It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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I was late to the Millennium party, only reading Lisbeth Salander’s story in March. This is not something you can accuse UK crime fiction expert Barry Forshaw of. His biography of Swedish author Stieg Larsson displays all the characteristics of a book written and edited too quickly to make the most of a new phenomenon, or a current affairs event: the editing is uneven (people called alternatively by their first and last names is a particular pet peeve of mine), it contains too many repetition easily mistakable for page fillers (I understood Larsson’s death was accidental, despite the conspiracy theories, the first three times, ta very much) and it displays a botch structure.

The Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest) is at the heart of the biography. In his introduction, Forshaw argues Larsson’s “biography is, to some extent, to be found in his books”, promising to discuss both the novels faults and felicities (his words). Yet he falls short of either, drawing parallels anyone with an Internet connection or a Psychology magazine subscription could have done: there is a lot of Larsson’s personality in Mikael Blomkvist, from his journalism job, engaged magazine ownership and disregard for his health to his wishful realisation of all women falling for him. Forshaw’s 152 pages long summary of the books won’t teach you anything if you’ve already read them (A few factual errors even found their way into the paraphrasing) and will either be lost on you or reveal too much if you haven’t. It displays few qualities of literary criticism, beyond regretting Larsson’s editing wasn’t tighter and remarking on his ability to keep the reader interested, after testing him with lengthy information, in a move Forshaw compares with Marcel Proust Swan’s Way. Forshaw’s biography could be put down to commercial accumen, intellectual curiosity, admiration or hatred of Larsson’s writing yet his summary, for all its flaws, is balanced, suggesting theĀ Millennium description of sex and violence owes more to commercial imperatives and voyeuristic vibe than to narrative necessity.

The book really comes together in its seventh chapter, when Forshaw, making the most of his literary expertise and contacts interviews the best contemporary crime writers on their views on Larsson. The consensus is that the third book is the worse one, prompting questions on his ability to maintain momentum, that his untimely death added mystic to his books, that they sold well in the UK because the atmosphere is GB-grim and that his journalism and knowledge of the far right was laudable. Sadly, and rather lazily, all interviews are presented as lengthy quotes after an introduction of each writer’s crime credentials, leading to repetitions. These literary opinions would have been stronger split out by theme, for instance focusing on Larsson’s legacy (this was a trilogy with an agenda, has it changed anything in Swedish society?), his place amongst other crime writers, Nordic or else (chapter 6 lists biographies of the best Scandinavian crime writers without establishing links with Larsson) and the feminist aspect of his writing. This last point could have benefited from interviews with feminist thinkers, academics and campaigners.

The lack of original material is this biography’s biggest flaw. Beside the authors quoted in chapter 7, hindsight from Larsson’s international editors and translators on how they discovered the books and translated them, there is a lack of anecdotes on Larsson’s life beyond the usual chain-smoking, workaholic, far-right fighting journalist he’s known to be. Perhaps thanks to this reporting, Forshaw manages not to overtly take side for or against his character, reporting on facts such as his rumoured estrangement from his family and the controversy over his authorship of Millennium without delving in or bringing new material.

Forshaw’s crime credentials, expertise, knowledge and bibliography made him the perfect British writer to tackle Larsson’s life and writings. Yet, getting his biography out first only managed to highlight the holes in our knowledge of Larsson’s life, our understanding of his personality and the lack of proper study carried out on his fiction oeuvre so far.
Barry Forshaw, The Man Who Left Too Soon: the Biography of Stieg Larsson (John Blake, 2010)

Posted at 7:58pm and tagged with: book review, feminism,.

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