- Paperback: 512 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage International Ed edition (Jan. 14 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780679767923
- ISBN-13: 978-0679767923
- ASIN: 0679767924
- Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 2.6 x 20.3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 408 g
- Average Customer Review: 47 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #107,629 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Independent People Paperback – Jan 14 1997
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From Publishers Weekly
Originally published in 1946 and out of print for decades, this book by the Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic author is a huge, skaldic treat filled with satire, humor, pathos, cold weather and sheep. Gudbjartur Jonsson becomes Bjartur of Summerhouses when, after 18 years of service to the Bailiff of Myri, he is able to buy his own croft. Summerhouses is probably haunted and is certainly unprepossessing, but Bjartur is a stubborn, leathery old (whatever his age) coot, and he soon has his new bride and few head of sheep installed in a sod house. When his wife dies cold and alone giving birth to the daughter of the Bailiff's son, Bjartur takes the child on almost as another test of his independence. Bjartur survives another wife, three sons that lived and several dead ones, all with his "armour of scepticism," which "endowed him with greater moral fortitude than that possessed by the other men." Through hard times (in the guises of worms and a cow that threaten his precious sheep), Bjartur maintains his ferocious and self-destructive independence, one aimed not so much at bettering his condition as being able to tell his former employer where to get off. Laxness is merciless with the hypocrisy of the upper classes, as exemplified by the Bailiff's poetess wife, who applauds the simple life of poor country people, or the Bailiff's son, whose social-welfare schemes help him but undermine the crofters. Laxness is not easy on Bjartur, who is bloody-minded in the extreme, but he is tender enough to compose a poem to his exiled adoptive daughter, and bold enough to engrave a simple marker in honor of the misunderstood ghoul who has haunted his farm and family. He's a figure that Snorri Sturluson would have recognized.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"Reader rejoice! At last this funny, clever, sardonic and brilliant book is back in print. Independent People is one of my Top Ten Favourite Books of All Time." —Annie Proulx
"There are good books and there are great books and there may be a book that is something still more: it is the book of your life. . . . My favorite book by a living novelist is Independent People." —Brad Leithauser
"This beautiful and heartbreaking novel has haunted me ever since I was lent a rare copy years ago, and I am delighted that what is clearly a masterpiece by a relatively uncelebrated genius will now be available to a wide audience of book lovers. If there is any justice in the world, the name Laxness will soon become a household word, at least in those households where timeless works of the imagination are cherished." —Joel Conarroe
"Laxness has a poet's imagination and a poet's gift for phrase and symbol. . . . Bjartur is a magnificent and complex symbol of peasant independence." —The New York Times Book Review
"A strange story, vibrant and alive. . . . There is a rare beauty in its telling, a beauty as surprising as the authentic strain of poetry that lies in the shoving, battering Icelander." —Atlantic Monthly
"A saga that somehow contrives to recapture the broad, clear air of older Icelandic tales." —The Observer (London)
"[Laxness] gives a large picture of life under primitive conditions, [he] writes vividly, using irony with vigorous effect; amid the brutality and squalor there are rich moments of humor and poetry." —The Spectator (London)
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The prose is rich and deep. This isn't a book to read quickly. It requires a bit of commitment. The richness of the prose is the reward.
What a masterpiece that pays tribute to what makes us human.
On a simple level, "Independent People" deals with the lives of the poor sheep grazers in Iceland early in the 20th Century. The hero is a farmer named Bajartur of Summerhouses who, after 18 years of working for another, the baliff, earns enough money to buy his own small farm. Bajartur's goal is to be independent and self-sufficient, to take what he earns and not take or give to others. In addition to this simple economic credo for independence. Bjartur is an "independent person" emotionally in his relationships with his wives -- he is twice married in the book -- his three sons and his daughter -- actually his first wife's daughter but not Bjartur's -- whom Bjartur names Asta Sollija the "beloved sun -lily" whom he refers to as his soul's "one flower." Much of this long, multi-faceted book involves Bjartur's relationship with Asta Sollija -- their estrangement and ultimate reconciliation.
Bjartur and Asta Sollija and their relationship frames but hardly exhausts this book. There is a picture of Iceland -- or of modernizing society in general with its conflict between farmer and town. There are long discussions of poetry and literature, of war, of politics, and particularly of philosophy and religion, see below. For all its length and seriousness, much of the book is funny, almost satirical in tone in the way it pokes fun at Bjartur and his intellectual and emotional limitations. The reader still comes to admire Bjartur for his fortitude and stubborness.
The book is timeless in character and the chronology is blurred. World War I plays a pivotal role in the middle of the book but the times before and the times after seem to be endless and undefined. There is something that is prototypical and archetypical about this book -- it is hardly an exercise in the realistic novel.
From a subsequent essay about Laxness by Brad Leithauser, I learned that Laxness was the kind of person generally called a seeker. This made me admire him and this book all the more and informed greatly my second reading. Growing up in a small, isolated nation, Laxness read exhaustively and put something of himself into his readings. He changed his mind many times during his life, being at various stages entirely secular, a socialist with perhaps communist leanings, and an adherent of various forms of Christianity. He took a rare delight in important ideas and showed an openness and fluidity to them that I find reflected in the themes of "Independent People." Most obviously, their is Bjartur's character with its emphasis on economic self-sufficiency and laissez-faire. This attitude leads to Bjartur's heroism but also his poverty, and it is contrasted artfully with the cooperative movemement and, implicitly, with a socialist approach to society in the early 20th century.
The book is pervaded by a strong spiritual tone. Bjartur for most of the book represents a position of independence and utter skepticism, but at key moments he does things not fully consistent with his stated beliefs. The book is framed by old Icelandic pagan legends and by spirits who are said to continue to haunt Bjartur's farm. We see various Christian ministers who in general are satirized in the course of the novel. But I was most impressed with the following erudite, and well-taken reference to Zoroastrianism, the religion of good and evil,which is alluded to many times during the course of the book and frames its story. In a moment of irony, Laxness puts the following speech early on, at Bjartur's first wedding, into the mouth of the bailiff's wife.
"I don't know whether you are aquainted with the religious beliefs of the Persians. This race believed that the god of light and the god of darkness waged eternal warfare, and that man's part was to assist the god of light in his struggle by the tilling of the fields and the improvement of the land. This is precisely what farmers do. They help God, if one may say so; work with God in the cultivation of plants, the tending of livestock, and the care of their fellow men. There exists no calling of greater nobility here on earth. Therefore, I would direct these words to all husbandmen, but first and foremost to our bridegroom of today: You sons of the soil whose labour is unending and leisure scanty, know, I bid you, how exalted is your vocation. Agriculture is work in co-operation with the Creator Himself, and in you is He well pleased." (p. 25)
I am intrigued by the repeated references to the "religion of the Persians" and to its appropriateness for the story. This quote,and its irony, reminds me of the sermon in "Moby Dick", a book which shares in its obscurity and in its questing character many of the qualities of this one. The speech shows the author's ability to adopt material from little-known traditions into his own ideas and work, and to make them live for the reader. It was one of the qualities that leapt out at me in my second reading of "Independent People."
This book remains a little-known masterpiece. It will reward those readers willing to take the time with it.
Laxness paints a picture of the bleakness of rural life in Iceland in the early 20th century. The reader receives a feeling of the climate and land as well as rural Icelandic society. Laxness' portrayal of the dales and moors very often results in a sad picture of humanity. On top of all that, the hard life of the sheep farmer makes for a very sad story. The absurdity of life really shines through. For these reasons many people will assess INDEPENDENT PEOPLE as being too grime and depressing as it is definitely not a "feel good" book, but at the same time there is a hidden quality that brings beauty to Bjartur's life on the dales. If you're able to uncover that beauty as I have then you many just enjoy INDEPENDENT PEOPLE as much as I have. And don't forget the subtle humor involved. I simply could not help laughing at Bjartur's stubbornness. Bravo!
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