Blog Entry by Jamien Sandhu
Main lesson learnt from reading Halldór Laxness’ Independent People: Do not select a book with over 350 pages for a book club, because no one will finish it!
Despite the length it was a very enjoyable read. If you love intricate and long-winded descriptive passages, then this is the book for you! But before we delve in to some key passages and themes let us cast off with the back cover summary to set the scene:
“This magnificent novel—which secured for its author the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature—is at last available to contemporary American readers. Although it is set in the early twentieth century, it recalls both Iceland’s medieval epics and such classics as Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. And if Bjartur of Summerhouses, the book’s protagonist, is an ordinary sheep farmer, his flinty determination to achieve independence is genuinely heroic and, at the same time, terrifying and bleakly comic.
Having spent eighteen years in humiliating servitude, Bjartur wants nothing more than to raise his flocks unbeholden to any man. But Bjartur’s spirited daughter wants to live unbeholden to him. What ensues is a battle of wills that is by turns harsh and touching, elemental in its emotional intensity and intimate in its homely detail. Vast in scope and deeply rewarding, Independent People is a masterpiece.”
Brad Leithauser, author of Independent People’s Introduction, nicely sums up the novel:
“Independent People presents the most gripping depiction I’ve ever encountered of the gradual, daily contraction of a human soul and its eventual salvation” (xix, Introduction).
For those who don’t know, our book club operates on a tri-book regional exploration. Right now we are in the middle of our Scandinavian exploration. We started with a novel from Norway (Doppler) and this month’s book was from Iceland.
About the Author
While Laxness is arguably not that well-known in North America, in the Introduction Leithauser states that “in his native land he is a colossus without peer or parallel, and anyone drawn to Iceland will get around to him before long” (xii, Introduction).
Leithauser astutely summarizes the novel’s theme of freedom:
“…Freedom has always been the aim of the book’s hero Bjartur. When the story begins, he has just finished slaving for eighteen years on the farm of a man he despises, the bailiff of the district, in order to save money enough to purchase a pitifully modest holding, Summerhouses, and a handful of sheep” (xiii, Introduction).
Here is a passage I enjoyed on this theme:
“…She thought the man was angry whereas he was only filled with the modern spirit and determination to be free man on his own land, with the same independence as the other generations that had settled there before him” (15).
Debt was a major them of the novel. I find it interesting how the following quote reveals that issues of debt are still the same today as they were in 1930’s Iceland.
“Take my father for instance. He lived to be eighty and never managed to pay off the miserable sick-loan the parish advanced him he was only a youngster” (13).
Sheep is another big theme in the novel. Leithauser states:
“When I tell people I meet that my favourite book by a living novelist is Halldór Laxness’s Independent People and am asked what it’s about, my reply is “Sheep.” This is a story (I continue) in which farmers are forever analyzing sheep and examining sheep: it’s about tapeworm in sheep and lungworm in sheep and diarrhea in sheep. Whatever virtues the novel boasts, it’s bereft of glamour” (xviii, Introduction).
Asta and Bjartur:
The relationship between Asta and Bjartur is a major theme in the novel. The relationship contains within it many themes including: familial ties, grudges, the passage of time, forgiveness, mortality, memory, love, and duty.
“…The true conflict of the book is between father and daughter. Asta is the only person in the world who has ever managed to penetrate Bjartur’s leather-like skin. She is an irresistible force. But he is an immovable object. And how (the reader is left continually wondering) can two such ever be reconciled?” (xvi, Introduction).
Leithauser highlights the turning point in Asta and Bjartur’s relationship:
“The book has presented the reader with cataclysmic events—deaths, betrayals, storms, love affairs—but when it reaches its climacteric, the narrative could hardly be quieter:
Thus did he lose his last child as he stood deep in a ditch at that stage in his career when prosperity and full sovereignty were in sight, after the long struggle for independence that had cost him all his other children. Let those go who wish to go, probably it’s all for the best. The strongest man is he who stands alone…. He had taken to his digging again. Then all at once some new though struck him; throwing down his spade, he swung himself on to the bank; the boy had got a short distance away over the marshes.
“Hey,” cried the father, and hurried after him until he caught up with him. “Didn’t you say something about Asta Sollilja last night?”
“I was talking about giving her my sheep if you didn’t want to buy them.”
“Oh I see,” said his father, as if he had not remembered the connection. “Oh well, good-bye then….’” (xix, Introduction).
Time Erasing the Past:
One theme dealt with the power of time and how the passage of time erases the memory of new generations, causing them to forget the troubles of the past:
“A new generation forget the spectres that may have tormented the old” (10).
There was a lot of great description in this novel. I’ve selected a few passages that I really enjoyed. What was your favourite quote/passage?
“The days were like grown-up people, the mornings always young” (37).
Further on mornings, Laxness perspicaciously captures that transitionary space between sleeping and waking:
“From the moment when he gives his first drowsy blink to the time when his leaden lids have finally opened wide; there passes not merely hour after hour; no, age follows age through the immeasurable expanses of the morning, world follows world, as in the vision of a blind man; reality follows reality and is no more – the light grows brighter. So distant is winter day on his own morning is distant from itself. The first faint gleam on the horizon and the full brightness on the window at breakfast-time are like two different beginnings, two starting-points. And since at dawn even his morning is distant, what must his evening be? Forenoon, noon and afternoon are as far off as the countries we hope to see when we grow up; evening as remote and unreal as death…” (139).
I love this passage on weather. I’ve find it really funny when people talk seriously about weather, even though I know it is sometimes a very serious issue.
“The men sat down, produced their snuff horns, and proceeded to discuss the weather with the deep gravity, the scientific restraint, and the ponderous firmness of style with which this topic was always hallowed” (57).
Not that I agree with this statement at all, but it does reveal a great deal about Bjartur’s character:
“’And there’s no need to question you; it doesn’t take much to see through a woman. This is how you work it through usually: you love those who are fine enough gentlemen to kick you out when they’re sick of you, then you go off and marry someone you despise’” (35). –Bjartur
I have definitely been here; where I get irrationally terrified for no good reason:
“She lay like this for a long time, still quivering and still with a pain in her heart; no memories could comfort her any longer, terror is stronger than the total sum of anyone’s happiness. She tried to think with hope of the far-off dawn for human beings always seek some source of consolation; it is this search for consolation even when every retreat is obviously cut off, that proves that one is still alive” (70).
Living with the Elements:
I was discussing this issue with a friend recently. People tend to despise being wet as when one gets caught in the rain. I know that I cannot be in the rain without cringing. I wish I could accept and embrace the rain as part of the natural cycle of the seasons and life, but I can’t! This next passage won me over and made me feel a deep respect for Bjartur’s character:
“And if Bjartur heard them complaining about the damp, he would reply that it was pretty miserable wretches that minded at all whether they were wet or dry. He could not understand why such people had been born. “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry,” he would say. “I’ve been wet more than half my life and never been a whit the worse for it’” (219).
The issue of ghosts, black magic and curses was a major theme in the novel. I especially liked the following quote as I feel it has always been true—people love ghost stories:
“Strange though it may seem, people rarely show such enthusiasm as when they are seeking proof of a ghost story – the soul gathers all this sort of thing to its hungry bosom” (279).
Why do you think people are so attracted to ghost stories?
There are two comparisons I want to mention. Please feel free to add any others you think of.
Link to Doppler:
I found an interesting link to our last book club novel Doppler:
“He led her off down to the path; again an again her legs gave way beneath her.
“Try and stand up, love,” he said.
Then she said:
“I had such a craving for milk.”
“Yes,” he replied, “it’s your illness” (44).
The link this passage refers to is to the theme of milk. In Doppler, the main character was obsessed with milk and couldn’t survive without it. Similarly, Bjartur’s wife has the same intense need for it. Why do you think that is?
Parallels to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:
In the Introduction, Leithauser reveals the parallels to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
“Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, with which it [Independent People] shares family resemblances, Independent People in its opening pages evokes the dawn of time. García Márquez’s novel commences on a blue morning when the boulders in a streambed look like dinosaur eggs. Independent People’s first chapter summons up the days when the world was first settled, in 874 A.D.—for that is the year when the Norsemen arrived in Iceland, and one of the book’s wry conceits is that no other world but Iceland exists. The tale takes place among farmers habitually so impoverished that they “died without ever having transacted a business deal involving more than a few dollars at a time.” These are men who might venture outside their valleys once or twice a year, hiking to a little fishing village to purchase a few provisions; for them, even Reykjavik is misty dream” (xiii, Introduction).
Leithauser continues on this parallel:
Bjartur’s “…existence is less simple than it looks, however. For his world of everyday deprivation, like that of García Márquez’s peasants, is encircled by a zone of enchantments. At the edges of life, magic is always afoot—although in Bjartur’s case, all magic is black magic; the miraculous is no less malign than the mundane. Hence, his combat is two-tiered. He contends with the hostility of nature. And he contends with supernature—a curse. Long ago, the valley in which Summerhouses lies was inhabited by a murderous, blood-drinking witch, the fiend Gunnvor, who formed an unholy alliance with the infernal spirit Kolumkilli. She was eventually brought to justice (she was dismembered), but her scheming spirit still blights the valley. To propitiate her, it is customary for passersby to place a rock on the cairn devoted to her memory. But not Bjartur, who scorns the “nonsense these old wives let their heads be stuffed with” (xiii-xiv, Introduction).
(I highly recommend reading Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude! It is one of my favourite novels.)
Well thanks for reading and sorry for the lengthy blog entry—like novel like blog entry—too long!
Tune in next month for a discussion on Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters!