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.