Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 and is to date the sole Icelandic Nobel laureate. Independent People is one of his most well-known novels, and, according to Wikipedia, is ‘considered among the foremost examples of social realism in Icelandic fiction in the 1930s’. I also did a Twitter search and found that Hari Kunzru had nominated it as one of the ‘world’s most depressing works of literature’. This did not particularly inspire me to read the book but it was selected for book club so here we are.
Independent People is about Guðbjartur Jónsson, a sheep farmer, in rural Iceland in the early twentieth century and, apart from sheep, Bjartur’s main passion is independence. His primary goal is to be an independent man: owning his own land, supporting his family and not in debt to anyone. In addition to being a farmer, Bjartur is also a well-respected poet. The book is an interesting blend of the harshly pragmatic realities of farming life with supernatural elements of Icelandic myths and legends. Bjartur’s land is supposedly cursed, haunted by an evil woman named Gunnvör and the demon she was in league with, Kolumkilli, and his first act as landowner is to rename it from ‘Winterhouses’ to the more optimistic ‘Summerhouses’ in defiance of this supposed curse.
In addition to the battle with Kolumkilli over his land, Bjartur also has a longstanding rivalry with Ingólfur Arnarson Jónsson, son of the wealthy local Baliff, whose life is intertwined with Bjartur’s in several ways and who is inexorably successful at all he sets his hand to, while Bjartur trudges through life in stiff-necked, principled poverty.
The book is tough going to start with: the weather and the lifestyle are both bleak, there are disturbing scenes of slaughter, starvation and death. Bjartur is so pig-headed about his independence that he forces his children to live in deprivation rather than ask for help, and is more solicitous for the wellbeing of his sheep than his family. A notable low point was when his first wife dies alone in childbirth while he is away from home, the dog shelters the newborn child and miraculously keeps it alive until Bjartur gets home. After discovering what has happened he goes out again to see the Baliff and spends ages reluctantly hemming and hawing about asking the Baliff’s wife for help with the baby (still at home being babysat by the dog), wasting time with his pig-headed stubbornness as the baby’s life hangs in the balance. This was just one of several moments when I wanted to scream at him.
Despite this inauspicious start the baby survives to becomes the light of his life, his flower, Ásta Sóllilja (beloved sun lily) and the relationship between Bjartur and his daughter is the heart of the book. There is quite a bit about Icelandic history and politics that made me shamefully doze off, but as soon as the book turned back to Bjartur and his interaction with his family, Ásta Sóllilja in particular—I was hooked. Laxness’s characterization is deft and his portrayal of Ásta Sóllilja’s teenaged sexual awakening is as sensitive and nuanced as his portrayal of Bjartur’s independent spirit. The novel was strangely funny as well, I think this description of Bjartur’s afternoon nap sums his character up pretty well:
The man himself remained unaltered. He allowed himself no greater luxury in his mode of life than that of sprawling on a haycock for four minutes during the daytime, in the hope that he would soon roll off, preferably into a puddle.
These moments strike a lighter note in the unrelenting misery of Bjartur’s life and help the reader to forgive him his faults.
As annoying is he is, there is something noble and poignant in Bjartur’s desire to be independent regardless of the fact that the system is stacked against independent men like him. And despite the awful weather, the hardship, the politics and Bjartur’s frustrating, self-sabotaging stubbornness, Independent People is a thoroughly absorbing saga—grim but gripping. You’ll be glad to know, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say, that there is a small sliver of hope and redemption at the end, to give the reader some sense of closure.
Books like this are the reason that I belong to a book club (several book clubs in fact), I would never have read this book otherwise and even if I had started it I might not have continued reading it. Having pushed through to the end, and wept copiously through the final chapters, I can concede that it was worth the effort. A literary masterpiece, albeit a rather depressing one.