Independent People by Halldór Laxness

Halldór Laxness was an Icelandic novelist (and, incidentally, winner of the Nobel Prize). Independent People was published in 1935, and this translation by J. A. Thompson was written in the 40s. It’s the story of Bjartur, a stubborn, misanthropic sheep-farmer grinding out a primitive existence in hostile conditions, and obsessed with the idea of being independent.

sheep on flickr

It’s not what you’d call a cheerful novel, though it does have its share of dark satirical humour, as when the city-born lady of the manor goes around explaining to all the local peasants about the nobility and happiness of the farmer’s life. It reminded me a bit of Thomas Hardy; both the tinge of gloom that hangs over it, and the theme of creeping modernity in an agricultural community.

The main reason I read it was to tick off Iceland for the Read The World challenge, and it has a powerful sense of place: the dark winters, with the family snowed in for weeks at a time; the redshanks, plovers and wild ducks returning to breed in spring; the folklore and poetry; the sense of remoteness from the rest of the world. And while it made me very glad not to be a peasant sheep farmer, it did quite make me want to visit Iceland, if only to see the phalaropes.

I’m glad I read it; it’s a proper, major novel, and I enjoyed it. Fair warning, though; my mother, who I borrowed it from, clearly found it a bit of a chore, and I can see why. It’s 550 pages, and even though I liked it, it felt like quite a long 550 pages.

» The photo, Sheep, is © Atli Harðarson and used under a Creative Commons by-nd licence.

3 Comments

  1. Hedgie
    14 September 2008 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    You’re right that “Independent People” is a major novel and an excellent one; like most of Laxness, it’s not an easy nor a quick read, but definitely worth the effort. It was on the strength of novels such as “Independent People” and “World Light,” a somewhat longer and darker novel about one man’s lifetime struggle to become a great poet (published 4 years after “Independent People”), that led to his receiving the Nobel Prize in 1955, which was certainly well deserved.

  2. Harry
    14 September 2008 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    I guess there probably aren’t many Nobel laureates who were actually bad writers, although quality must vary. I wonder who the worst of the lot was. Hard to know without speaking about 30 languages. Glancing through the list for English-language winners, I’m not sure I’d have given the prize to Rudyard Kipling, Sinclair Lewis or John Galsworthy, for a start, but I don’t actually think they’re bad writers.

  3. 1 December 2008 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    As i heard his name in many occasions during my visit to iceland last summer , i decided to read Laxness’s Independent People. I must say it has taken me ages to finish the book, i’ve finished reading several other books meanwhile… it just does feel long but funny enough i always grabbed it back, somehow the stubbornness of Bjartur catches the reader pretty well when it comes to wondering what happens next in Summerhouse. Not much,yet a lifelong events take place…
    i dont think i’ll be grabbing another Laxness book in the near future but it was a nice escape back to iceland i have to admit…

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  1. By Heraclitean Fire » Reading is a way round the world on 12 September 2008 at 1:38 pm

    […] Independent People, Halldór […]

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