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Independent People – Book Review

independentpeople.jpg Ten million men and a half, I see,
Were slaughtered in fun in that maniacs’ spree.
By now they’re probably all in hell,
But I mourn them not. God-speed. Farewell.

There was, however, another war,
Waged near a rock in the blind days of yore,
And that was fought over one sweet flower
That was torn away in disastrous hour.

And that’s why I’m lately so moody grown
And Pride myself little on what I own.
For what are riches and houses and power
If in that house blooms no lovely flower?
-From Independent People, page 437-

Halldor Laxness published Independent People in 1946 and later went on to win the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 – largely because of this novel. The author has created a sprawling, generational saga revolving around Bjartur of Summerhouses – a stubborn Icelandic sheep farmer who is determined to be free and independent after spending 18 years as an employee to a wealthy landowner. Bjartur purchases land from his former employer and quickly marries the tragic Rosa. Tough, spirited and wholly dedicated to his sheep and worm-infested dog, Bjartur fathers several children including a daughter – Asta Sollilija (translated “Beloved Sun-lily). The relationship between Bjartur and Asta is tender and heartbreaking and is what drives the narration of the novel. Bjartur stubbornly follows his path toward independence and refuses to mourn his losses as the years slip by. Only when he finally succeeds in achieving his dream of building a house (and discovers the dream is empty), does Bjartur recognize all he has lost through the years.

Thematically the novel explores  freedom and independence within the context of Icelandic politics and agricultural progress.

The man who lives on his own land is an independent man. He is his own master. -From Independent People, page 13-

The love of freedom and independence has always been a characteristic of the Icelandic people. Iceland was originally colonized by free-born chieftains who would rather live and die in isolation than serve a foreign king. -From Independent People, page 65-

We Icelanders have never had any great respect for kings, except perhaps Fell Kings, for everyone is equal before God; and as long as a farmer can call himself an independent man and no one else’s slave, so long can he call himself his own king. -From Independent People, page 373-

Birds are happier than men, it is their wings that make all the difference; “grey-goose mother, lend me thy wings.” – From Independent People, page 37-

Entwined in this idea of independence at all costs are moral questions about our connections to others. Where does the search for independence and freedom from others’ influence become loneliness and isolation? At what point does a person’s quest for autonomy interfere with his ability to establish and nurture relationships? Bjartur’s dream to become self-sufficient is marred by the rigidity of his definition of independence.

An independent man thinks only of himself and lets others do as they please. -From Independent People, page 393-

Laxness fills his novel with complex and multi-layered characters living in a harsh and desolate countryside. They all seek their dreams, stumbling through their lives with their eyes on an uncertain future. Little Nonni – Bjartur’s youngest son – clings to his mother’s dream that he will ‘sing for the whole world.’ Asta dreams of love. Bjartur sees the construction of a real house as the ultimate sign he has become independent.

Independent People is the story of one man, but in many ways is a universal tale. Laxness writes with an eye on scene, describing the vast moors of Iceland in such a way as to place the reader there. His language is poetic, touching and authentic. Although at times the novel seems to drag, Laxness always redeems it by bringing the reader back to the soul of his characters – individuals who I found myself wanting to get to know better, who I wanted to see succeed despite their failings.

Highly recommended; stars4h.gif

17 Comments

  1. May 6, 2008    

    Oh my, this sounds like a wonderful book. I’ve found that I’m less familiar with the Nobel authors so it was difficult to decide which ones to read first. This will be one I get to sooner rather than later, for sure.

  2. May 6, 2008    

    Laura: I think this would be one you’d like – the main character is not terribly likable, but Laxness is such a skilled writer that I grew to care about Bjartur in spite of himself! This book reminded me a little of How Green Was My Valley in terms of its scope and the style of the author.

  3. May 6, 2008    

    This sounds wonderful Wendy! You just added another one to my TBR!

  4. May 6, 2008    

    I am with Laura: it’s hard to know where to begin with the Nobels. I’ll also add it to my list. Thanks for the review.

  5. May 6, 2008    

    What a beautiful quote you have included at the beginning of this post. I haven’t heard of this author or the book; did I miss somewhere in your review what nationality the author is?

  6. May 6, 2008    

    Teddy: I think you’ll really like this one.

    Rebecca: You’re welcome.

    Trish: This book is a translation from Iceland…and Laxness is Icelandic. The main character is a poet and there are lot of poems in the novel like the one I quoted.

  7. May 7, 2008    

    The wonderful thing about the Nobel award is that it introduces you (or me, at least) to writers I otherwise wouldn’t have known existed. This is a case in point. I hope I’m able to find a copy locally.

  8. May 9, 2008    

    Ann: I agree – although I actually learned of this one through an online book group that reads and discusses works in translation. I had never heard of this author before – and he writes beautifully. I hope you can find his work.

  9. May 13, 2008    

    Oooh, this one sounds lovely!

    Hope you don’t mind that I tagged you for the five points meme. If you feel like it, naturally. 🙂

  10. May 13, 2008    

    Thanks, Heather – I’ve been tagged by a couple of people on this one…I guess I better get busy and do it! *laughs*

  11. May 14, 2008    

    This was on my list to read last year, and then I discovered that my library didn’t have it. I never got around to doing an inter-library loan, but your review is pushing this one to the top of my list again!

  12. May 15, 2008    

    Alisia: I will look forward to reading your thoughts on it!

  13. May 17, 2008    

    … good review, but I will take issue with one thing- Laxness won the Nobel for his body of work, not primarily for Independent People. He had several novels of the same high quality in the thirties and forties- Salka Valka, World Light, Iceland’s Bell, The Atom Station andThe Happy Warriors. Later works include The Fish Can Sing, Paradise Reclaimed, and Under The Glacier. They are all worth a look.

  14. May 18, 2008    

    Curiously this was one of the books that I grabbed of the shelf last night when my wife wanted me to attend a Hindu music festival. I said he she reads a book then I would attend a concert. She want for the bargain but not the book!

  15. May 18, 2008    

    Professor Batty: Thanks for visiting my blog – I didn’t mean to imply that Laxness won the Nobel just for this book, as I know the Nobel goes to a writer for the body of his work…but, my understanding was that Independent People was what got his work largely recognized. I would love to read more of his work.

    John: LOL! She should have agreed to read the book – it would have been a deal!

  16. June 3, 2008    

    My daughter (the anthropology grad) gave me this book for Christmas, lauding its many virtues, but I confess I never got into the flow with it. From time to time I’d be lifted and carried along, but then would land with a bump and find myself having to push to continue. I didn’t set it aside in disgust, I just put it down one day and never returned.

    You’ve made me realize I’ve missed something. I think I’ll dig it up and have another go!

  17. June 3, 2008    

    Mary: I think this is a book to be read slowly and thoughtfully. There is not any real “action” so at times it appears plodding. But, it is just so beautifully crafted, in my opinion…a slice of life and observation of family. I hope you’ll enjoy it more the second time around.

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