Halldór Laxness’s Independent People

Halldór Laxness, Independent People (©1934–1935, translation by James Anderson Thompson 1945, Vintage edition 1997)

ip.jpgMy Book Group read Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites – set in Iceland in 1830 – in November. A number of friends said I should read Independent People by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, a book beside which Burial Rites looked shallow. It took a while for IP to become available from the library, and it’s a long book, but at last  I’ve read it.

Let me deal with the Hannah Kent comparison first: to say that a novel isn’t as good as Independent People is like saying a play isn’t as good as King Lear, or a science fiction movie pales beside Bladerunner. The book is monumental. Everything I have ever heard or read about Iceland is in its pages: the landscape, the banking system, the poetry, the weather and the sheep – mainly terrible weather and diseased or starving sheep. Grímur Hákonarson’s wonderful movie Rams could have been a postscript. The current dominance of Iceland’s conservative Independence Party suggests that the book’s satirical probing of the notion of independence is as relevant now as it ever was.

The protagonist, Bjartur, having worked for a relatively rich farmer for eighteen years, has managed to get possession of a small, unpromising and possibly cursed piece of land. He moves in with his bride, and lives a life of unremitting labour and deprivation, refusing all help in the name of independence. It’s not giving too much away to say that things go badly for him in every conceivable way, and he – inspired by the heroes of the sagas – struggles on, defiant and misanthropic. Humans and animals die hearbreakingly, some of the latter at his hand, and some of the former as a direct result of his obduracy or as a result of their resistance to it. Whenever a glimmer of hope shines through the blizzard of Bjartur’s life, the reader braces for the moment when he will sabotage it. And when prosperity comes to Iceland thanks to the First World War, it’s only a matter of time before all is once again grim.

The book was published about the same time as Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection, the once much loved collection of stories about families struggling on small farms in Australia. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast to the way Rudd’s Dad and Dave face adversity together, with naive, cheerful resilience.

For all its grimness, the book is a delight. Bjartur is an unforgettable character. So are the young woman unlucky enough to be married off to him, and their daughter, and his youngest son, Nonni, who I read as representing the author’s point of view (not to give too much away, he escapes and we glean that his new life in America is relatively OK). There are wonderful minor characters, of whom my favourite is the Bailiff’s wife, described as pope-like, presumably with plump Pope Leo X in mind, who ceaselessly spouts romantic nonsense about the joys of rural poverty. I also love the chorus of small farmers who meet regularly and amidst their main talk of sheep disease and weather, pronounce on economics, politics and metaphysics.

The writing is wonderful. As a child of the town with the highest annual rainfall in Australia, I loved this passage (not least for the way it makes us understand that a woman wouldn’t have to be neurotic, as she is described in the last sentence, to be miserable in that place):

Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling – rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty. Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect. And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.

There’s a lot that’s quotable, though not much that would find its way onto inspirational wall hangings. Some typical aphorisms:

Come what may and go what may, a man always has the memories of his dogs. Of these at least no one can deprive him.

The life of man is so short that ordinary people simply cannot afford to be born.

What does it matter if a man has to live in a little mud hut all his life when his life, if you can really call it a life, is so short?

The most unpleasant feature of midwinter is not its darkness. More unpleasant still, perhaps, is that it should never grow dark enough for one to forget the endlessness of which it is a symbol.

I could go on.

I just want to say a little bit about the translation. Evidently it took J A Thompson eight years to write the English version, and he did it in consultation with Haldór Laxness. The translation has a strong voice of its own, an assurance that means the tone is always absolutely clear – as in that ‘neurotic’ in the passage above. It’s a brilliant piece of writing in its own right. I was happy to find a 2014 English-language MA dissertation for the University of Iceland, The Creative Translator: Creativity and Originality in J.A. Thompson’s Translation of Halldór Laxness’ Sjálfstætt fólk by Abigail Charlotte Cooper (PDF here), that discusses some of the issues.

11 responses to “Halldór Laxness’s Independent People

  1. kathyprokhovnik

    Sounds like you enjoyed it as much as I did! It’s above and beyond just about everything I’ve ever read.


    • You were one of the people who encouraged me to read it Kathy, and I’m very grateful. It had won me so completely that even towards the end when it went off on a satirical account of the development of Iceland’s economy after the First World war, I didn’t skip.


  2. I haven’t read Burial Rites (I tried, but abandoned it) but I have this one on my TBR and intend to read it soon. I like your comparisons, and to me, they encapsulate the reading dilemma… if you can’t read everything, why not read the best, King Lear (my favourite play) and all…
    But I thought I might read some of the Icelandic sagas first and have bought Grettir’s Saga because it’s the best known.


    • Reading a saga before tackling this is probably a good idea, Lisa. They’re mentioned often, and I felt that I got the general intention of the mentions even though I’m almost completely ignorant of the sagas. That is, none of the names of heroes meant anything to me, but when Bjartur invokes them it underlines the desperate futility of his ideals. (Like LA gangs invoking the aristocratic ideal of ‘honor’, it only cements disadvantage.)

      I think it would be a shame, though, to read King Lear and not the lesser works that hold mirrors up to our own times and places. That is, I’m still glad I read Burial Rites.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this interesting post Jonathan. Having an interest in Scandinavian culture I look forward to reading IP which I was not aware of till now asap which does not mean immediately but when I have finished the pile of books I already have to read.


  4. Ruth Blumenthal

    I am delighted to read your reaction to this wonderful book, which I have re-read and will no doubt read yet again. in it, all is laid out on a slab, as they used to say. How, when it’s so dense, so repetitive (the blokes assembling to hold forth on world affairs) and so grimly miserable, can it be so light, funny and satisfying? It’s all in the writing, I suppose, and the humanity Laxness celebrates.

    Another great Icelandic movie – do you know Of Horses and Men?


  5. Thanks for commenting, Ruth. ‘Grimly miserable’, yet ‘light, funny and satisfying’: exactly! I kept wondering if I should feel guilty for laughing and feeling such joy when the characters were enduring such misery


  6. Sorry I missed this post, Jonathan. I was in Sydney at the time and clearly when I got back I didn’t properly review my in-box. I’m doing one of my regular checks and tidy-ups and came across this. I loved Independent people when I read it – long before blogging. I remember very little of the actual plot but the tone and mood, the tough character of Bjartur, remain imprinted on my brain forever. I thought of it often when I saw RAMS.

    I agree that it’s a ridiculous thing to compare Kent’s book, which I enjoyed, with this one. They are chalk and cheese and worth reading for their very different reasons. I would say having read Independent people, Burial rites didn’t surprise me!

    Love your reference to Dad and Dave and the different response to adversity and hardship. I often think we should do more of that comparative research.

    Liked by 1 person

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