Plot: The epic Independent People follows Bjartur of Summerhouses, as he attempts to establish a sustainable sheep farm on the isolated Icelandic plains at the turn of the 20th century. Bjartur is a stubborn man, determined to maintain his independence at all costs, and must contend with terrible winters, family deaths, the interference of the local parish, and the will of the establish landholders. All told, the novel spans over thirty years and encompasses the distant (to Bjartur) First World War, as well as upheavals in Icelandic politics, and the sudden migration of younger generations to a mythical America.
Verdict: A tough read, but a great read. One of the neglected classics of world literature.
Review: When you love a truly great book, there are so many different ways to approach it and the task of describing the joy, or meaningfulness, or insights that you have gathered from it to someone else seems overwhelming. Halldór Laxness’Independent People is one of those great books; a challenging read, but so charming and heartbreaking that it is impossible not to love. The epic novel is also incredibly funny, albeit in a bleak sense in keeping with the struggles of Bjartur of Summerhouses. It is a true member of that over-used category of great world literature; obscure enough that it can be periodically lost from readership, but still so full of power that it will always be rediscovered again. Laxness himself was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1955, twenty years after the publication of Independent People’s second part, and he remains Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate.
The narrative follows Guðbjartur Jónsson, a sheep farmer who has laboured for eighteen years under the local landholder and bailiff. Finally saving enough of his meagre wage to afford a the first payment on a parcel of land he has negotiated to buy from his master. The small farm has a simple croft of two levels, meant to accommodate the sheep that will be Bjartur’s livelihood downstairs during the hostile winters, and space for living upstairs. This is enough for Bjartur; and his determination to be independent and live by his own means, on his own terms, remains resolute throughout the novel. Laxness’ first gift of genius is to turn this simple crofter into a tragic hero; his stubbornness is simultaneously the source of his great strength and the seed of his ruin. But unlike classical tragic figures such as Oedipus or Achilles, Bjartur is never destined to be great but simply to survive. Bjartur is cautioned and chided at every turn for his foolhardiness by the local priest, the local bailiff, the local landed gentry, the Mistress of Rathysmuri who fancies herself the local poetess and social worker, and by a chorus of other small characters that parade through the narrative. But Bjartur is firm in maintaining his independence; celebrating both that independence and the healthy flock of sheep that guarantees it as all a man should aspire to.
The choice to chronicle Bjartur’s struggle as a newly independent farmer has resonances that our ears might miss on first hearing. At the turn of the twentieth century (the period portrayed in the novel), labourers such as Bjartur had only just been freed from effective economic servitude to established landowners – such as the bailiff – and been granted the right to independent ownership of land. Laxness’ epic is also a model of 1930s socialist realism; reflecting his own politics, but also a contemporary commitment to chronicle the tribulations of individuals within newly created classes that were, until then, below literary notice. But to reduce Laxness’ work to a Marxist tract (as some have done) is to miss the light hand and beautiful imagery he uses to convey those sharper points throughout the novel.
Laxness’ second gift of genius are his captivating descriptions of the surrounding countryside; a terrain unique to the harsh environs of Iceland, but that somehow become through his telling universal in their poetry. So too are the arcs of the characters that the landscape accompanies, with their transformations frequently described through the way they describe those vistas. Bjartur accumulates a croft, a table, an old horse Blesi, an old dog simply referred to as ‘the bitch,’ and eventually a wife who gives birth to a child. The child’s birth is not auspicious; occurring while Bjartur is searching for a lost lamb, and taking the life of her mother:
And when he looked into the bed, whither the dog had suddenly lept, he saw peeping from under the dog’s belly a small, yellow-brown face, wrinkled, with closed eyes, like a new-born old man, and over this face quivers were playing, feeble and spasmodic, and from this unfortunate there came, if he heard aright, an occasional very faint whimper.
The dog strove to spread herself as closely as possible over the little body that she had taken in foster and given the only thing she possessed: the warmth of her lousy body, hungry and emaciated… an independent man who resorts to other people for help gives himself over into the power of the arch-fiend; and now this same humiliation was to be pronounced on him; on Bjartur of Summerhouses; but he was determined to pay whatever was asked of him.
Ásta Sóllilja becomes the flower of Bjartur’s life, even if he is too stubborn to admit it, and the expression is literal – Ásta Sóllilja literally translates to ‘beloved sun lily.’
But the characters of Independent People have hard entrances into the world, and even harder lives once they get there. Most bear it without complaining, and the novel takes time to find the music in these lives; even Bjartur, who composes verses in the traditional, mythic style while tending to his sheep. Again, these moments of their lives are unavoidably bound-up with the landscapes they inhabit, and the language Laxness uses to convey this becomes transcendent. On describing the night of Asta’s transition from innocence into womanhood he writes:
St. John’s Eve; those who bathe in the dew may wish a wish… The lukewarm mud spurted up between her bare toes and sucked noisily when she lifted her heel. Tonight she was going to bathe in the dew, as if she had never had a body before. On every pool of the river there was a phalarope to make her a bow; no bird in all the marshes is so courtly in its demeanour on Midsummer Eve. It was after midnight, wearing slowly on for one o’clock. The spring night reigned over the valley like a young girl. Should she come or should she not come? She hesitated, stole forward on her toes – and it was day. The feathery mists over the marshes rose twining up the slopes and lay, like a veil, in innocent modesty about the mountain’s waist. Against the white sheen of the lake loomed the shape of some animal, like a kelpie in the pellucid night.
The moment comes before Bjartur takes Asta for her first trip into town; an event that will mark her slow disillusionment with life on the farm and with her father. The transition is slow, but inevitable; and beyond the apprehension of Bjartur. Such are the elements of heartbreak skilfully woven throughout the narrative.
Laxness’ third gift of genius is his inventiveness; and nowhere is this clearer than in his characterisation of the experiences of Bjartur’s youngest child, Nonni, as he adjusts to life with his older sister and brothers on the farm. The morning is the hardest for him, as he wakes up before the others and is afraid, slowly watching the light creep across the sleeping room hoping the others will wake soon. He contemplates the lonely, meagre objects of the room and projects onto them the characters of the townsfolk (the bailiff’s wife, the poetess of Myri, is the aristocratic pot stick, as it is ‘rarely used, and then as a rule for meat soup that most appetising of dishes, it spends most of its time hanging on the wall in spotless cleanliness and decorative idleness’). Little Nonni chastises himself, and contemplates:
How foolish of him: there he had gone and blurted out a secret known only to himself, for he alone had discovered that, during what was perhaps the most remarkable of all the morning’s expanses of time, the pots and pans and other kitchen utensils changed their shapes and became men and women. Early in the morning, when he lay awake long before the others, he could hear them talking away to one another with the grave composure and the weighty vocabulary that is proper to cooking utensils alone … he who knew so much about them in the liberty of their night felt sorry for them in the bondage of their day.
In a single conceit, Laxness conveys the sadness and loneliness, the struggle and the cost of being within an independent family. Little Nonni’s contemplations occasion some of the most sublime passages within the text; and it is hard not to read the boy as a coded reference to Laxness’ own development into a poet and writer (albeit, under different economic conditions). The quiet poetry of the characters’ contemplations is their only consolation, particularly in the face of ever-present death. Nonni reflects:
This waterfall in the gully and its wind from the south, a whole human soul could find its symbol in one small peculiarity of Nature and could mould itself upon it; he had discussed it with his mother and she had understood and told him a dream. Now there was no one to understand, but he lived on this dream; and on her wishes. He walked alone whenever he could. In his breast there dwelled a lyrical sadness, a strange sorrowful longing; when he was tending the sheep he sang part-songs that he had never heard.
Beyond the thoughts and dreams of the characters, Laxness will occasionally insert his own philosophical musings but, as always, contained within the most breathtaking of images. On the disappearance of a local child, he writes:
One boy’s footprints are not long being lost in the snow, in the steadily falling snow of the shortest day, the longest night; they are lost as soon as they are made. And once again the heath is clothed in drifting white. And there is no ghost, save the one ghost that lives in the heart of a motherless boy, till his footprints disappear.
Many ghosts haunt this beautiful text, chief among them that of ‘the fiend Kolumkilli’ and the evil woman-spirit Gunnvör who made a pact with him. The land of Summerhouses that Bjartur occupies is believed to be cursed; although he himself scoffs at such things, going so far as to defiantly rename “Winterhouses” to “Summerhouses”. Two facets of the novel emerge here; as Laxness is in dialogue with the rough pagan past of the island, and its bloody future during the First World War and beyond. The latter represents a brief boom time for the farmers; built on fields of blood. The interlude is short, and discontent soon follows; ‘all that it says in the poem had come true, there was blood in the grass.’ Indeed, much more than Laxness knew – as the second part of Independent People was published the very year Hitler ordered the German rearmament, violating the treaty of Versailles.
As hard as it is to approach explaining the love of a great book, it is even harder to resist talking about it endlessly and spoiling the pleasures of the text for a first-time reader. Sometimes it is simply easier to quote it at length, and let the mastery of language speak for itself. Halldór Laxness’ Independent People is an epic that rewards a slow, patient reading. It will provoke a range of reactions – at points you will want to throw the book across the room in anger or exasperation at Bjartur of Summerhouses. But in the very next paragraph there will be a moment of laughter or a phrase of such grace that you will pick it up again and continue on; till Bjartur’s and Ásta Sóllilja’s bitter, beautiful end.