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Independent People

(Sjálfstætt fólk #1-4)

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  9,564 ratings  ·  1,325 reviews
This magnificent novel—which secured for its author the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature—is at last available to contemporary American readers. Although it is set in the early twentieth century, it recalls both Iceland's medieval epics and such classics as Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter. And if Bjartur of Summerhouses, the book's protagonist, is an ordinary sheep farm ...more
Paperback, 482 pages
Published January 14th 1997 by Vintage (first published 1934)
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 ·  9,564 ratings  ·  1,325 reviews

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Jan 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Better Red Than Dead

Entering into Independent People with no introduction, one could be forgiven for thinking it a merely charming review of early 20th century Icelandic culture, an update of the sagas and a chronicle of the rugged life of the North. Laxness apparently promotes this in his opening paragraphs with his references to local legends of Norse colonisers, Celtic demons, and the various Icelandic myths of national origin. He describes a timeless scene, “...the centuries lie side by side
Oct 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Independent curmudgeons... and lovers of poetry
Recommended to Dolors by: Ema
Little did I foresee that I would warm up to Bjartur, the roguish farmer, the more stubborn than a mule protagonist that Laxness chooses to construct this Icelandic epic around.
Far from the national hero the title might suggest, the reader meets a curmudgeon, an ostensibly querulous peasant who is obsessed with earning his freedom at all costs. He never indulges in kindness and expects his family to break their backs to achieve his goal: owning a farmstead and a flock of sheep that are his means
Jim Fonseca
Independent People by Halldor Laxness

I don’t usually cite book cover comments from critics in my reviews, but I’ll make an exception for this book by the 1955 Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic author (1902-1998). In the introduction, Brad Leithauser, a poet, novelist and English professor called it (at the time he wrote the introduction) “my favorite book by a living novelist.” Annie Proulx said it was “one of my top ten” and Jane Smiley called it “one of the best books of the twentieth century.”


Paul Bryant
I see a number of my GR friends have read this but A BILLION MORE of them have this listed as To Read. Yes, I see why. Every single person who has read this thinks this is a masterpiece but you stroke your chin and you think do I really need a 600 page novel about Icelandic sheep farmers in my life? Even if it is a Nobel prize winning all time masterpiece?

Maybe you are like me, you live in a city and think the countryside is very pretty to visit for an afternoon, what with all the moo cows and b
Feb 15, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone who loves literature
"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 whi
This story of a man determined to be an independent smallholder raising sheep in the years before the first world war is a great book, for the right reader. As a book it has two principal obstacles to being universally enjoyed. Firstly, sheep are among the most important characters and much like their human dependants, their hardy virtues are easier to admire than love. Secondly, it is full of misery, worse yet, misery that is handled with irony and detachment. The simplest way of describing Ind ...more
Jul 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
Way back when. My wife and went to our prominent local bookseller over the holidays in 2003. She asked me if I had read anything by Laxness and I adroitly responded, "who?" She bought something else and the following day I jogged down to the public library. My face burning with shame I checked this out from the stacks and returned home. I read such over two days. Jonsson the sheep farmer is everyman and he's screwed. Modernity arrives along with a nascent globalization. Never razor sharp, the fa ...more
Sheep saga
The power of Laxness's writing allows the reader to become truly immersed in the smells, sights and sounds of the world he has created and, for me at least, the smells seemed to predominate, the smell of damp wool especially. An amazing feat.
Jun 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012, classics
It took me a little to do this thing with Independent People. 500 pages of itsy bitsy print: it requires a monogamous, long term commitment.’ But’, Brad Leithauser enthuses in the foreword,’ this is the book of my life. I have to reign in the suspicion I am its only ideal reader’. Hey ho, not a bad sell. Still, why? What is the book about?

‘Well, its a book about sheep’ says Leithauser. Well, for heavens sake. 500 pages about sheep, do I have it in me? I’m not Welsh after all, where the men are m
Jun 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Like World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is not just enough zombie story, but also a well written book; so too Independent People by Halldor Laxness is not just another book about Icelandic sheep crofters and separates itself from that crowded genre of literature by the quality of writing.

The Nobel laureate from Reykjavik tells an engrossing and damn near hypnotic story about poor Icelandic farmers. And sheep.

No kidding, SPOILER ALERT!! this is about a sheep crofter in early twentieth
Oct 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Brian by: Jonathan

Everything that one has ever created achieves reality. And soon the day dawns when one finds oneself at the mercy of the reality one has created.

There is a subtle beauty in this text - an expansive desolation that plays as canvas to Laxness' protagonist Bjartur of Summerhouses creation of an independent life. Told in the early years of the 20th century on the hard-scrabble tundra of rural Iceland, the narrative follows the course of this stubborn Bjartur and his quixotic life-long quest for comp
Oct 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: icelandic
I kept waiting, waiting, for Bjartur Jonsson to break from his character. Not about his politics, which were entirely pragmatic. And not about his essential philosophy, that a man must be independent and reliant on no one. But surely to his family. Surely there would be one wife or a child that would turn his soul - when one has a flower. There were moments, or more precisely near-moments. And you could read into the text, I suppose, and believe that he actually had a moment when he loved a daug ...more
When you say the word 'culture', watch out. The traps within the simple word are many, a loving gaze on the self and a objectifying fascination with the other, idealization and discrimination two shafts of light within the same grimy crystal. Nothing conveys this truth so well and so thoroughly as literature, as many throughout the centuries bring up their utensil of inkish intent and lay down their views, all for the most part bound within their single subset of country, family, faith. Nothing ...more
Jul 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
What does it mean being independent? Stop for a moment and think: do you consider yourself an independent person? I've never asked myself this question seriously before reading this novel, although I've always tried to preserve my freedom by sticking to a few personal guidelines: I avoid becoming a working slave; I can't keep my mouth shut when I observe injustice or stupidity; I can't keep my head down to gain favors; I can't stand being tied to a person just out of politeness.

In my view, being
Neal Adolph
May 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
It is hard to write about this novel, but others have managed to do so with words that make perfect sense. Perhaps, though, I'm still caught in that after-book glow, figuring out just whether or not my love for this book will condense itself into sentences with letters and words and commas and periods. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. For your sake and mine I'll keep this blathering short and encourage you, instead, to go and read reviews from others on this site. There are good ones.

It is a lovel
K.D. Absolutely
Sep 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to K.D. by: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2008-2012)
Shelves: iceland, 1001-core, nobel
My 109th book read this year and just the 6th time that I gave a 5-star rating.

This book truly deserves this. It feels like the Les Miserables of Iceland but the sights, smell and sound here is not the France in 19th century but the moors, the sheep, the snow of Iceland during the turn of the 20th century. Halldor Laxness (1902-1998) received the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature and the only Icelandic author who has won this prestigious price.

The story revolves around a man called Bjartur of Sum
Jan 18, 2013 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: modern-lit, pairs
Written as a pair with Pericles

Reading Smiley on the back cover of this book:

‘I can’t imagine any greater delight than coming to Independent People for the first time’ Really? I mean, REALLY????? Better than sex? Chocolate icecream??? What sort of life has Smiley lived that makes her say that. I couldn’t help thinking of this exchange on the comments of my Harry Potter review:

Brook: "I hav read every single book 14 times and i read an average of 200 books per year and have never read a bette
Jan 28, 2018 rated it liked it
An odd, yet intriguing story. Bjartur's drive for independence affects his entire life and family. Their world is bleak and hard. Buried in this story is the story of Iceland. It's the farmers being exploited, the rich being rewarded. It's a hard scrabble life.
The prose is rich and deep. This isn't a book to read quickly. It requires a bit of commitment. The richness of the prose is the reward.
The story of Bjartur and his family roles out in an interesting pattern. The landscape of Iceland come
Michael Perkins
Jan 09, 2021 rated it really liked it
What, at first, seemed like a straightforward story turned out to be a detailed and somewhat complex morality tale. The author is out to show that rugged individualism is not enough and inevitably leads to disaster. The main character, Bjartur, faces a series of trials that are reminiscent of the Book of Job. But Bjartur never offered help to anyone else and, with one exception, he didn't expect help from anyone either. He's a stubborn loner, which is his undoing.

The author was a Marxist and he
Mar 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: bitchin
In 874 CE a Norwegian chieftain, Ingólfr Arnarson, became the first permanent settler on the island that came to be known as Iceland. Ah, truly an independent man! One can’t help but think that Gudbjartur of Summerhouses, the dominant character in Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, would have approved of such a state of affairs. As the novel begins, Bjartur has purchased his own piece of land, after working, for eighteen years, for the Bailiff. This is, despite the measly nature of the land an ...more
Dec 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars - This was a really fantastic book to finish off the year. This book is beautiful and heartbreaking and my writing skills could never do it justice. If you are at all interested in Iceland and Scandinavian lit this is a must read. It is a slow burn and takes some patience. It is a book I would like to revisit at least parts of in the future. I will be thinking about these characters and what it really means to be an independent person for a long time.
Dec 11, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: lovers of icelandic history; those who like detailed writing
Shelves: iceland, fiction
Despite the reviews below, this book is not about sheep.

Independent People is about the complex intersection of pride and poverty. It is the story of the fiercely strong and intelligent everyman who has little to show for their successes yet holds their successes with high esteem. It is also about how one's endless struggle to be self-sufficient can make one bitter, senseless, hypocritical and cold.

This book is not about sheep at all. Main character Bjartur is preoccupied with sheep because bei
Ben Winch
Oct 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A while back, I entered into a discussion with the friend who recommended me this book concerning the value or otherwise of literature as an exploration of culture – ie, in the mold of Grapes of Wrath or The Tree of Man or just about anything over 400 pages that wins the Booker Prize (which is, after all, given explicitly to a book that “represents a culture”). For those who don’t grasp what I mean here by “culture”, don’t worry, I’m not sure I grasp it myself, in that any book surely represents ...more
May 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone who questions what independence is.
Recommended to Deea by: Dolors
I felt together with Bjartur the blistering cold cutting to his bones after he let the reindeer escape, got out of the river and had to walk all wet through snow and blizzard for hours on end to find a shelter. I craved for milk and some meat together with Rosa during her pregnancy days. I discovered universes in the small space of a shabby room and discovered how time and shapes can be redefined in the mind of an innocent child together with Nonni. I felt together with Asta Solillja how it was ...more
 Δx Δp ≥ ½ ħ
What makes Halldór Laxness’s writing looks so terrific is his ability to create and manage every plainspoken and quotidian detail of domestic life feel epic. The overall feeling is of sorrow, darkness and solitude — as if you are caught in the shack on the beach and all you can hear outside is the raging ocean waves. But when ‘o-my-god-moment’ comes, you can feel the epicness—as it happens on every page. If any book can whip your soul back like a wind off the sea, this is it.

Ah. The humour and t
Nov 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
If you thought "The Idiot" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky was maddening long and depressing "Independent People" is a close runner up. It is an incredibly bleak view of rural life in Iceland concerned with the struggle of poor Icelandic farmers in the early 20th century, only freed from debt bondage in the last generation, and surviving on isolated crofts in an inhospitable landscape. Written in the 1930's originally in 2 volumes, it condemns materialism, the cost of the self-reliant spirit to relationsh ...more
Jan 24, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Emily randomly picked up this book for me in Powells a few years ago, and, after seeing it on our shelf, Brian selected it for book club. I don't know if I ever would have bumped into it on my own, which makes me understand Brad Leithauser's comment in the introduction that discovering "Independent People" makes you feel supremely lucky. What are the odds of stumbling upon an almost 500-page, densely woven, Icelandic novel from the 1940s, and further, what are the odds that it would be so incred ...more
Josh Caporale
Oct 08, 2016 rated it liked it
3.5 stars

I read Independent People as a buddy read with Janelle from The Page Turner, who is an insightful and well-spoken Booktuber that suggested that we read something by Halldor Laxness, who is the first and only Nobel Prize in Literature winner from Iceland. It is a great selection to read this, because I have never read a work of Icelandic literature before picking this up, so I was looking forward to reading something about a country I did not know so much about. After reading this, I got
Feb 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Throughout its long history, Iceland has known periods of horrible poverty. At times, the fault was in some massive volcanic eruption. It didn't help that, for hundreds of years, the country was under the control of Denmark, that most louche of all colonial powers. Halldór Laxness, the country's only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, has in Independent People described a large swath of Iceland's history from the late 19th century to 1917 -- all from the point of view of a farmer named Gu ...more
Oct 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction, 1001-bymrbyd
When I started reading this one I thought I was in for an ordeal. It starts slowly and I struggled somewhat with the Icelandic names, but once the pages started to be numbered in the three digits I found that I was held in thrall by the main character, Bjartur. I honestly detested the man and the ruinous effect his obstinacy had on the lives of the creatures that depended on him. Bjartur is by turns churlish and heroic, profane and poetic, but unfailingly fatalistic in his philosophy and tough t ...more
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Born Halldór Guðjónsson, he adopted the surname Laxness in honour of Laxnes in Mosfellssveit where he grew up, his family having moved from Reyjavík in 1905. He published his first novel at the age of only 17, the beginning of a long literary career of more than 60 books, including novels, short stories, poetry, and plays. Confirmed a Catholic in 1923, he later moved away from religion and for a l ...more

Other books in the series

Sjálfstætt fólk (4 books)
  • Frie mænd (Sjálfstætt fólk #1-2)
  • Ásta Sóllilja (Sjálfstætt fólk #3-4)
  • Úsvit nad slatinami

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