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I’ve just returned from a two week adventure cruising down the Adriatic and into the Ionian Sea visiting many of the sites that together formed the Venetian thalassocracy, which they referred to as the stato da mar. Corfu was astonishing, virtually a little Venice architecturally with traces of the occupying power visible everywhere. Food was also exceptional, which it is not possible to say about the Dalmatian coast.

There were many Europeans on our ship and I was surprised to note that many, possibly most, public spaces are still smoking areas. Somewhat surprising when one expects the nanny state to ban anything that is even vaguely unhealthy. There were also as many fat Europeans as there were Americans.

I spent some time while cruising working through the first two mysteries by Stieg Larsson The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl who played with Fire. Larsson is the mega best seller Swedish sensation who died recently after completing the third and final book in the series. The books are truly compelling reading for the interlocking stories they tell but I finished up feeling extremely uncomfortable about Sweden itself, which might or might not have been the author’s intention. Virtually all the characters are sexually promiscuous with numerous variations and wrinkles that many might find perverse. One character, astonishingly, was described as having been faithful to his spouse, emphasizing that he was neither the mainstream nor expected.

Also visualizing the characters was impossible, even after 1300 pages, apart from Lisbeth Salander, who was by design bizarre both in behavior and appearance. Round about page 1200 I was surprised to learn that one of the leading characters had short blonde hair, surprised because up until then I had no idea what she looked like.

The books also revealed a dogged adherence to rules and regulations in spite of the clearly held belief that the marriage contract has no significance whatsoever. One character, witnessing the abduction of a woman who is about to be dismembered, speeds up to catch the van she is traveling in. He observes to himself that as he is speeding he will no doubt be reported to the police by any number of other drivers on the road. Drivers reporting others to the police for speeding? In another bit a woman who has been concealing her identity for more than thirty years is conflicted because she feels compelled to register her marriage with the Swedish authorities even though she is living in Australia and married to an Australian.

It suggests to me that Swedes might have very different views of what they consider to be public and private morality, but that is only my guess. All I know is that when I finished the two books I was somewhat depressed about the Sweden that was depicted. Most Swedes I know describe their homeland as “boring.” I admire the Scandinavians because they have been able to combine a high standard of living and safety net through admittedly high taxation but relatively low debt. Certainly a different model than Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Britain.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Sweden 
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  1. Fran says:

    I would think Europeans would think WE are the nanny state with our puritanical sexual views, smoking bans and FCC regulations. Every industrialized nation (as far as I know) enjoys free healthcare and don’t think it “nanny-ish” at all.
    It’d be funny if the real anti Obama ads had comparison pics of the Swedish and Norwegian PMs as opposed to Hitler and Stalin (!!). They’re the Socialists.

  2. joe says:

    As a Norwegian living near the Swedish border, I find this post rather strange. The idea that the Swedes will report you to the police for speeding is crazy. I haven’t read Larsson’s books, but as far as I know he was a 70s communist radical who took great delight in depicting the Swedish bourgeoisie in as bad a light as possible. As for faithfulness in Scandinavian marriages, my impression is that unfaithfulness is more frowned upon now than ever. For example, in the 1920s and 1930s, it was an open secret that Norway’s Conservative party leader had a mistress, while today such a thing would have been unthinkable.

  3. Whatever Larsson’s politics, his books are one hell of a ride on the dark side. I’ve read the series, seen the first of the film adaptations and look forward to the next one. I’m also about to re-read the books. The nanny statism and sexual libertinism depicted by Larsson fit my stereotypical view of Sweden. What surprised were the brutal sadistic violence and the underworld of evil conspiracies. I don’t know if these have a basis in fact or just in Larsson’s imagination, but the Sweden he depicts is far from boring.

  4. TomT says:

    Thanks for the field report. Almost as if you’ve done this sort of thing before.

    If you’d be willing, we’d be most interested in more of this. Would like to know some of the anecdotal intel on how “foreignors” view us and our issues (although I’m told it surprises most Americans how little time they spend opining on us).

    But anyway, thanks for what you’ve given us, and look forward to more.

  5. tbraton says:

    PG, a couple of points since your blog touches on a couple of things I have experienced and know something about.

    First, I visited Corfu in 1987 and, while the town of Corfu was then (and according to your description still is) a well-preserved and lovely Venetian town, the rest of the island had been despoiled by the creation of tourist seaside “villages” that catered mostly to lower class German and British tourists who drank excessively. The catering to the mass tourist market had even then largely robbed Corfu of much of the natural beauty and charm that had once entranced the ex-patriate English writer Lawrence Durrell.

    Durrell was the author of the once hugely popular and now largely forgotten (undeservedly so imo) The Alexandria Quartet, an intricately plotted quadrilogy based in Alexandria, Egypt where Durrell spent the World War II years after fleeing Greece from the invading Germans. He and his extended family (including younger brother Gerald Durrell, who acquired fame as a naturalist and writer about animals) lived on Corfu for several years before WWII. Lawrence Durrell’s first book to achieve success was Prospero’s Cell, a series of sketches describing his life on Corfu combined with a history of the island. In addition to the Quartet, Durrell went on to write books about the years he lived after the end of the war on the Greek islands of Rhodes (“Reflections on a Marine Venus”) and Cyprus before it gained independence from Great Britain (the acclaimed and prophetic “Bitter Lemons”). His life on Cyprus coincided with the guerrilla insurrection that ultimately forced the British to grant Cyprus independence in 1960. Durrell had a love affair with the Greeks, and he spoke Greek fluently. If you haven’t read him, I would highly recommend his writings, starting with his “travel” books (“Bitter Lemons” first).

    In addition to Corfu, I had visited Zakynthos years earlier before it was ruined by tourist overdevelopment (so I heard and read) and, in 2001, Kephalonia, which at the time was largely untouched by tourist development and very enjoyable. From my first trip to Greece in the late 60’s, when the Colonels were in charge, to my last trip nine years ago, I have witnessed a great transformation in Greece, not all for the better, although the Greek standard of living had vastly improved. It should be kept in mind that Greece had to suffer not only from a brutal German occupation during WWII but from a nasty, destructive civil war started by the Communists after the war, which the U.S. helped defeat under Truman.

    Second, I read and enjoyed the first of the Larsson novels, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” To correct what you said, he had completed all three of the now-published novels before submitting them all at once to his publisher—-and then died at the relatively early age of 50 before any of them had been published. So he missed out entirely on the acclaim and vast success the novels have achieved. (Last week, the third novel was first on the NY Times hardcover fiction best-seller list, while the first two were first and second on the Times’ paperback fiction list.)

    It turns out that he left his personal affairs in a complete mess. He left no will, even though he had been living with a woman for a number of years. Her attempts to obtain a part of his estate were rebuffed by his family, who relied on the law to deny her any share. It turns out, however, that he left more than 300 pages of a 3/4 completed fourth novel, and she has possession of the computer, as I understand it. So, when the fourth novel in the series is completed by a hired hand and ultimately published, she apparently stands to profit.

    One small point about the character living in Australia. In the first book, Dragon Tattoo, the woman’s husband had already died. I don’t know if that has changed in the second book.

    After I finished reading Dragon Tattoo, I called a Swedish friend who had lived in the U.S. since she was 21 to recommend the book (she had already read all three in Swedish) and remarked jokingly that I hadn’t realized until reading the book “how f*cked up you Swedes were.” I say that to illustrate how it is a mistake to form impressions of a country based on novels or movies. To judge Sweden on the basis of the Larsson novels would be like judging Americans on the basis of “Silence of the Lambs” or “The Godfather.” Reminiscent of what I read in my younger years about how foreigners, before the age of mass tourism, had formed impressions of Amercans on the basis of cowboy and gangster movies produced by Hollywood.

  6. R J Stove says:

    Joe might be able to help answer this question: who are the other bestselling Swedish novelists of modern times?

    The only Swedish novel I’ve read (in translation of course) is Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas of 1950, which did commercially well enough to have inspired an Anthony Quinn movie, and which helped to obtain for its author the 1951 Nobel literature prize. Is Lagerkvist still read in Scandinavia? Still talked about? It must be 20 years since I last encountered his name.

  7. tbraton says:

    PG, I just listened to the second hour of the Diane Rehm Show, where the topic of discussion for the entire hour was “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” I will post a link to the show when it becomes available later. Or you can seek it out yourself at One interesting tidbit I picked up concerned the circumstances of Larsson’s death. After he handed in his three novels to his publisher, he returned home to his seven-story apartment building to find the elevator not working. So he proceeded to bound up in the stairs and had a fatal heart attack on the way up. Very sad.

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