminds me of Orpheus confronting Hades, and begging him to return his beloved Euridice.
The books have been made into a very successful TV mini series, later re-cut as a cinema release movie, in Sweden. Both the TV and cinema versions deviate substantially from the book, mostly for reasons of plot and character economy. The longer TV version stays closer to the original and is, on the whole, a more successful film: it gives more space to the relationship between Mikael and Erika, to Lisbeth and Mikael working together and getting to know each other, and in the second and third film, to the police investigation and particularly Sonja Modig's character, which has been cut almost entirely from the cinema version.
The third film takes the most liberties: it leaves out the entire plot line of Erika Berger getting a new job, and instead lets her receive threatening emails at the Millennium offices, which she uses as an excuse to try to emotionally blackmail Mikael into desisting from publishing Lisbeth's story. This is a reading of the character which emphasizes her manipulativeness and possessiveness, but it makes her more explicitly bitchy than she is in the books – Larsson is at pains to show that Erika does support Lisbeth, and that Lisbeth in turn is making an active effort to overcome her jealousy and treat Erika as an ally. The film version sets up a conventional old lover/new lover rivalry between Lisbeth and Erika, which Larsson is at great pains to avoid. The film version also leaves out Mikael's affairs with Cecilia, Harriet, and Monica Figuerola, which takes away an important aspect of this character – though the viewer who has read the books is free to imagine that they do happen off screen.
Both lead actors do a fantastic job: Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth has received much well deserved praise, and earned her a ticket to Hollywood. But I am particularly in love with Michael Nyqvist's take on Mikael Blomkvist: he has that character down pat, in an utterly convincing performance, though he does play Mikael perhaps a tad more warm and all around loving than he comes across in the books.
I haven't been able to make myself watch the American film version (so far only the first part of the trilogy has finished production, and one sincerely wishes they would leave it at that), starring Daniel Craig as Mikael (completely miscast in my opinion), and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth: the film teaser poster, showing a naked Salander held in a protective embrace by a Mikael who looks like James Bond with a bad shave, was enough to tell me that this was not a movie I wanted to watch, or which would be even trying to convey the spirit of the original. Quite the contrary, really. It was to be expected, when Hollywood got its fingers on material that promotes radical ideas like, women are people who can think and fend for themselves, not sex objects who need to be owned and protected by a strong man. After all, making them that is precisely what their industry thrives on. It profoundly angers and disgusts me. One of the reasons I set out writing this whole long piece here!
More on that topic, by someone who has actually watched the film, on this blog – I'll let them do the analyzing.
The MOOC on Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative which I took this month made a distinction between the conventions of "realist literature" versus "romance literature": while the former aims to create characters with complex psychologies, who act and react in complex and realistic ways, romance literature relies on character types, and tends to create multiple similar characters who each represent an aspect of psychological reality.
Larsson skillfully rides the fence: his topic, and the social criticism implied in it, are firmly within the realm of realist literature, and he goes to great and explicit length to anchor his narrative in the real world: the meticulousness with which he plots the timing and geographical location of the events in the story is remarkable, a tribute doubtlessly to his journalist training and sensibilities. These are real Stockholm streets and cafes and apartments, and I bet the floor plan at Sahlgrenska hospital is precisely how Larsson describes it. Lisbeth's flat actually exists, and so does Mikael's, even if the author had to give his building an extra door to accommodate part of his plot. You can follow the motions of the characters on a street map.
Hedestad and Hedeby are fictional locations (though there is a town called Hede further inland roughly at the latitude where Hedestad would be, which I happen to know because I once spent part of a summer holiday there as a child), but the other towns and villages Mikael visits during his hunt after Harriet's murderer, are real.
At the same time, the characters and the events in the story, while plausible and believable according to their own inner logic, are not realistic: it is possible to imagine someone like Lisbeth, and to believe that she would act and react in precisely the ways the character does in the story, but I very much doubt that someone like her actually exists. Even Mikael, the Very Ordinary Everyman, is far too all around nice and decent and loving and accepting, while at the same time entirely unprepared to let crooks get away with shit, to be entirely real – not to mention, he does the dishes. If such a person actually exists, would they please consider marrying me? Mr. Darcy, move over.
The author gives us a few hints that the world of the novel is not really the real world, but rather a parallel universe. For instance, in the very first scene of the first book, the pressed flower which Henrik Vanger receives on his 82nd birthday, while being entirely plausible, is not a species that actually exists: There is no Leptospermum rubinette, although its close relative Leptospermum scoparium is indeed very common in New Zealand. And Larsson evidently knew the kind of audience he was writing for well enough, to know that some people would actually look that up!
In the second book, the equation central to Fermat's theorem – the famous mathematical puzzle that fascinates Lisbeth until she sees the solution in a flash just before receiving a bullet in her brain – is misquoted, or rather, the author quotes a specific case, a3 + b3 = c3, rather than the general form of the equation, which is an + bn = cn .
Lisbeth's fascination with mathematics in the second book is a nod to another Scandinavian bestseller, Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg, whose heroine is also a socially incompetent but otherwise highly capable and independent woman, who reads mathematics treatises for fun and relaxation. Larsson seems to be using the increasingly complex equations he cites at the beginning of each section of the book, as a metaphor for the increasingly complex networks of relationships his characters form. In that sense, it is probably not an accident that Lisbeth is puzzling about an equation that involves a combination of powers of three.
Lisbeth's photographic memory, in the sense that she can literally remember complex images like a photograph in her mind, and recall specific details – such as a car registration number – which she did not pay particular attention to at the time – belongs in the realm of urban legend. Niedermann's condition, congenital analgesia, on the other hand, really does exist.
Larsson set out to write a popular novel that addresses various forms of violence against women, and the Millennium trilogy certainly puts a number of uncomfortable topics front and center, which are not generally the realm of literature-as-entertainment. The fact that he succeeded so spectacularly in doing this is remarkable in itself.
But Larsson's critique of patriarchal structures goes deeper than simply airing a number of social issues: the very way his narrative is structured, and the way his characters relate to each other, is an attack on the standard romantic love plot, which has for a long time been complicit in creating an ideal of romantic love which is unrealistic, and leads to all manner of unhealthy, toxic and abusive relationships: Here is a good blog on that topic, which makes some of the same points I have been trying to make here, but much more concisely.
"The private is the political", is one of the central ideas of feminism. Change in society must start with ourselves, and with the way we treat and relate to those who are closest to us. The love story between Lisbeth and Mikael is not just cake decoration, aimed to add some romantic zest, and make the serious and uncomfortable topics this novel addresses more palatable to the reader: it is the very core of the author's message. It offers an alternative definition of what true love really means, to the unrealistic, and sometimes positively harmful ideals which literature, poetry, popular song and film have helped promote for centuries.
*** The End ***
Arohanui, from Asni