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.

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

At the start, those unfamiliar with The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead should get any “To Catch a Predator” type associations with the title out of their head. It isn’t meant in that kind of way at all. No one else may have been thinking that, but I kept thinking it any time I picked the book up, so I thought we’d start out by curing that potential misconception. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead is about a father who loves his children and the doom that is inherent within the dysfunction of his family.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Robb Forman Dew, 9th for Jonathan Franzen, and 3rd for Jonathan Lethem.)

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead stars Sam and his wife Henny, as well as an entirely too large brood of children. Sam is optimistic and intelligent, but he’s a goof…particularly with his kids (whom he loves and can’t get enough of):

“Loobyloo! Loo-oobyloo! Loozy! Tea!”

Although Louisa did not answer she was at that moment crawling soundlessly out of bed. She heard him urging Evie, “Go on, Womey, call her Loozy.”

“No, Taddy, she doesn’t like it.”

“Go on, when I tahzoo [tells you].”

“No Taddy, she can hear.”

“Loo-hoozy! Loozy! Tea-heehee!”

Out of the tail of her eye Evelyn saw Louisa flash across the landing to the stairs. “She went,” she chanted soothingly, “she went.”

“This Sunday-Funday has come a long way,” said Sam softly: “it’s been coming to us, all day yesterday, all night from the mid-Pacific, from Peking, the Himalayas, from the fishing grounds of the old Leni Lenapes and the deeps of the drowned Susquehanna, over the pond pine ragged in the peat and the lily swamps of Anacostia, by scaffolded marbles and time-bloodied weatherboard, northeast, northwest, Washington Circle, Truxton Circle, Sheridan Circle to Rock Creek and the blunt shoulders of our Georgetown. And what does he find there this morning as every morning, in the midst of the slops, but Tohoga House, the little shanty of Gulliver Sam’s Lilliputian Pollitry­–Gulliver Sam, Mrs. Gulliver Henny, Lugubrious Louisa, whose head is bloody but unbowed, Ernest the calculator, Little-Womey–” Evie laughed. “–Saul and Sam the boy-twins and Thomas-snowshoe-eye, all suntropes that he come galloping to see.”

Sam has all his ideas and his enthusiasm, but he just can’t see when it doesn’t all work. He’s an eternal child trying to raise children, and doing it badly.

His wife, Henny, on the other hand, is a bitter realist. Formerly from money, she runs up debts everywhere but is afraid to let Sam know. She hates him, hates her life, hates everything. She constantly threatens to kill all of her children and herself. Sam too.

“You ought to have had a man to make you wash floors and kick you in the belly when you didn’t hurry up for him,” said Henny with all the hate of a dozen years. “I’m as rotten as she is–I’ve had men too–I’ve gone trailing my draggletail in all sorts of low dives–I’ve taken money from a man to keep his children–I’m a cheat and a liar and a dupe and a weak idiot and there’s nothing too low for me, but I’m still ‘mountains high’ above you and your sickly fawning brother who never grew up–I’m better than you who go to church and him who is too good to go to church, because I’ve done everything. I’ve been dirty and low and done things you’re both too stupid and too cowardly to do, but however low I am, I’m not so filthy crawling in the stench of the butter, I haven’t got a heart of stone, I don’t sniff, sniff, sniff when I see a streetwalker with a ragged blouse, too good to know what she is: I Hate her but I hate myself. I’m sick of the good ones; I’m sick of that stupid staring idiot standing goggling at me who’s going to be as good as you are; nothing’s too good for you, nothing’s too bad for me; I’ll go and walk the streets with that poor miserable brat sister of yours–we’ll both get something to eat and some men to be decent to us, instead of loudmouthed husbands and sisters who want to strangle us–that’s what you said, that’s what you said, you can never go back on that, and in that your whole black cruel cold heart came out of you and you tried to strike her down with it, like a stone as he’d like to strike me down when he gets all he can out of me–and I know you both, I know you all–she’s the only decent one and that’s because she’s like me–no good–good because she’s no good–take your eyes off me, you staring idiot, get out of here, you filthy child–tell your daughter to get out of here–I can’t stand it–” Henny could say no more but began to scream and then fell to the floor, bumping her head hard.

Sam lives his life as he wants to see it, regardless of how it is. He has too many children and is too big on ideals to worry about providing enough for them. Henny is full of hatred and they fight constantly, putting the children in between. Sam browbeats Henny, Henny browbeats Sam, and they both crush their children. It’s a mess.

The Man Who Loved Childrenis a delightfully rich novel, jammed with weird characters set against each other as much as possibly can be. You know it’s all going to go wrong, you just aren’t sure which way until the end. At that point, it’s the only way it could have gone.

I love the vigor and originality in some of the dialogue too, particularly Sam the father. He’s a great one to follow in a book, but I’m sure I’d hate him in real life.

I’m surprised I’d never heard of The Man Who Loved Children before. It’s quite good and I think more people should read it. I don’t know about putting it on my all-time best list, but I’m definitely glad I finally got a chance to read it.

Starting in on eleven and a half years of books…

My friend Kim was talking to me the other day. She had picked up The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books edited by J. Peder Zane and she had an idea.

Apparently, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books compiles lists of what a ton of various authors (Barry Hannah, Francine Prose, Ben Marcus, Emma Donoghue, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, and many others) consider to be the ten best books of all time. They even compile various lists out of the lists. Books and books and books.

So, Kim came up with the idea that it would be fun to start a book blog (this) and go through book by book, reviewing each as we went. I was game, so that’s what we are doing.

Now, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books lists a total of 544 total books. The intro claims that if you read one a week it would take you eleven and a half years to finish. Seeing as that was about the rate we were planning (trading off), we suddenly had a clever name for the blog.

I should mention, we may not do each and every book. We might not keep this up for eleven and a half years, and may not stick to our planned schedule exactly. Some of the books on the lists aren’t even books (such as references to the entire work of an author or an entire form of their work). As it is right now, I’ve already read about 167 of these (not counting partials for the vague references mentioned a second ago) and may not want to always revisit. I also currently refuse to read any more Henry James.

We also might wander around a bit. We might talk about some of the authors who gave their opinions and how their work has influenced us as opposed to the books they talk about. We might even talk about totally different books. Really, we might do just about anything we want. However, it will likely all be (or mostly be) book related.

As such, feel free to follow along. Our opinions are just our opinions, but we have some great books to talk about.