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”.Continue reading