UCLA Larsson Symposium – Day One

Finally! I’m catching up enough to see whether I can actually read the notes I scribbled a few weeks ago at the Stieg Larsson and Scandinavian Crime Fiction symposium held at UCLA, May 20-21.

I was lucky enough to be the first up on the agenda – always nice to get the nervous bit out of the way. I talked about the various sources that Larsson drew on for his trilogy, including Pippi Longstocking, Modesty Blaise, Chandler, Sjowall and Wahloo, and the women who rewrote the private eye subgenre in a feminist mode, Salander’s sisters in crime.

Next up, Kerstin Bergman of the University of Lund gave a fascinating talk, “Negotiating Swedishness in the 21st Century: Swedish, European, and African Alterities in Henning Mankell’s Crime Novels.” In contrast to Larsson, Mankell has been relatively slow to catch on with American readers, but in Sweden he is well-regarded not just for his fiction, but as a public intellectual. The identity crisis Wallander faces in The Troubled Man is also Sweden’s identity crisis. The fiction of being a neutral state in World War II (when, in fact, Sweden allowed Germany to use its rail lines to subjugate Norway and Finland), the in-betweeness of Sweden during the Cold War, where the superpowers played out their conflicts, and the current notion of a unified European state are all subjects of Mankell’s fiction, which in many ways is nostalgic for a national identity that is being eroded. Bergman also spoke about the treatment of Sweden’s collaboration with the Nazis in The Return of the Dancing Master and the country’s continued unwillingness to confront the past or accept responsibility; and what she sees as the problematic use of African characters as something to define Swedishness against in Kennedy’s Brain. All in all, a very interesting look at the way that Mankell treats Swedishness in his novels as a recurring theme.

Next, Claus Elholm Andersen of UCLA (but about to move to Finland to teach at the University of Helsinki) gave a talk on “Myth, Mystery, and the Millennium Trilogy.” He looked at the way Larsson’s story has been told in competing narratives. The author’s father, who legally owns the rights to the books, promotes the books as commercial properties, but has also made some changes. The doctor character in The Girl Who Played with Fire  was named after a physician friend, Anders Jakobsson, but when the namesake disagreed with the father over Eva Gabrielsson’s claim to the estate, the father instructed the publisher to change the character’s name to Jonasson. To that extent, authorship is a negotiable concept, on the one hand tied up in the ownership and control of commercial property, on the other an intertextual web of stories and real-life figures that Larsson drew on to create his own fiction. The political story about the trilogy and its author is pitted in many fans’ minds against the commercial story about the books. (Nobody makes a fuss about the millions of copies of Mankell’s books have sold, but Larsson’s sales keep making headlines.) Andersen feels that Larsson very deliberately played with the conventions of the genre while playfully and intentionally breaking its rules. The locked room mystery turns out to be something totally different. Likewise, the relationship of with readers is not purely a commercial one, but rather becomes bound up in their commitment to the story and its author. (I should note here that these are my interpretations of what the speakers said – they might be surprised at what I put down in my notes!)

The fourth speaker was Kim Toft Hansen of the University of Aalborg in Denmark who gave an erudite talk about religion in Scandinavian crime fiction and the way that the genre is shifting from empirical and rational realism to an examination of spiritual issues inherent in transgression and the restoration of order. He described the way hard secularism has given way to post-secular modernism and suggests that in contemporary crime fiction we see how human experiences transcend empirical, rational realism. Transgression itself is a “sensitive vector” for cultural trends. He used five examples to show how this “mediatized religion” appears in popular culture: a radio drama, a crime drama on television, and three novels, including one by Hakan Nesser, a soon-to-be-translated philosophical thriller by A. J. Kazinski, The Last Good Man,  and the Millennium Trilogy. It all made me wonder if the rise of the thriller, with its battles between good and evil, is a post-secular rebellion against the “just the facts, ma’am” rational and evidence-based tradition of the classic mystery. You can read his paper online, where it will be much more intelligent and informative than my notes. And I can’t resist noting some other intriguing essays he has written including “Fictions of Ambivalence: Social Uneasiness and Violence in Crime Fiction” and “Crime Fiction and Mediatizd Religion.” (And a quiet “hurrah!” for scholars who share their work online!)

Linda Haverty Rugg of Berkeley spoke next, giving a thought-provoking talk on “Scandinavian Ecocrime Fiction, or Linnaeus and the World Wide Web,” using the rhizome as a counterpoint to the more hierarchical taxonomic system (riffing off Giles Deleuze) and relating it to crime fiction that is more interested in networks and ecology than in hierarchy. In the opening of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, we get a taxonomy of the flowers that mysteriously show up annually, identified by genus and species, but it turns out that whole storyline is something of a mcguffin for a bigger story of deep-seated corruption. In Linnean taxonomy, everything exits in relationship to larger or smaller things. But in ecological crime fiction (such as Ekman’s Blackwater and Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow) ecological crime transcends borders and the inquiry into murder leads to an investigation of ecological damage against nature. Unlike Linnean tree structures, the rhizome is a horizontal and hidden system of connectedness which, like the Internet, is not organized hierarchically but can be traversed (as Lisbeth Salander does) invisibly into the seat of power.

By the time Daniel Boden of the University of Gothenberg spoke I’m afraid my handwriting was deteriorating into a cryptic scrawl. His topic was “The Millennium Trilogy in Genre Historical Light: Stieg Larsson and the Tradition(s) of Socially Critical Crime Fiction.” From what I can reconstruct (what is that scribble? demons … oh, dissertation, yes, his dissertation was on the history of the crime fiction genre in Swedish film) … anyway, he spoke on how many writers from Sjowall and Wahloo through Mankell are surprisingly nostalgic about the passing of an idealized good society. Larsson was less entranced by the ideal of the welfare state and was more interested in technology and the ways that hacking into the cyber network is a way of uncovering a hidden network of power. He noted that the cold case that opens Dragon Tattoo occurred at a high point in the Social Democratic state, when the ideal was the “people’s home” – a safe, fair, collectivist, and decent place to live modeled on a happy family rather than on the old class society of the wealthy ruling over the workers. Detection becomes a way of “solving the past,” and the past is one in which old class structures prevail. Compared to Sjowall and Wahloo, Larsson is much more optimistic about contemporary society. A common thread in Swedish crime from the 1980s was conspiracy in high places, modeled on the IB scandal (exposed by the writer Jan Guillou, who spent some time in prison, unjustly accused of spying when he published an expose – shades of Mikael Blomqvist) and the communal loss of innocence after the murder of Olof Palme. In Larsson’s world, there is little nostalgia for an  idealized past, but rather a belief that in the face of injustice, individuals can work together to make change.

In the evening, Daniel Alfredson, director of the second and third Millennium Trilogy films was interviewed by Arne Lund of UCLA. I was surprised to learn that Fire and Hornet’s Nest were originally filmed for television. After the success of the first film, but still before the trilogy had become an international bestseller, the producers decided to release two feature films, which required a lot of shortening, splicing, and adding a few more scenes to try to glue the pieces back together. (The television version is much longer – six 90 minute episodes, each one filmed in 25 days – and according to the director tends to be preferred by fans who have seen both.) Because the two books are essentially one story, it made sense for one director to film both, though originally, the idea was to have a different director for each of three films. He seemed unruffled by the impending US remake but said he was pleased they were not moving the action to the US, but keeping the Swedish context and feel. He said the trilogy was distinctly Swedish because the story depends on he country’s position between East and West, between the Warsaw Pact and NATO; the fact that Larsson (and the films) refer to real locations also personalizes the books because Larsson “had a relationship with all these places” that makes the setting very personal and real.  The court scenes in Hornet’s Nest are not realistic. “It doesn’t work like that in Sweden,” he said, a rare case where Larsson’s obsession with details didn’t lead to a more realistic treatment. Casting Paolo Roberto was particularly tricky, because he’s not a fictional character; he’s a real public figure and very well known in Sweden. Luckily, he was able to act well enough to play himself. I was left with the impression that Alfredson, the son of a famous and beloved Swedish actor, was part of a small and tightly-knit creative community and that, even though he’d just spent the day talking to Hollywood producers, he had that down-to-earth egalitarian streak that so many Swedes have.

Then we adjourned to a reception on a very attractive balcony overlooking the campus and the handsome undergraduate library, beautifully restored since the last major earthquake, enjoying good food and wine (well, it is California) before returning to the UCLA guest house and our beds.



5 thoughts on “UCLA Larsson Symposium – Day One

  1. What a great post, Barbara, thanks! The religious one is a bit above my head but it is interesting that Asa Larsson sets her first two books among the financial-religious sector – I read that religion is a big business in Sweden, hence firms like the one Rebecka Martinsen works for, to protect their investments, etc. Also Henning Mankell himself addressed these religious issues in the Wallander book about the spiritual tribal group.
    That last talk explains a lot about those second two Millennium films!

  2. Pingback: Scholars Take On Stieg Larsson & Scandinavian Crime Fiction | Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog

  3. So interesting that academics take the time to dissect crime fiction. Great post, and I was quite flattered that you quoted my Stieg Larsson quote 😉

    I must read Kim Toft Hansen´s essays – but NOT tonight.

  4. Pingback: Swedish Crime Fiction by Kerstin Bergman: a Review | Scandinavian Crime Fiction

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