Person of Interest: Halldor Laxness and Independent People

On our trip to Iceland, we walked into Eymundsson, a large bookstore right on the main drag of Reykjavik. As a bargain with my husband, I went to the American Bar to watch football in exchange for a book of my choice. On display was a large collection of Icelandic local literature, and I was drawn to the first novel written by a local Nobel Prize winner, Halldor Laxness and his Independent People.

As the back of the novel says, it has taken many decades for it to finally be translated into English. I considered myself lucky and quickly started reading.

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At first, I found myself falling asleep every other page. Life in the cold mountains of Iceland seems to have been a simple life in the early 1900s, and the story follows Bjartur of Summerhouses living an independent life. He wants nothing more than to be out of debt and living a life that he can control. He is perfectly content living each day in his home with his sheep, and anyone who comes in conflict with that, he easily discards. This is the first 135 pages in a section called Icelandic Pioneer.

There are four sections or parts in the whole novel, and I could have easily been convinced that each section could have been its own book. The events and cast of character change with each turn of the page making for new drama and nail-biting situations. Once we are introduced to his daughter, Asta Sollilja, the story picks up because now Bjartur has met his match, and we are no longer in the sole world of Bjartur and his prize sheep. He now has a family and a daughter to banter with and raise.

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It’s since been about two months since I finished the novel, and I cannot stop thinking about it. I see it on my bookshelf (or trophy shelf) and think about all of the choices Bjartur and his daughter, Asta, took to become the independent people they were destined to be and how different Bjartur’s other children were in comparison.

One section of the novel I keep reflecting on is the death of one of his son’s. One morning, his eldest son just walked off and never returned. It was weeks later, when the snow melted when Bjartur was out with his dog looking after his sheep when he came across the corpse of a boy near the river.

Ah well, he would have to do something for the body, seeing that he had found it, and that as quickly as possible, for the ewes had taken to their heels and were out of the gully by now. He was wearing a pair of thick, heavy gloves that were practically new, and he took the glove from his right hand and threw it to the corpse, for it is considered discourteous to leave a corpse that one has found without first doing it some small service.

As an “independent” man, Bjartur cannot be bothered to care to bury his son because his son did the disservice of abandoning his responsibilities. It’s this sort of character Bjartur is, but he’s such a stubborn yet learned man that, as a reader, you cannot help but admire him and his perseverance.

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Halldor Laxness was born April 23, 1902 in Iceland. He was a prolific novelist, poet, journalist, and playwright, and in 1955, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for Independent People. To date, he is the only Icelandic writer to win the prestigious award.

When he was seventeen, he published his first novel Child of Nature: A Romance. And after his book was published, he began to travel all around Europe discovering religion on the way. But this fascination with religion didn’t last long.

When he made it to America, land of the free, Laxness was seduced by socialism by way of Upton Sinclair and became a lecturer for Icelandic culture all the while attempting to write for none other than Hollywood. California, after all, is the mecca for writers with the silver screen acting as a the holy grail.

Independent People was published in 1934 and was/is named one of the most famous pieces of literature in history. Having read the book after an eye-opening visit to the wintery island, I can certainly see why. He continued to collect allocates all around the world and write novels throughout the rest of his life.

Laxness was well-known for questioning politics and pushing boundaries with his writing making a name for himself but also putting Iceland on the map for literature.

Laxness died in 1998 at the age of 95.

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Otherwise it seemed that people slept the same as usual and dreamed the same as usual, sometimes of a silver dollar, sometimes only of a dime; sometimes of the ocean itself, sometimes only of a distant glimpse of the little lake. — Independent People

I had no idea what to expect when I picked up this novel from the bookshop in the city center, but I was pleasantly surprised by this not so simple story of a not so simple man and his very complex life in the mountains of Iceland. I am very much looking forward to reading his other works.

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If I can accomplish anything with this blog, I hope that I have given you a taste into Bjartur’s world and encourage you to read this fantastic novel.

She who lived with a wish must think in private, like Bjartur, who composed versus without anyone knowing and surprised everyone when he recited them to visitors. — Independent People

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