Independent People

by Chris Bertram on January 2, 2007

I finished Halldor Laxness’s “Independent People”: a few weeks ago. It took me a very long time to read. Usually this is a sign that I’m not getting on with a book, but not in this case. Rather, Laxness’s prose is so rich, his descriptions are so compelling and his observations so unsettling, that I found it hard to read more than a few pages at a time without taking a break. Certainly it is the best book I’ve read all year, and maybe over the last five or so.

Independent Peoplem, which won “Laxness”: the Nobel in 1952, is (among many other things) the story of an Icelandic crofter, Bjartur of Summerhouses and his family, especially his daughter Asta Sollija. Life is hard, it is cold, it rains, there are sheep, there are long discussions about worms and other parasites. Not tempted? I admit that the apparent dreariness of the subject-matter had me doubting when I first bought my copy. But I’d been recommended it by someone who had been so captivated that she’s booked a holiday in Iceland on the strength of the book. Well, when someone whom you think of as having good judgement does that, it is worth giving a book a try.

One way of reading the _Independent People_ is as a satire. The two Icelanders with whom I’ve discussed it say how funny it is (as does Jane Smiley on the cover blurb). Once you are several hundred pages in, it is easier to get the jokes, but much is inevitably lost on non-Icelanders. The title refers to Bjatur’s obsessive desire for independence and the way that he permits neither financial encumbrances nor ties of personal affection to disrupt his independence. In the end, this stubborn refusal of vulnerability turns out to have been a mistake, and a mistake that Laxness sees as permeating the Icelandic national consciousness. But that’s only one way of taking the book. It is also a meditation on peasant life at the edge of survival, on traditional cultures, and, more universally, on human relationships. Bjartur’s understanding of the landscape around him is mediated by his knowledge of myth, of the Icelandic sagas and of a tradition of oral poetry. This understanding of the present in terms of a heroic literary tradition is both mocked and celebrated by Laxness. Celebrated in the way in which Bjartur is able to endow his most mundane of actions with meaning because of his access to that canon; but also mocked because this leads him into a comical misperception of his real relations with both nature and others. He casts himself as a hero, and this enables him to endure against cruel setbacks and in hard conditions; but it also makes it impossible for him to encounter his daughter as a real individual.

I’m going to read the _Independent People_ again soon, since I’m sure that there’s much I’ve missed. Laxness’s writing and insight is often superb. There’s one passage where he describes Bjartur’s quest of a lost sheep that is, in fact, already dead in which he evokes Bjartur’s sense of freedom as being in control in a landscape he identifies with. There’s another in which he sets out in a few lines the difference that losing her virginity makes to Asta’s relationship to her family members, even though it will be a while before the consequences of the act become plain. For some reason these two remain especially clear in my mind, but just about every page is a joy.



Amanda 01.02.07 at 6:18 am

You’re only the second person ever I’ve heard mention this book. The first was the person who gave me a copy for a 21st present. It’s my favourite novel.


nnyhav 01.02.07 at 8:13 am

Throw some Sagas into the mix (particularly Egil‘s) before rereading. (Besides, William Morris & Jorge Luis Borges concur.) I’ve described Independent People elsewhere as the Moby-Dick of sheep-farming, and Under the Glacier as (among other things) a transposition of At Swim-Two-Birds from Ireland to Iceland.


John Emerson 01.02.07 at 12:13 pm

Sorry, he only got his Nobel because of small-nation tokenism and Scandinavian chauvinism. What are the chances that a teentsy country like that would deserve a Nobelist? I suppose that Malta will bve next.


Kieran Healy 01.02.07 at 1:01 pm

About as good as the chances that a teentsy country like Ireland would deserve one, I suppose. Or four. And we still have another guy to spare who didn’t win one, but apparently wrote this quite important novel.


John Emerson 01.02.07 at 2:31 pm

Yeah, I hate those little island countries. Barbados too. Iceland is way smaller than Ireland, anyway. There are those who say that the Icelander’s literary talent can be traced back to Irish slaves they brought along during the initial colonization.


J. Ellenberg 01.02.07 at 2:54 pm

A really amazing book. My experience was much like yours, Chris — it sounded like the sort of book I’d have no interest in, but the people who love it love it so damn much that I couldn’t believe there was nothing to it. Now I am one of them.


Dr. Minorka 01.02.07 at 3:23 pm

“Iceland is way smaller than Ireland, anyway. ”
According to Wikipedia:
Total area Iceland: 103,000 km²/39,768.5 sq mi
Total area Ireland: 84,412 km²/32,591 sq mi


terence 01.02.07 at 4:36 pm

It’s certainly a book that illustrates the pros and cons of being strong willed…

I have a vague recollection that Independent People is partially autobiographical for Laxness – he is one of the sons in the story. Probably the one in the scene with the sentient kitchen utensils in the pre-dawn.

I could be mistaken though…


John Emerson 01.02.07 at 4:59 pm

Populationwise. Iceland is probably the most desolate nation in Europe, with a population of about 300,000. This is many time greater than its population during the period of the sagas. Iceland has an enormously disproportionate cultural footprint.

Iceland has more horses (or ponies) per capita than any nation except Mongolia. The native pony is actually more closely related to the Mongol horse / pony than it is to the horses familiar to most of the rest of Europe.


Jacob Christensen 01.02.07 at 5:24 pm

@ John: You may want to be aware of the fact that the Icelandic (the people, not the horses) have been on a spending spree for the last years with the ambition to buy the U.K. and most of Scandinavia. Soon you will be forced to speak Icelandic!


Laxness is a lacuna in my litterary education but I’m a great fan of his contemporary Villiam Heinesen, a Faroese novelist and short story writer who wrote about life on the islands in a partly realistic, partly saga-like style. I’m not sure if Heinesen is available in English translations, though. (Heinesen for some reason wrote in Danish and not in Faroese which is closer to Icelandic than Danish)


John Emerson 01.02.07 at 5:39 pm

Iceland offers wide varieties of traditional cuisine. Þorramatur (food of the þorri) is the Icelandic national food. Nowadays þorramatur is mostly eaten during the ancient Nordic month of þorri, in January and February, as a tribute to old culture. Þorramatur consists of many different types of food. These are mostly offal dishes like pickled ram’s testicles, putrified shark meat, singed sheep heads, singed sheep head jam, blood pudding, liver sausage (similar to Scottish haggis) and dried fish (often cod or haddock) with butter. (Wiki)


maureen 01.02.07 at 7:02 pm

Oh dear, John! If Nobels were given per million population we could all stop reading for ever.

What counts is the quality of imagination in both the individual and the culture plus, very often, a tradition of valuing the storyteller. All those can be very strong in small and in island communities.

I would say that, though – I’m Manx and, yes, we too punch above our weight, most recently in the visual and the plastic arts.

Time to broaden your experience, man.


Jonathan Goldberg 01.02.07 at 10:14 pm

And a few years ago Iceland won the world championship of contract bridge. What are the odds of that?


Danny Yee 01.03.07 at 12:30 am

I won’t repeat myself – check out my review of Independent People.


nick s 01.03.07 at 5:51 am

And we still have another guy to spare who didn’t win one, but apparently wrote this quite important novel.

An Béal Bocht, you’ll be meaning?


Mrs Tilton 01.03.07 at 7:32 am

Or Artemis Fowl?


Jamie 01.03.07 at 7:37 am

[11] Ah, now I understand why that cozy-looking little Icelandic restaurant over on the west side folded up so quickly.


trane 01.03.07 at 8:05 am

If you are interested in further ventures in beautiful poetry-filled Icelandic prose, I would very much recommend Einar Már Gudmundson’s “Footsteps in the Sky” [Fótspor á himnum]. Unfortunately and strangely, however, the book is to my knowledge not yet available in English. Therefore my recommendation is more so that you might remember it x years hence when the English translation is available. I would go so far as to say that the Danish translation which I have read is in the top five of books I have read in my own language.


John Emerson 01.03.07 at 1:29 pm

No one should get any more Nobels until China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil get their share.

I regret failing mentioning that I also hate the Island of Man, along with all the other island coutries, including Australia whose claims to be a continent are absurdly inflated.


Mike Hobart 01.03.07 at 10:38 pm

I have only read about Laxness previously on the website of the Iceland Daily News. He tended to be mentioned fairly often a few years ago, but I guess he’s taken for granted now.

Iceland and my home Tasmania have some vague similarities, but we have yet to produce a Nobel prize winner. Of course I haven’t finished my third novel yet, so watch this space…..


Walt 01.03.07 at 10:48 pm

Maybe a more efficient procedure would be to retrospectively reassign nationalities? Laxness would make a fine Brazilian.


John Emerson 01.04.07 at 12:13 am

One of Gudmundson’s book has been translated into Spanish as “Angeles del Universo”.


Earle 01.04.07 at 3:15 am

nnyhav (post 2) is right about the Icelandic Sagas. In addition to Egil’s Saga, Njal’s Saga and Grettir’s Saga contain some of the most interesting characters (most of whom are real historical figuresfrom the 9th – 11th centuries) I’ve come across anywhere. It’s a pity these works are not better known in the states, especially since the English translations by Magnus Magnusson and others are so accessible.


John Emerson 01.04.07 at 8:03 am

I’ll second the Njal recommendation. It seems far superior to any other European fiction before 1300 except maybe Beowulf. (Chaucer and Boccaccio were later). Perhaps I just like the saga conventions better than the romance conventions — the fundamental romantic premise of the romances annoys me.


Danny Yee 01.04.07 at 5:57 pm

One of Gudmundson’s book has been translated into Spanish as “Angeles del Universo”.

That’s also available in English, as Angels of the Universe (link is to my review). I enjoyed that, though I don’t know that it’s in the same class as Independent People.

The only other Icelandic literature I’ve read is the Icelandic Sagas (actually just the family sagas, Njal’s saga among them) and an issue of McSweeney’s devoted to Icelandic short fiction.

Any more Icelandic reading suggestions?


strewelpeter 01.05.07 at 7:40 am

An Béal Bocht, you’ll be meaning?

Clearly he means that they shall face the rising sun, or perhaps Amongst Women.


Kenny Easwaran 01.05.07 at 6:42 pm

Hasn’t Iceland also produced a disproportionate share of the world’s pop sensations and chess grandmasters? I think it has something to do with all those hours of darkness in the winter that give you nothing better to do than write a novel, play chess, or go out drinking and dancing.

The most interesting fact that I remember from my visit there a few years ago was that their surplus of geothermal energy allows them to avoid snowplows – they just run the central hot water pipes under the streets and sidewalks so that snow and ice never build up! And they can heat greenhouses to be a banana exporting nation!


nick s 01.06.07 at 3:11 am

I think it has something to do with all those hours of darkness in the winter that give you nothing better to do than write a novel, play chess, or go out drinking and dancing.

Quite the opposite, I think: several factors — the high price of booze, the size of the nation — mean that Icelanders tend to double or triple up on jobs, making them pretty eclectic.

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