Monday, February 22, 2010

Stieg Larsson – by the woman who shared his life

The first film of the Swedish writer's work is about to open in Britain, his books are smashing sales records round the world, and an ex-colleague has written a book questioning his reputation. Now the woman who shared Larsson's life speaks of the grief she suffered, and her crusade to guard his flame

Story by Rachel Cooke, The Observer, Sunday 21 February 2010

Left - Eva Gabrielsson, partner of the late Stieg Larsson, in Stockholm this month. Photograph: Jan Johannessen/Panos Pictures

In April 2004, just as Sweden was emerging from another long, hard winter, Eva Gabrielsson's partner of 32 years, a moderately impoverished journalist called Stieg Larsson, sold his crime novel, the first book in what he hoped would be a long series, to a Stockholm publisher. The couple were glad about this, though modest in their ambitions for it. "We thought: if we're lucky it will sell in Scandinavia and Germany," says Gabrielsson. "Our plan was that the income from the first book would go to us, and that we would use it – depending on its size – to pay off our loans, and to get a summer cottage in the archipelago. The money from the next six or seven, we would donate to our causes."

For both of them this was a happy time; a writer is perhaps never more light-hearted than in the weeks following the signing of a book deal, when his dreams have not yet been dented by bad reviews or poor sales. But for Gabrielsson it was also heavy with foreboding. "I thought: there will be a balance for this good fortune. There has to be. Something horrible will happen. I had an ill feeling all the time." What was her fear? "I thought it would be me, something would happen to me. I was travelling a lot for work. I thought I would fall under a train. So we had our little measures. I would phone him from the railway station; I would phone him when I got to my destination; I would phone as soon as I arrived in Stockholm four days later."

But these telephone calls, such 21st-century amulets, were no good. The bad thing happened, and it led, domino-like, to more bad things: painful things that reverberate to this day. On 9 November 2004 Gabrielsson received a call from one of Larsson's colleagues. He was telephoning from a hospital. Larsson had collapsed. "You have to get here," he said. Gabrielsson took the next train which, as she puts it now, "wasn't very… next". When she switched trains, halfway, she called Larsson's father, Erland. He wasn't at home so she left a message with his partner: he should come to Stockholm. Something serious had happened to his son though she didn't know what, exactly. This was at about 5pm. Unfortunately, this call, too, was in vain. By the time Erland arrived two hours later, Gabrielsson already knew that Larsson, who she'd known since she was 18 years old, was dead. Fifty-year-old Larsson, a heavy smoker, had had a massive heart attack after walking up several flights of stairs to his office (the lift was not working). He never regained consciousness.

What followed is the stuff of a hack writer's dreams (I shamelessly include myself in this description): unlikely, mysterious and replete with avarice and general bad behaviour. Gabrielsson and Larsson had never married. Under Swedish inheritance law this meant that, because he died intestate, she was entitled to nothing. The estate, relatively small at the time, was duly divided between Erland Larsson and his remaining son, Joakim. For Gabrielsson this was traumatic. It wasn't the money that mattered; it still doesn't. Nor was it the fact that the Larssons now owned half of her home. What she cared about was Stieg's work: his books. Who would make sure that, were they to be sold in other countries, they would be properly translated? And were they – preposterous thought – to be made into films, who would look after the rights, who would make sure the plots were not straightened, the characters prettified?

Of course, in the dark November of 2004, these issues were not so pressing as they later became. For one thing, Gabrielsson was in deep grief. She could hardly feed herself, let alone worry about lawyers and contracts and a paperback book by an author who, for all that he had meant everything to her, was entirely unknown in the world of international crime publishing. But just as she was starting to feel a little more like herself, another twist in the tale. The three novels that Larsson had completed before his death, now known as the Millennium Trilogy, were duly published, one by one, and they sold. Not just well but like crazy: three million copies and rising in Sweden alone. Soon they were translated into other languages. The French and the Germans were mad about them, and so were the British, who are now buying more of Larsson's books than they are even of Dan Brown's. In Sweden work began on filming the trilogy (the first of these films, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, is released in the UK this month); talk of Hollywood remakes followed. By the time 2008 arrived, Stieg Larsson was the bestselling author in the world after Khaled Hosseini, and Erland and Joakim Larsson were in receipt of a fortune. "The books have sold 22m copies in 42 countries," says Gabrielsson. "I've seen estimates which suggest that, so far, they have made around €30m."

Gabrielsson and I are sitting in the cafe of a Stockholm museum. Outside it is -12C, and the sky is the no-nonsense white-grey of a dirty net curtain. Our meeting is not clandestine, exactly: we sit by the window to eat our open sandwiches. But still, better here than at home. Gabrielsson, who is an architect with wonderful idiomatic English and a good line in irony, does not like people to know where she lives. Larsson devoted most of his career to fighting the extreme right in Sweden – among other things, he reported on the 1999 murder of the trade unionist Björn Söderberg by Swedish neo-Nazis – and, fearing that attempts would be made on his own life as a result, the couple kept not only their address secret, but their relationship, too (it was always Gabrielsson's name on the door of the one-bedroom apartment). This was why they never married. According to Swedish law, couples who are planning to marry are obliged to publish their address. It was safer just to go on living together, though they did have engraved gold wedding bands, and Eva still wears hers today. Does this sound paranoid? Does it sound like something straight out of Larsson's conspiracist novels? Perhaps. But she is not a fantasist, and Sweden is not, as we're fast learning thanks to its legion of crime writers, a land only of cuddly paternity rights and wall-to-wall childcare.

At least one serious attempt was made on Larsson's life. A gang of skinheads with baseball bats gathered outside his office. He foiled this scheme by exiting via a rear door. Another plot involved a Swedish SS veteran. Larsson's name and passport photograph were also found when the Swedish police searched the apartment of a fascist arrested for a political murder. "In 1993 members of a rightwing group were arrested for telling people to kill Stieg," says Gabrielsson. "I went to the police, and I told them: we need secure identities. They agreed straight away. They knew the threat." Did this make her feel safe? "It made me feel safer. But two other journalists who were killed had deep secure identities, so…" So, not really? She nods her head.
Rivetting stuff, read the rest at The Observer online.

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