"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.