Independent People

Halldór Laxness

translated from the Icelandic by J.A. Thompson
Harvill Press 2001 [1934]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
Having worked for many years for others, Bjartur has saved enough to take up the lease on a sheep farm of his own, albeit in a valley reputed to be haunted. And on his little croft of Summerhouses he endures the deaths of two wives, attacks on his sheep, the vagaries of weather and international wool and mutton prices, and the loss of children, to emigration to America as well as to death. Bjartur is cantankerous, unbending, and fiercely independent, spurning assistance or charity. He mistrusts innovation, wary of cooperatives and other radical notions and preferring the "old Rimes" (the Icelandic sagas) to new-fangled forms of literature; he trusts only in his sheep, his dog, and his horse; and he relaxes a little only with his peers, other small independent farmers. If he has a soft spot it is for his daughter Asta Solilja, but when she falls pregnant they are estranged.

Though he is not in many ways an attractive character, Bjartur engages our sympathies and gives Independent People both its centre and its holding power — he is a genuinely unforgettable figure. Some passages switch to other perspectives, notably those of his children: a young child's perspective on waking, a teenage girl's first journey to town, and a young man's "calf" love. In his lyrical descriptions of landscapes and his feel for human relationships with them, and in his portrait of poverty and the grim struggle to stay out of debt, Laxness is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy. In other places he steps back and comments in Tolstoyan fashion on the politics and economics of Iceland and the nature of labour and man's place in the world — with some hints of his (communist) politics, though he is never didactic. That may sound off-putting, but Independent People is neither grim nor heavy going: it is imbued with a warm humour, sardonic but at the same time embracing of humanity — and in some parts it has us almost laughing out loud.

Independent People is a glorious novel, clever and entertaining but also deeply felt and moving. It was published in two parts in 1934 and 1935; in 1955 Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature, "for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland".

July 2002

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%T Independent People
%A Laxness, Halldór
%M Icelandic
%F Thompson, J.A.
%I Harvill Press
%D 2001 [1934]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1860467768
%P 544pp