What I read today...

Books: reading - reviewing - recommending

Independent People - Halldór Laxness

28th July 2014

To use an already overused cliché; this book changed my life.  I do not use the phrase lightly; Independent People is one of the most important novels of the 20th century, in any language.  Avid readers will read thousands of books in their life-time however they will always be able to say immediately which of those their favourites are.  This, without question, is in the top 3 novels I have read in my life.  The paradox is, that I think it will always be difficult to sum the novel up in order to “sell it” to others; it has to be read – and read often - to be understood and appreciated, like so many great novels.

The story tells of Guðbjartur Jónsson, known as Bjartur, and his family on his farm in the early decades of the 20th century.  Having worked and lived as a shepherd for the local bailiff for 18 years, he has finally saved enough to put down a deposit on his own farm, the ruined Winterhouses.  Unfortunately Bjartur’s new land is said to be cursed, and Bjartur – much to the chagrin of his new wife Rósa -  refuses to follow superstitious tradition in offering a stone to the cairn of Gunnvör, who haunts the place; a portentous start.

He renames it Summerhouses, a positive name for the start of what Bjartur sees as his new independent future.  Things get off to a horrible start, when Bjartur discovers that his wife had fallen pregnant to the son of his former employer, a real scandal which you never feel Bjartur really deals with emotionally.    

Bjartur lives frugally, refusing to make extravagant purchases and denying his wife basic things such as red meat.  Under Bjartur’s penny-pinching ways, Rósa quickly becomes miserable, clearly used to the finer things in her previous abode.  This leads to drastic actions on the part of Rósa, as she turns to slaughtering a helpless sheep left behind when Bjartur heads into the mountains.

Having ventured into the mountains to locate the sheep which he assumes is missing, Bjartur is absent for the birth of Rósa’s baby.  After almost dying of exposure to the harsh Icelandic landscape, Bjartur returns to find his poor wife dead and the baby somehow still alive, after being kept warm by his faithful dog Titla.  Bjartur names the baby Ásta Sóllilja, and with reluctant help from his former employer with regards to the baby - given its relation to the bailiff’s son - the baby survives.

The story then fast-forwards 13 years later.  The outbreak of the First World War soon changes life for everyone at Summerhouses – a new wife, 3 children and a mother-in-law crowd the farm - as the price of wool and mutton skyrocket, and the dream of a release from poverty seems a possibility. 

Still, even in prosperity, you never get a sense that Bjartur feels for his children or those around him any great emotional attachment.  You cannot help but feel for the children of Summerhouses, who have dreams of their own which are stifled under Bjartur’s rule of the farm.  Throughout the second half of the novel however, there is a definite thawing of Bjartur’s iciness towards Ásta, as they realise that despite the lack of biological link, they need one another more than they thought.

The struggle for independence Bjartur faces is for the freedom of standing on one’s own feet, one which is admirable, if his methods are somewhat questionable to the point of cruelty.  The struggle epitomises Iceland and its people; they are a proud nation and if they reach prosperity, they want to do it on their own.  Laxness gives us a real insight into the exploitation of farmers such as Bjartur by rich landowners and Danish merchants at the time.  At the same time he also shows that the old legends of hidden folk in Iceland are alive and well, with ghosts and elves still heavily on the minds of its people, especially the younger children.

The novel asked and answered many questions about my own life; about my own place in the modern world; what I think is important and why, and how to deal with some revelations in my own life which changed everything, while at the same time changed nothing.  It is a novel I will come back to, again and again, and find something new each time.

Iceland is almost unique in world literature; without question reading and writing is their greatest passion.  For most Icelanders, it exceeds all other pastimes, while the rest of the modern world mainly obsesses over trivial things like sport, fashion, technology or money for example.  This is due no doubt to the long hard winters in Iceland, where the usual modern amusements become obsolete, and that they find solace in the spoken and written word, as they have for over 1000 years. 

Independent People is the greatest gift of an Icelander to the world; a beautiful and at times tragic masterpiece.

Rating: 5/5 stars