Independent People by Halldór Laxness

Dave here again. I’m going twice in a row. No fear, though. Kim will take the next two weeks. Anyway….

It always interests me how important a work of literature can be to some people whereas to others it is completely unfamiliar. I do my best to step outside the American literary perspective tunnel, but I’d still never heard of Independent People by Halldór Laxness. It’s a crime too, being perhaps the most famous work of Icelandic literature in existence. It even got Laxness the Nobel, and this was still the first I’d ever heard of the book. Oh well, everything is unfamiliar until you encounter it, right?

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Jonathan Franzen, 6th for Jim Harrison, 7th for Adam Haslett, and 2nd for David Means)

When I did hear about Independent People, I expected it to be a lot more like the sprawling epic myths or be a hardnosed tale of accepting a harsh way of life. There is some of that inside, but not like I expected.

Independent People focuses on Bjartur of Summerhouses somewhere in the late 19th century to the early twentieth century. After spending eighteen years slaving away for a local wealthy landowner, he finally manages to save enough to start a remote sheep farm on his own. It’s an extremely tough life, still taking another twelve years for him to pay off the farm, but this is how Bjartur wants things. He values an independent existence above all else:

Rosa, her eyes red and elbows muddy, was sitting on the turf mattress on the bed, gazing at the large, irresolute hands in her lap.

“Well, doesn’t it suite you?” asked Bjartur of Summerhouses.

“You don’t think I expected anything better, do you?”

“Well, there’s always one good thing about it: no one that lives here need slave all day long at housework,” he said, “and I always thought you had sense enough to appreciate your independence. Independence is the most important thing of all in life. I say for my part that a man lives in vain until he is independent. People who aren’t independent aren’t people. A man who isn’t his own master is as bad as a man without a dog.”

Bjartur values an independent life so much that he is willing to sacrifice almost everything. He’s willing to die, and willing to lose his wife (plural actually, two die) and children (including Asta, a child he loves but believes to be of another, though she turns out to be stubborn in his own image) to the conditions under which he lives. Still, at least he’s independent.

Or, is he? Doesn’t he still have to deal with the community, the wealthier people in the area, politics, and all that? Indeed, one of his own sons doesn’t think so:

He stood deep in thought, eyes fixed on the ground for greater concentration. “There’s always someone in the valley there who rules over you and holds you in his hand, he said at length. “I don’t know who it is. And though Father may be hard, he isn’t free. There’s someone even harder than he, someone who stands over him and holds him in his power.

She looked at him searchingly for a while, as if seeking to read in his mind how far he was capable of understanding. “You mean Kolumkilli?” she asked in a tone of cold jocularity. Perhaps she was just as puzzled by him as he by her.

“No,” was his reply. “There is something that never allows you any peace, something that makes you keep on doing something.”

He lets two wives and various children die or flee to America rather than bend from his harsh way of life. He drives his daughter Asta out. And for what? To be independent in a harsh landscape where he can barely eke out a living? If he sacrifices those he loves, even if he prospers, can it really be worth it?

Independent People is a lot more human than I expected, a lot more about what ends up being important at the end of things, because eventually it makes simple Bjartur face this question. Being an independent man may be a fine thing, but the price for what independence we can get may be too great. There are other things more important in life, and Laxness knows them.

I can certainly see why so many people adore Independent People. It’s a tremendous book and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to find it. It might not be for me what it is for some others, but I’d never make that the only measure of what makes a great book.

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