Abi's Reviews > Independent People

Independent People by Halldór Laxness
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's review
Feb 15, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: 20th-century, favourites, nobel-prize-winning, iceland
Recommended for: Anyone who loves literature
Read in January, 2005

"How much can one sacrifice for the sake of one's pride? Everything, of course - if one is proud enough." - Halldór Laxness, The Atom Station, 1948

No less than the best book I have read so far in my life.
Independent People (original title: Sjálfstætt Fólk) is the tragedy of a man who is proud enough to sacrifice everything. It tells the story of Bjartur of Summerhouses, his family (especially his daughter, Ásta Sóllilja) and the 'world war' they wage against the harsh Icelandic landscape in which they live and the demons, imaginary or otherwise, that inhabit it. Bjartur has spent 18 years scraping together enough money to buy his own croft (a croft that is supposedly haunted by a ghost destined to bring failure to all who try and farm there) and is determined at all costs that he and his new wife Rósa will live as independent people. He is stoical beyond belief, often frustrating the reader to tears with his stubborn refusal to deviate from his principles, to the detriment of his wives and children. He is callous to the point of cruelty and yet not unloving, and this for me was the most heart-wrenching strand in the novel (portrayed most clearly in his relationship with Ásta Sóllilja, but present throughout). It isn't at all that Bjartur doesn't experience love; it's that his misguided desperation for independence forces him to suppress his own humanity. And, in fairness, clinging to his principles must have been the only thing that prevented him from being crushed. He simply cannot allow himself to feel, otherwise he would sink beneath all that death and poverty. Set in the late 19th and early 20th century, superficially this is a book about sheep farming and drinking coffee, but in reality it is a journey into the 'labyrinth of the human soul'. With a good dose of sheep as well.
The writing is simply first class. Laxness' voice is simple and wry and filled with black humour, weaving Icelandic folklore and child-like imagination into a world of grim hardship. He is a true poet. The rest of the Laxness I've read has been translated by Magnus Magnusson, but I prefer J. A. Thompson. The vocabulary is richer and the style is smoother. I haven't read the original so I can't really comment on whether Magnusson's or Thompson's is closer to the spirit of Laxness, but I suspect (or hope) the latter is.
Independent People is an epic tragedy, filled with melancholic despair and great suffering (physical and emotional), but to me the book was not depressing, despite the fact that it did, and still does, make me cry. The story and the writing are beautiful and contain moments of great joy, humour and love alongside the tragedy. The characters are just perfect, and Bjartur must be one of the most interesting and complicated protagonists I've ever encountered. Every time I read it I am overwhelmed. Literature at its best: I can't believe that anyone could come away from this untouched. I have read several other Laxness novels, but this is undoubtedly his masterpiece. It is a travesty that it is so little known; Independent People is one of the great modern classics and, to paraphrase Leithauser, this novel genuinely is not just good, not just great, but the book of my life.
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Quotes Abi Liked

Halldór Laxness
“The tyranny of mankind; it was like the obstinate drip of water falling on a stone and hollowing it little by little; and this drip continued, falling obstinately, falling without pause on the souls of the children.”
Halldór Laxness, Independent People

Halldór Laxness
“He did not know what to say in the face of such sorrow. He sat in silence by his sister's side in the spring verdure, which was too young; and the hidden strings in his breast began to quiver; and to sound.
This was the first time that he had ever looked into the labyrinth of the human soul.”
Halldór Laxness, Independent People

Halldór Laxness
“One boy's footprints are not long in 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.”
Halldór Laxness, Independent People

Halldór Laxness
“Maðurinn finnur það sem hann leitar að, og sá sem trúir á draug finnur draug.”
Halldór Laxness, Independent People

Halldór Laxness
“The farm brook ran down from the mountain in a straight line for the fold then swerved to the west to go its way down into the marshes. There were two knee-high falls in it and two pools, knee-deep. At the bottom there was shingle, pebbles and sand. It ran in many curves. Each curve had its own tone, but not one of them was dull; the brook was merry and music-loving, like youth, but yet with various strings, and it played its music without thought of any audience and did not care though no one heard for a hundred years, like the true poet.”
Halldór Laxness, Independent People

Reading Progress

02/12/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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Jeremy Yeah, Abi, agree with you wholeheartedly. It is a crying shame that it is not better known. Or maybe not. It's kind of fun to have as a secret.

May I recommend one of my other favorite secrets, "The Unconsoled"


message 2: by Abi (new) - rated it 5 stars

Abi You may indeed. I'm in the middle of a semester at the moment, so I'm lucky if I get any spare reading time, and what I do I'm usually devoting to Proust (trying desperately to finish before the end of the academic year), but when the summer holidays start I can give it a go. Who's it by?

Partly I like having Laxness as a secret, but it leads to me evangelising to everyone I know and a frustration that I can't talk about it with my friends. I have succeeded in converting a few (read: forcing them to read it) but most of them think it's good, well-written, but they don't feel the same magic that I do. I lost a great deal of respect for my aunt after she read it at my suggestion and said she hated it because it was 'relentlessly depressing'. Ugh, she just didn't get it. The lack of justice also annoys me; if Laxness had been British or American or French or something I believe he would be hailed internationally as a great author. Although, the 'Icelandicness' is part of the appeal and the soul of his writing I suppose. If he hadn't been Icelandic, this book could never have been written.

Have you read any other Laxness?

Jeremy No, but after your review i don't think i will...I'm into reading people's best book...for example, I loved White Teeth, and people tell me On Beauty is good too, but not quite as good as white teeth...so what the hell is the point? There are so many wonderful books out there, I am usually interested in just seeing a different authors perspective..there are only a few great authors that I have read more than one book by. But perhaps this is just idiocy.

message 4: by Abi (new) - rated it 5 stars

Abi Ah, but World Light is almost as good! And it's much better than a lot of other literature. I just finished Under the Glacier and it was wonderfully bizarre, not at all like Independent People.

Jeremy It's that word "Almost" that kills me.

But it can be really fun if a story is RADICALLY different in tone and structure. For example, reading Haroun and reading Satanic Verses...completely different approaches.

Given that, which do you reccomend, World Light or Under the Glacier?

Jeremy I guess it can feel a little distracting when i get the impression an author is warming up his or her style to attain the tool that produced her masterpiece, or, even worse, attempting to attain the greatness of that work but falling slightly short. It's a very cynical position, and stating it to you is making me examine it and perhaps reject it.

message 7: by Abi (new) - rated it 5 stars

Abi 'Almost' is only my opinion. I know people who prefer World Light. It was that and Independent People that he won the Nobel Prize for.
If I hadn't known that Under the Glacier was a Laxness I wouldn't have guessed just from reading Independent People (except that how many Icelandic authors are there in translation?). It involves a woman who may or may not have been killed, turned into a fish, buried in the glacier, dug up again months later and raised from the dead by a group of travelling American hippies. That's only a part of the novel, but the whole thing is much more surreal.
World Light is not the same tone as Independent People at all, although I suppose it's stylistically similar. Olafur is like the anti-Bjartur. I think it's a better novel than Under the Glacier, but if you want something that's not the Laxness of Independent People, Under the Glacier or The Fish Can Sing would be better. If you might consider it, read my review of World Light (or possibly The Fish Can Sing - although it's not one of the best, in my opinion). I haven't written one for Under the Glacier yet.

message 8: by Abi (last edited Jul 31, 2010 11:33AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Abi If anyone is interested, this is the main passage that I base my opinions on Bjartur upon:

"Then she looked at him and he saw her eyes. The right eye was strangely clear; it was young, almost happy, and quite free. But her left eye, which saw nothing straight, her left eye was a different soul, a different nation pursuing a different course; it held things undreamed of, fragile, delicate longings circumscribed by anguish itself, the longing of a man bound in the hands of his enemies; it was the cross-eye of her mother, who had died without achieving speech, who had lived in dread and disappeared, whom he had married but never owned. She had been young as a flower. It was as if he saw down through the years to far-off days. And was suddenly tired; autumn swept over his face in a moment, or rather his face dissolved into the paths of autumn without colour or form; one stands and faces one's life, a stranger -
"Father," she said. "It will be lovely when you start building."
And then she noticed his face, the face which he never showed in the light of day, which no one knew or had ever been allowed to see, which never realised expression even in his most expert verse, the face of the man within."

This is practically the only glimpse the reader is given into the labyrinth of Bjartur's soul, apart from a few moments of tenderness towards Ásta Sóllílja - the rest is all bluff and facade, until the very end of the novel when he finally surrenders his lifelong war of independence. This is the passage that first made me love him.

Richard The Solace of Open Spaces, by Gretel Ehrlich is a good companion piece to IP, she leaves LA for a sheep ranch in Montana, HER book reads like poetry, gets into the psychology of the shepherds, which is a psychology of silences. Bjartur exemplifies this. Some may say they're stoic, proud, strange---they are---more than this, being in nature for so long, with animals that sustain you, this is an experience most Westerners never experience.
I have and Laxness paints Northeastern California, the Kenai Peninsula, West Texas as well as Iceland with his prose.This is a second reading, I read once long ago byt forgot in 25 years....refreshing to revisit my childhood via an Icelandic author.

Andrew Such a great novel, so little known. This should be included on every high schoold curriculum.

message 11: by Travelin (last edited May 27, 2015 02:53AM) (new) - added it

Travelin It was already in my TBRs but jumped up quite a bit for having such complex independence mixed with a dose of sheep.

Edit: I'm going to be honest: the quotes you have, at least in English, fall flat for me. Maybe they need context, maybe it's the translation.

Marcia Letaw Excellent review, thanks. There just isn't any book quite as good as Independent People.

message 13: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Laird I was prompted to read this on reading a piece by Brad Leithauser, who spoke of the influence the work had on him, and made a reference to a visitor to Iceland, who took a hundred kilometre taxi ride to go to Laxness's house, as a pilgrimage. Independent People I found a difficult read, but compelling and the imagery and the characters have resonated ever since. I have visited the home of an author I admire enormously, India's RK Narayan, because his work speaks to me so profoundly. Yours is a splendid review: you get to the heart of the matter.

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