Riyadh: Sunday 11th November 2012
In an email from a friend last week, one sentence in particular, struck me. “Perhaps I should dig out War and Peace again; restore my faith in humanity.” It was not the fact that he saw the Tolstoy Novel as being a vehicle for restoring his faith in our species that struck me, as such. Having not read the book, I am prepared to take, on trust that it contains within its pages such restorative power. No, what struck me was the simple fact that I could not recall the last novel I read or when I read it.
When did this happen? I used to be a prolific reader. I still do read a quantity of non-fiction. But when did I stop reading stories?
It has been a rotten start to the month. I want out. We are eleven days in and I want to see it buried; forgotten. I am unhappy, unfocused, spent. On the whole it has been an okay year, and this was a month I was looking forward to. November would be (by coincidence rather than by design) the month in which both my personal loan and my student loan would finally be paid off. And yet everything which could go wrong, has gone wrong during the last few days. The month is only 11 days old and I am willing it dead; consigned to history; over. My specific problems need not bore you here. In isolation, they are all serious but not life threatening. What has made my knees buckle and my stomach wrench has been the way that three wholly unconnected problems have arisen simultaneously. None could have been prevented, none can be influenced. They are the result of mistakes by others, alterations in policy decisions and sheer bad luck and in each case I have been made to suffer.
And suddenly I miss something I have not thought about in perhaps two years. Fiction.
I have always had three obsessions when it came to reading (if that is not a contradiction in terms). My bookshelf reflects these obsessions almost totally, with novels taking place alongside history books and politics books.
The subjects covered by these three genre’s have changed as the years have elapsed. In the 1990’s my obsession developed along Scottish lines, reflecting my interest in my own convoluted development and a desire to learn the history of my homeland and understand the complex series of loyalties underpinning my family’s respective political philosophies and leanings.
Then, as my Scottish obsession cooled, it was taken instead by cultural history (particularly of the British Empire. In some ways this was a natural progression for a person with an honest interest in the formation of modern political ideas.
From Empire and the 19th Century, my interests then broadened to the history of various regions and Peoples. I have studied the history of France, Russia, Canada, the US, the Balkans, 20 Century Spain, and the Middle East, in each case from a specifically political, historical and literary perspective.
And then, imperceptibly this triple obsession seemed to come to an end. One moment I was sitting in a watering hole in Abu Dhabi reading the latest Carlos Ruiz Zafon then the list of novels lies unread while I have completed my list of history books. Then suddenly i am no longer buying novels. Suddenly, I only read history and politics. Fiction when I picked it up, made no impact. I could not settle as I had once been able to do in a good novel. Instead, my reading for pleasure was an endless enquiry into facts or arguments of the past. Somehow literature, all literature was just too frivolous too much of a waste of time.
When did this happen? When did I stop taking pleasure in escapism? Or rather, when did my escapism stop encompassing that most basic of human interactions, storytelling?
This was not merely written fiction. I have stopped watching films as well. Stopped going to the pictures when I get a weekend away from Riyadh. I went during a week off last February, watched a film with my mother staring George Clooney; a gentle and lovingly created portrayal of a man struggling to care for his daughters when their mother dies and struggling to come to terms with the revelation of her infidelity. Yet good as this was, it was more about companionship, spending time with my Mum, than it was about the act of visiting the cinema.
And, then, last night I sat down and watched a movie. Why now? And why this movie, something I would not necessarily have chosen before now.
For the film in question was an adaptation of Stig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a detective mystery.
Just because I have stopped reading fiction does not mean that I am altogether out of touch with prevailing literary trends. I am aware that the genre of detective fiction is booming and has, in recent years acquired some level of literary respectability in its own right. Moreover, I am well aware that Scandinavia is the current hotbed of this genre and that this novel and subsequent film have individually triggered popular sensations.
Yet, I have also viewed this turn of events dispassionately, up until now. I have heard interviews going back years with Ian Rankin about his acclaimed series of Scottish Detective Noir’s involving the character Rebus, but never been tempted to pick one up.
The same has been true of the various Scandinavian detective writers. In fact more so. I am unfamiliar with Scandinavia, its place names and pronunciation. Moreover, at times it feels that Scandinavia culturally is quite alien to Britain. I perceive its people as direct and open, unpretentious and unsentimental; the antipathy of British reticence, reserve and attachment to the past.
An often sentimental person, when in need of comfort and company, myself, I tend to crave and seek out the company of warm people. While my perception is wholly subjective and ill-informed, this sentimental warmth is not something I associate with Scandinavians. On the contrary my perception of them is based exclusively on qualities I wish I had rather than those I imagine I exhibit. To my imagination, Scandinavians are upright, honest, frugal and respectful of one another; serious, controlled and direct in matters of business love and property law.
And while I am aware that this is palpable nonsense, something of the bleak matter-of-factness of my perception of the region jarred with any notion that I would ever satisfactorily introduce myself to the fiction writers of the region.
But this was before I sat down and watched the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
It is bleak alright. Every bit as bleak as anything I’d have predicted. And not just the landscape of snow-covered island, European engineered saloon cars and modernist housing.
With the exception of the closing scene, Stockholm is portrayed as a grey city of utilitarian office blocks and social housing. Wide large windows allow grey northern light into most buildings while the streets are redolent with cold rain or slushy snow, claustrophobic and frigid. People seem to huddle beneath layers of clothing, condensation rising from their breath. The viewer is left in no doubt that this is a work-a-day city of work-a-day lives. The people, we imagine will want to get home, relax in the heat and put the day behind them, just another of those forgettable days which populate everyday lives until we look up and wonder where the years went.
The Island (on which much of the plot is set) is, if anything, bleaker. A wide, white expanse of ancient housing populated by unpleasant characters with dark pasts who play out long running feuds over the expanse of their lived lives. The cottage in which the male lead is housed looks like it was shipped from Doctor Zhivago. It is cold and empty and old-fashioned. A house in which there is little hint that there were ever happy times.
The lead himself, Mikael Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig), is actually a warm character; I think the result of a certain warm humanity on the part of Craig himself as much as any decision made at directorial level.
He is, we see, both stoical and vulnerable to the comforts of the flesh. He is on the verge of quitting smoking but is unable to refuse when out of the sight of his long-term lover. When his new research assistant, the enigmatic Girl of the title, Lisbeth Salander (Played by Rooney Mara) seduces him, he protests in a matter-of-fact way that he thinks it may not be a good idea owing to the gap in their ages and the fact that they are working together. Yet he makes no attempt to resist her direct approach and physical intimacy follows quickly. The impression left, is that he had no intention of resisting once the offer was made, but merely wanted to let her know he had given the matter some thought; had some intellectual reservations as to the wisdom of the act.
By the same token, however, he displays a ruthless streak and thoughtlessness that belie his absent-minded embarkation on an affair. In returning to his lover, that hints at an unthinking, unfeeling and sloppy side. His warmth is not backed up by conscious feelings for the girl, Lisbeth or any apparent remorse for his actions. He knows she is damaged and capable of inflicting damage and yet, apparently is unconcerned about the damage he inflicts upon her by allowing her to fall for him.
Moreover, it does not seem to occur to him that this liaison needs to be brought to a formal close. On the contrary, upon solving the case, he returns to Stockholm and takes up with his long-term lover without a second thought. Either his character perceives that the sexual liaison and growing emotional attachment is of no consequence, a mere feature of the close working relationship, or he simply doesn’t think at all.
Our hero, therefore, is in some senses lost to us, his character an odd mix of process and detail married to an emotional vacancy and sloppy disregard for his emotional attachments.
Lisbeth herself is an emaciated and consciously unlovely creature, who’s aggressive insularity never quite disguises her capacity to be hurt or her own elemental prettiness. We are introduced to her complicated childhood, only by increment, but long before this we are aware of the spectacular damage it has done to her. Her outward lack of complication, unspoken strength and loyalty, and obvious talent for feral survival allow her to survive a brutal rape and assault before she exacts a calculatedly brutal revenge. Only then, when her unhurried victory over her assailant is complete, are we allowed to see where this plot is leading, by bringing her face to face with Blomkvist.
We now know what she is capable of enduring and the brutality she is capable of inflicting, but also of her toleration and simple morality. We understand, in a way her partner only suspects, that she is the real hero of the story, the person who will not only assist the cracking of the case, but act as the saviour of the male lead herself.
She is, apparently emotionally secure about herself and her body, neither choosing to hide from sex nor exploit it. When required to play a rich executive, flying to Zürich to trade bonds worth millions of Euro’s she is able effortlessly to play the part, before removing her disguise as soon as she leaves and returning to her face piercings and grungy, shape hiding clothing.
Yet, long before this we never doubt that she understands the power of sex. She seduces a woman in a night club and Blonkvist in the same uncomplicated manner, and is seen to enjoy sex for itself.
We are left in little doubt about this damaged girl, a complicated, insular victim, who decries notions of victimhood with her mere existence and protects herself with an uncomplicated public face of indolence, defiance and unponderous action. Yet while she is both the emotional, moral and physical heart and hero of the tale, she is not the hero of her own narrative. Indeed, it is doubtful whether she has any sort of individual narrative. She simply is, does and acts.
She is, a masterful creation, hinting at a fully realised character but never quite surrendering herself or her inner hurt to the viewer.
Somehow, these contradictions all work and are believable in a way that Daniel Craig’s character never quite manages. His character is detailed and driven and yet simultaneously sloppy and slapdash with life. It is hard to reconcile these two aspects of his character. Why is he so unchallenged by his sexual betrayal and then subsequent return? And why is he so obviously unaware of the pain he inflicts on his young partner or so certain that she will not seek to exact yet another revenge?
These questions are left open as though there are answers to be found in sequential instalments. Thus his own personality is seen to be merely an open-ended plot designed to titillate like any other loose end.
And in this respect it works brilliantly.
The final scene is a chocolate box snow-covered winding street in Stockholm, down which our rejected heroine, has just ridden her motorcycle, a sort of anti-ending in which the hero rides alone and betrayed into the night, not the sunset. And we are left, suspended above the street, suspecting that hers is a tragic life and that we have been present at the moment her only chance of salvation was snatched from her.
We are left with no cinematic reward, no reconciliation, no hint that he will feel any need to rekindle their acquaintance.
For I have only watched a film. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is originally a novel, and, which is more, part of a trilogy.
Suddenly the prospect of a continuation, a reconciliation. exists. And not just between Salender and Blomkvist. Suddenly I am desperate to get to a book shop. desperate to read. desperate to escape the realities of life and imerse myself in the realisation of someones imagining.