Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

The Dragon's War

Nov 08, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



The girl with the dragon tattoo is as iconic as the boy-wizard with the glasses, and the Swedish author has become as famous as the British. However, while J.K. Rowling basks in her billions, Stieg Larsson’s life-and that of his muse- took a more novel-worthy twist.

      In 2005 Sweden, which bequeathed the world Abba, Ann Margret and Ikea, became the purveyor of the best-selling Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Tragically, the author never saw the meteoric rise of his anti-heroine, the tattooed, bisexual, cyberpunk, Lisbeth Salander.  However, this was not the case with his wife Eva Gabrielsson, as the sexy sleuth consumed her life, much as Sherlock Holmes did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

     Any good Norse saga features a bitter family feud, death and an element of the supernatural and the epilogue to the love affair between Stieg and Eva is a composite of this lethal elixir. The couple met at age eighteen at an anti-Vietnam rally in Umea, Sweden, where he grew up. She had been born sixty miles north of there, the daughter of a local journalist.  She recalls he immediately caught her eye as he was different from the other self-righteous protestors and rebels searching for a cause. Over endless cups of java, the teens bonded over a shared passion for politics and all matters humanitarian. A year later they became a couple, something their friends realized would occur before they did.

At age nineteen, they moved to a one-bedroom apartment, just large enough to hang their hat- which was plenty; they did not own much else. As the years went by they did not undergo the customary transition from bourgeois to bohemian: they remained life-long activists committed to women’s’ rights. Larsson developed his feminism at age fifteen when he was at a camp ground where three of his friends gang-raped a girl their age. Although he had not participated, he had not intervened, and later asked the victim, Lisbeth, for forgiveness. It was not forthcoming and decades later he sought absolution in his fictional heroine. Posthumously he would owe another woman a mea culpa, once again for the sin of omission.

        Eva became an architect and Stieg founded Expo, a magazine opposed to the Far Right who were violently anti the minorities they felt guilty of defiling their Nordic homeland. As editor his job demanded long hours with limited remuneration. In addition, it made Larsson a victim of white supremacy threats: one afternoon a gang of skinheads with baseball bats gathered outside his office; however, he foiled their intent by exiting via a rear door. Bullets arrived in the office post-box and anonymous phone calls threatened his life, calling him a ‘Jew f____.’ Fearful of implicating Eva in his potential martyrdom, only her name appeared on their apartment door.

Living under the cloud of neo-Nazi threats, the couple decided not to legalize their relationship as Swedish law published the addresses of those registering for a marriage license. Instead she remained his sambo, (Swedish for live-in companion,) and the omniscient danger was also their deciding factor to remain childless. As past and present hippies, it did not bother them to forego a legal union; moreover, not possessing any assets other than their modest Stockholm apartment, Stieg was not concerned Eva was not legally Mrs. Larsson. In a nod to the fact that their commitment was not limited to a civil ceremony, in 1983 they had two gold wedding bands engraved “Stieg and Eva.”

        In August 2004, the couple was on a vacation in a rental cottage in an archipelago to celebrate: a Swedish publisher had just accepted Stieg’s trilogy of crime novels. He planned to scale back his work at Expo to devote himself to writing, something made possible by his books’ $80,000 advance. As distance from the politically charged magazine would result in his dropping from the neo-Nazi radar, he asked his companion to finally tie the knot. She joked as they already had the rings, and had lived together for thirty-two years, it was time. They decided later that year to throw a joint birthday party, and once the festivities were underway would inform their guests it was doubling as a wedding reception.

For Eva this golden time was fraught with angst fearing the veracity of the presentiment “whom the gods wish to punish they first make happy.” She felt something horrible would happen to her and had visions of falling under a train. To help ward off the evil eye, she phoned Stieg from every railway station, every possible opportunity. Unfortunately, phone calls, a 21st century amulet, were of no avail. The horror happened, and it led, in domino fashion, to more horror.

        On November 4th, (in an eerie coincidence the anniversary of Kristallnacht,) 2004, Eva was in Falun when she received a call from one of her fiancée’s colleagues at Expo informing her Stieg was in the hospital. Fifty-year-old Larssen, a heavy smoker, whose only consumption of green was an ingredient in a hamburger, had suffered a massive heart-attack after walking up several floors to his office due to a malfunctioning elevator. His last words were, “I’m fifty for Christ’s sake!” His untimely death spared him the carnage wrought by Anders Behring Breivik, killer of seventy-seven Norwegian children who gave a fascist salute at his trial. Eva was plunged into a morass of shock and depression, describing herself as a wounded animal. She sought solace in therapy but said all of therapists had been assigned to treat the Swedish victims of the Asian tsunami. Her sister was able to offer some modicum of comfort when she told Eva at least Stieg did not die at the hand of an assassin, which freed her from having to hate someone for the rest of her life. As it turned out, Eva was left with those to hate.

      The widow had been in mourning for nine months when Man Som Hatar Kvinnir (Men Who Hate Women), better known by its non-Swedish title, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, debuted. Gabrielsson, who had first read it on pages from her home’s printer, started seeing it in special stands in bookstores along with her husband’s photograph. She stated, “I was shocked. I trained myself to recognize the colors and the graphics of the books so I could run away and not see them. It reminded me he was gone.” Little did she imagine the novel, which was to rival Harry Potter in sales, was to place her at the epicenter of a literary storm.

    Sweden, (despite its liberal image,) does not recognize common-law marriage, which meant the woman who was with Stieg when he wrote the books, who was his first reader, and with whom he did his research, was deprived of any fruits of their phenomenal success. The only way blood would not have usurped love would have been if Stieg had left a will, something he omitted to do. This was because between battling the Far Right and writing thousands of pages of his trilogy, he was too preoccupied. In addition, he felt it superfluous as his debts outweighed his assets.

The estate therefore reverted to his father, Erland, and brother, Joakim, who received everything: the rights to his books, the money, even half of the apartment that Larsson and Gabrielsson owned. The sambo was a widow emotionally, but legally she had the status of a concubine. Of course her common-law-in-laws could have relinquished their rights to the widow, but they declined. The unexpected riches were too good to pass up. The woman wronged said of her rapacious  former relatives, “There is envy in their actions. Stieg did something with his life. So this is a way, as we say in Sweden, of getting some ‘borrowed feathers.’ You borrow someone else’s reputation and prestige you could not have got on your own.” She pointed out her husband did not intend for his relatives to profit from his writing. In his last email to his father, Stieg only promised him a “signed copy.” Eva became the biblical Esau, her birthright stolen by a ‘mess of pottage.’ The resulting acrimony became endless grist for the Swedish tabloids.

       Lisbeth Salander was a victim who turned into a victimizer, a furious woman-warrior who retaliated with the same brutality she was forced to endure, and it was the same with Eva. Reeling from the fact she lost first her lover and then her legacy, she penned a memoir There are Things I Want You to Know, a title based on a quotation from a letter Stieg wrote Eva before he left to Africa where he went to aid Eritrean female guerrillas. The book is infused with Biblical revenge. Gabrielsson stated, “For Stieg and me, we weren’t only familiar with the New Testament and with Jesus who asks one to turn the other cheek; what nourished us was the Old Testament, harsh and violent.” The memoir made it apparent why she needed to assert her role in the trilogy. “I had to stay in Stieg’s shadow all these years, which was necessary, but it’s odd to suddenly come out and not just talk about him, but also to have to prove our life together existed.” In her view, “Larsson’s work was his life, and his life was also her life, and now all of it has been hijacked.” She ended by looking down at her hands. On her fingers she wears both engraved wedding-bands. 

         The only arrow remaining in Eva’s quiver is a laptop containing the unfinished fourth volume of the Millennium series which is in Gabrielsson’s possession and which the Larssons very much want in theirs. Its whereabouts qualify as the contemporary literary world’s equivalent of the Ark. It was tentatively titled God’s Vengeance and its plot centers on Lisbeth who, in the process of slaying her dragons, removes the tattoos that marked their power. Erland and Joakim proposed if she relinquished the manuscript they would give her Stieg’s share of her apartment; she viewed the petty offer as extortion. They upped the ante to $2.6 million but she insisted what was more important than cash was artistic control of her husband’s books. Negotiations broke down as the animosity escalated. 

      The woman who got nothing not only resorted to Biblical wrath,  she also attempted to exorcise her grief and fury by performing a pagan ritual, replete with a goat’s head on a spike, wherein she recited a poem to the Norse gods, cursing those who crossed her man in life and in death. In another she spoke to a crow she claimed was sent by the god Odin as a reincarnation of her long-time love. It sounds like something Lisbeth would pull. Camp Eva viewed this as the pain of a grieving widow; Camp Erland and Joakim suggested Gabrielsson was “deranged and demented.” The court of public opinion weighs heavily in her favor. After all, unlike the old man in Larsson’s first novel who received flowers every year on his birthday, there will be no one to do the same for the woman who lost her life’s companion.

       As of this writing, no one can foretell how the final epilogue of the Scandinavian saga will play out. However, one thing is a certainty: Stieg would be infinitely grieved to know that the men who hate are his father and brother, and their victim the woman he loved. If he did visit as the crow, no doubt from his throat would have emitted a strangled dragon’s roar.