Independent People by Halldór Laxness
Independent People is #625 on the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. See the whole list and my progress here. This summer, I’m reading from the list for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, and instead of straight reviews, I’m going to compare the 1,001 Books write-ups with my own impressions.
Independent People gets the half-page treatment in the 1,001 Books (as opposed to some of the other books I’ve covered this summer, e.g. Tristram got a two page spread with illustration from a c.1760 edition, The Fox a full page with author photo, and Wise Children a full page with original cover art), not giving me a lot to go on. Contributor Jonathan Morton gets a little dig in by calling the main character Bjartur “often idiotic”, but otherwise sums up the plot, touches on the historical backdrop of WWI and the rise of socialism, and describes the epic and mythical tone of the story. He also reminds us that Laxness wrote many other books and remains the “undisputed master of Icelandic fiction” more than twenty years after his death (only 8 years at the time of the write up, but still).
Not much to disagree with there! But I was interested by that “idiotic” description, and it reminded me that the introduction to my edition, by poet and novelist Brad Leithauser, goes a bit too easy on old Bjartur: “Occasionally it is borne in upon Bjartur that his women are tortuously unhappy” being one example of the passive voice, which to be fair, might be ironic or meant to show how oblivious he is, but made me laugh out loud, given that Bjartur leaves one wife to die alone in childbirth, despite her protests, and begrudges the other any comfort in a life marred by constant pregnancy, stillbirths, and illness. Leithauser does concede that Bjartur is at once “petty-minded and heroic; brutal and poetic; cynical and childlike” but seems just a bit too in awe of both the character and Laxness himself to write an introduction that can inspire or interest the new reader. At least he acknowledges it, calling Independent People the “book of [his] life”, a book so close to him that “evaluation becomes a niggling irrelevance”.
This all left me hungry for other perspectives, but I was under the impression that this was the only English edition available. So I turned to Google and found this irreverent Bjartur takedown by American journalist Sam Knight, which also talks about the striking parallels between Bjartur’s “independence” and modern day “rugged individualism” in the States (and elsewhere): “Bjartur was a walking metaphor for bedrock right-wing thought and also a piece of fucking shit” sums it up nicely!
Then I found out that there is another English edition, an Everyman’s Library with an introduction by another American writer, John Freeman, which he’s made available on LitHub, where he is the executive editor. This introduction does a much more thorough job of placing Laxness and this book in context. Knowing that Laxness went to North America in the 1920s to try and break into the movie business, for example, sheds a lot of light on the character of Bjartur’s youngest son Nonni, who goes to America to be a singer. Freeman sees Bjartur as cursed, not just symbolic (or idiotic), fighting a losing battle against nature: “but the curse always catches up—aided often by Bjartur’s stubborness and the distorted vanity born of his faith in his own flinty economy.” He also acknowledges that the political and cultural undertones are not just applicable to Iceland, or America for that matter: “a national fetish for resilience—be it in Iceland or anywhere—is born of a marriage of economy and myth. How else can a society encourage people to work themselves possibly to death without a heroic tale that doing so is in their character?” Ultimately, Freeman suggests that it’s not just independence and individualism that curses Bjartur, but exceptionalism. Or as the kids might put it, a major case of main character syndrome. No wonder we can still relate today.
I’m glad I sought out these other perspectives, as the 1,001 Books write up and Leithauser introduction really just scratch the surface. And as is often the case when I dig into introductions to classic lit, I can’t help but wonder, are there any women writing about Laxness, and if not, why not? This is a book that relies on the classic fallen woman narrative, and at its heart, is about a father-daughter relationship, after all… any hints appreciated!
I’ve got this as an e-book, so it’s waiting for me. I feel forearmed by your review, Laura – and by Sam Knight’s. I like his line ‘It’s the sort of stuff that gets horned up teens standing on desks shrieking “O Captain My Captain.”’ I like the entire essay, in fact.
Yes, it was a fun essay, and I laughed at that line too! It’s a good reminder not to take it too seriously, even though at times it is extremely serious and tragic.
Well, if a critic is happy to call a character a piece of shit, it makes me want to read the book even more, even if it just gives me the opportunity to agree with him/her 🙂
He is one of the most infuriating characters I’ve ever read! Prepare to be enraged. Very worthwhile read though.
I’m friends with Jonathan M. on Goodreads! I think contributing to a book like this must have been one of the best gigs ever.
Do you know Liz? She’s really interested in Iceland and has reviewed a couple of Laxness novels:
Cool! I wish they’d given him a little more room for this write up. And I will check out this review now, I heard a Backlisted episode on Fish Can Sing so I’m interested.
I read this when I was visiting Iceland pre-pandemic and I have to admit, it didn’t stick with me that well. I also didn’t seek out much analysis of the story, so I really appreciated getting your thoughts on this one 🙂