To celebrate Lisbeth Salander’s birthday on April 30, Christopher MacLehose and Katharina Bielenberg remember their first encounters with Stieg Larsson’s tiny avenging anarchist.
The typescripts of the first two and a half volumes of the Millennium trilogy that came from the Swedish publisher Norstedts came in English. The first book was then called Men who hate women, bizarrely translated by the French as Men who do not love women. I have often wondered about the reactions of the many editors who read it before it came to the embryo MacLehose Press. I know of the response of one very distinguished American editor, who said that he had spent three weeks working on the first 70 pages, trying to edit them into shape, but it wasn’t worth the candle or he had no more time, I don’t remember which. The beginning of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as it came to be known, is, it is true, unlike the rest of the novel. It covers ground that readers of modern crime stories will have found familiar. The first fifty pages of the novel betray almost no hint of the furnace of excitement to come. And then the reader meets Lisbeth Salander, a character who has no match in contemporary fiction, and from that moment Stieg Larsson and his Ariel-like spirit held the world in their hands, and still do. This wild, vengeful and exceedingly clever anarchist is a spirit for our times, a beautiful and brilliant creation. Impossible not to think of her own Prospero with terrible sadness even as we are reminded of Salander’s birthday.
Of all the homages to the birthday girl, is there an apter one than Mario Vargas Llosa’s? The Nobel Laureate wrote: “I have just spent a few weeks with all of my experienced reader’s critical defences swept away by the cyclonic force of a story… Welcome to the immortality of fiction, Lisbeth Salander!”
CHRISTOPHER MACLEHOSE, Publisher, MacLehose Press
I was completely riveted by the sheer audacity of Larsson’s creation in Lisbeth Salander when I first read a proof copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It must have been in the Autumn of 2007, a few months before she was revealed to English readers. A rare and memorable night of no sleep – I was in awe and in tatters. The attraction of a complex character who is so persistently underestimated, her projected appearance so deceptive – she’s tiny and a girl, she’s a punk, she’s damaged and in the care system. But this complexity transfers to strengths: she’s learned to rely on no-one, her tremendous skills are self-taught and she knows she has nothing to lose. She goes into Terminator Mode.
There is something about the pace and poise of Larsson’s delivery that kept this reader entirely hooked. A line is played out and rapidly pulled in; Lisbeth disappears for long stretches of the narrative (for much of The Girl Who Played with Fire), from the investigative eye, from the reader’s page, but it is Lisbeth that we most want to read about. And Larsson delivers her to us at exactly the right moment – absence and reappearance. Silent cheers and goosebumps. A character of contrasts who reveals herself in a series of acts, the violence of which can appall. And yet she doesn’t lose us for a moment.
In many crime novels the main protagonist/hero is sketched out at the beginning; a paragraph of past trauma, current addictions, complicated personal relationships. With Lisbeth, her persona shifts, her preferences are entirely unpredictable. I have never read a crime novel in which unpredictability becomes a strength. And yet, simultaneously, she possesses such extraordinary righteous integrity. Stieg Larsson makes all but the very finest of his competitors seem plodding and derivative, and with the creative brilliance of David Lagercrantz this most exceptional of heroines is brought back to life. More cheering and goosebumps.
KATHARINA BIELENBERG, Associate Publisher, MacLehose Press