Independent People

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Set in the early decades of the twentieth century, Independent People is a masterly realist novel evoking in rich detail a family and a rural community struggling to survive in the starkest of landscapes. At the same time it is infused with an intense awareness of Iceland's saga tradition and folklore. Bjartur of Summerhouses is a hard and sometimes cruel man, but his flinty determination to achieve independence is both genuinely heroic and bleakly comic. Having spent eighteen years in humiliating servitude before managing ...

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Gissinglover

Jan 11, 2017

Independent People

I first read "Independent People" in 1996 after reading Brad Leithauser's essay in the "New York Review of Books." Leithauser's praise of the book and the author were so intriguing that I went to the library that day and found an earlier edition. I recently had the opportunity to read the book again, with Leithauser's essay serving as an introduction. A single reading cannot exhaust this outsize, obscure novel by the 1955 Nobel-prize winner from Iceland.

On a simple level, "Independent People" deals with the lives of the poor sheep grazers in Iceland early in the 20th Century. The hero is a farmer named Bajartur of Summerhouses who, after 18 years of working for another, the baliff, earns enough money to buy his own small farm. Bajartur's goal is to be independent and self-sufficient, to take what he earns and not take or give to others. In addition to this simple economic credo for independence. Bjartur is an "independent person" emotionally in his relationships with his wives -- he is twice married in the book -- with his three sons, and with his daughter -- actually his first wife's daughter but not Bjartur's -- whom Bjartur names Asta Sollija the "beloved sun -lily" whom he refers to as his soul's "one flower." Much of this long, multi-faceted book involves Bjartur's relationship with Asta Sollija -- their estrangement and ultimate reconciliation.

Bjartur and Asta Sollija and their relationship frames but hardly exhausts this book. There is a picture of Iceland -- or of modernizing society in general with its conflict between farmer and town. There are long discussions of poetry and literature, of war, of politics, and particularly of philosophy and religion. For all its length and seriousness, much of the book is funny, almost satirical in tone in the way it pokes fun at Bjartur and his intellectual and emotional limitations. The reader still comes to admire Bjartur for his fortitude and stubborness.

The book is timeless in character and the chronology is blurred. World War I plays a pivotal role in the middle of the book but the times before and the times after seem to be endless and undefined. There is something that is prototypical and archetypical about this book -- it is hardly an exercise in the realistic novel.

From a subsequent essay about Laxness by Brad Leithauser, I learned that Laxness was the kind of person generally called a seeker. This made me admire him and this book all the more and informed greatly my second reading. Growing up in a small, isolated nation, Laxness read exhaustively and put something of himself into his readings. He changed his mind many times during his life, being at various stages entirely secular, a socialist with perhaps communist leanings, and an adherent of various forms of Christianity. He took a rare delight in important ideas and showed an openness and fluidity to them that I find reflected in the themes of "Independent People." Most obviously, their is Bjartur's character with its emphasis on economic self-sufficiency and laissez-faire. This attitude leads to Bjartur's heroism but also his poverty, and it is contrasted artfully with the cooperative movement and, implicitly, with a socialist approach to society in the early 20th century.

The book is pervaded by a strong spiritual tone. Bjartur for most of the book represents a position of independence and utter skepticism, but at key moments he does things not fully consistent with his stated beliefs. The book is framed by old Icelandic pagan legends and by spirits who are said to continue to haunt Bjartur's farm. We see various Christian ministers who in general are satirized in the course of the novel. But I was most impressed with the following erudite, and well-taken reference to Zoroastrianism, the religion of good and evil, which is alluded to many times during the course of the book and frames its story. In a moment of irony, Laxness puts the following speech early on, at Bjartur's first wedding, into the mouth of the bailiff's wife.

"I don't know whether you are acquainted with the religious beliefs of the Persians. This race believed that the god of light and the god of darkness waged eternal warfare, and that man's part was to assist the god of light in his struggle by the tilling of the fields and the improvement of the land. This is precisely what farmers do. They help God, if one may say so; work with God in the cultivation of plants, the tending of livestock, and the care of their fellow men. There exists no calling of greater nobility here on earth. Therefore, I would direct these words to all husbandmen, but first and foremost to our bridegroom of today: You sons of the soil whose labour is unending and leisure scanty, know, I bid you, how exalted is your vocation. Agriculture is work in co-operation with the Creator Himself, and in you is He well pleased." (p. 25)

I am intrigued by the repeated references to the "religion of the Persians" and to its appropriateness for the story. This quote reminds me of the sermon in "Moby Dick", a book which shares in its obscurity and in its questing character many of the qualities of this one. The speech shows the author's ability to adopt material from little-known traditions into his own ideas and work, and to make them live for the reader. It was one of the qualities that leapt out at me in my second reading of "Independent People."

This book remains a little-known masterpiece. It will reward those readers willing to take the time with it.

Robin Friedman

ekaup

Jun 21, 2011

The best book

This is simply the best book I have ever read! Even if the story takes place in a remote place close to the arctic circle it tells the story of the general desire to be free and independent, where ever they are, no matter what.

responsiblereader

Feb 18, 2010

Read Brad Leithauser's intro, he says it better than I could, but I feel the same way. This is a book that invites your affection. You are sorry when it ends, it is such a sweet sad story.

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