By Chris Wallace
Imagine an AAP employee who despite intense journalistic aspirations never quite makes it to the reporter’s desk – a biggish guy, knowledgable, intense, prone to tweed jackets and John Lennon eyeglasses, living a second life devoted to left-wing politics with his equally intensely political de facto wife. He is worthy, admirable even, but you probably smile weakly and pick up the pace a bit when your paths cross in the corridor at work. The big, bearish lefty do-gooder is just a bit too earnest to want to shoot the breeze with about politics or the ponies after all.
Now think about that youngish woman you see at the local café with the baby in the stroller, making one coffee last a long time. From a good family, if the accent is anything to go by, and with a degree in French and Classics, you understand, from a not bad university (but what can you do with a degree in French and Classics, you mutter). Did a little work in Paris for Amnesty, then on to a brief, fecund marriage to a journalist while passing through Portugal teaching English. Now living on welfare benefits and at times depressed to the point of suicidal thoughts but with brighter prospects now she’s decided to get her teaching diploma. At least then she’ll be able to get off benefits.
Easily conjured figures, familiar but mostly ignored as we go about our daily business. But those described (in their pre-stratospheric success incarnations) are on The Guardian’s recently released “Books power 100” list of the most significant people in the British book industry. The first is Stieg Larsson (an employee of Swedish AAP equivalent TT for twenty frustrating years), who comes in at Number 18 on the list, and the second is JK Rowling who comes in at Number 2 behind Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and ahead of Google CEO Larry Page.
One can’t help but love these misery-to-magic stories and the fact that it was because people loved their stories (The Millenium Trilogy, the Harry Potter series) that both went on to become writing titans of the early 21st century. Interestingly, Rowling is alive as her series is at a self-declared end while Larsson is dead but his series has a tantalizing fourth possible book in the ether.
Larsson’s death aged 50 has been on my mind this week. It’s the sixth anniversary next month of the fatal heart attack he suffered after walking up seven sets of stairs because of a broken Stockholm lift. An artist friend in Mongarlowe and I, both stricken with ‘flu, traded emails about untilled spring flower beds (her) and sulking front garden grevilleas (me) as symbols of both paying the price for trying to fit too many things into too little time. I self-prescribed “more tortoise, less hare” as the solution but it’s taken a bacterial hammering for the insight to occur. A big one. Big enough to put me in bed for a week. Learning the hard way – there’s nothing like it.
At least Stieg Larsson left behind three arse-kicking feminist novels before he carked it, I chided myself, and that despite his hard-driving lifestyle. It sent me looking for his partner Eva Gabrielsson’s recently published memoir There are things I want you to know – Stieg & Me (Allen & Unwin). Gabrielsson writes of “Stieg’s deadly exhaustion” and of the “same lousy eating habits” of Larsson and his protagonist Lisbeth Salander “given their addiction to frozen pizzas and fast-food sandwiches”.
“Aside from the all too rare times when we went sailing,” Gabrielsson writes, “Stieg, like Mikael Blomkvist, didn’t go in much for sports, ate indiscriminately, smoked, and I’ve already said he drank too much coffee. Which, given the stressful life he led, doubtless contributed to his premature death.” (NB: He wasn’t a heavy drinker. It does interfere with getting work done.)
Gabrielsson’s account is unusual but fascinating. The New York Times review called it an “odd, idiosyncratic book” nevertheless up to “something more ambitious and personal than everyone else” involved in the now three ring Stieg Larsson circus. That’s because Larsson and Gabrielsson were really on a mission, one Gabrielsson outlines in her book. And Gabrielsson has the computer with the crucial 200 pages of the fourth book of the Millenium series in her possession, keeping it beyond reach of the forces more concerned with royalties than Larsson’s political and literary legacy. It’s almost like the plot of a Stieg Larsson novel.
Gabrielsson does disclose two column-cruelling facts, however: Larsson’s mother died of a heart attack at 56 as did her father, Stieg’s grandfather. Pass the frozen pizza.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 8 October 2011