I have made a rather curious discovery. It would seem that books written by Nobel Prize winning authors are actually quite phenomenal. I suppose that’s why they were awarded the prizes in the first place, right? Go figure! I had previously been intimidated by the idea of reading Nobel authors; I assumed that all of their works would be brutally literary. I had nightmares of reading and re-reading and re-re-reading all the worst passages of all the most brutal classics. Apparently all of my fears were quite unfounded. A few weeks ago I read Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz and loved it. Now I have finished my first Halldor Laxness work and have nothing but resounding praise for it. There wasn’t any particular reason for me choosing Independent People over any of his other works, it just so happens that it was the only Laxness book Chapters had in stock that day.
Independent People by Halldor Laxness, copyright 1946.
Publisher: Vintage International
Source: Personal Collection – Purchased New
Reason for Reading: Exploring Nobel Prize winning authors.
I find the idea of reading Icelandic Literature to be somewhat bewitching. What is it about Iceland that so enchants us?
Independent People is an Icelandic epic in which one man discovers the consequences of holding stubbornly to his principles. Never again to fall under the heel of the man. Never again to be beholden to anyone. These are the ideals of an Icelandic Pioneer. Bjartur of Summerhouses spent eighteen gruelling years slaving away in the employment of others to save enough to put a down-payment on his very own croft. Here he will care for his sheep and his family (in that order, make no mistake) and avoid debts to his neighbours, the Government of Iceland and, above all, the Good Lord Himself. Neither death nor financial ruin will convince Bjartur of the error in his ways. How much will one man sacrifice for the sake of being able to call himself an independent man?
“Other folk’s bread is the most virulent form of poison that a free and independent man can take; other folk’s bread is the only thing that can rob him of independence and the one true freedom.” Independent People, page 434.
I found myself both hating and loving Bjartur. It is difficult to read on as he allows so much tragedy to visit upon his croft while he stands firm. At the same time, however, I can’t help but have tremendous respect for someone who is willing to sacrifice for what he believes in. Each member of his family believes in Bjartur’s ideals too, in their own way. But, it is they who bear the brunt of the consequences when the time comes to test the crofter’s determination.
By no stretch of the imagination is this a fast paced read. In fact, it plods along at a little more than a cantor, going just as fast as is necessary to prevent you from losing interest. While I had my doubts in the first fifty pages or so, I can honestly say that Laxness managed to hold my attention the entire time. Despite the story’s somewhat slow pace, I, a person with very limited patience, never for a moment considered ditching it. This speaks reverently of Laxness’ prose, which are smooth, rich in detail and packed in like sardines in a can. What they are not, is swollen with the flowery rhetoric typical of such dense literature.
“It may be that this was by no means a remarkable heath and by no means a particularly remarkable croft on the heath, but nevertheless incredible things happened occasionally on this heath; the man and the animal understood each other. This was on Whit Sunday morning. The sheep came right up to him where he sat with her lambs in his arms, sniffed affectionately at his hard-featured face, and mewed a little into his beard with her warm breath, as if in gratitude.” Independent People,page 369.
As I said, I never at any point lost interest, but such dense literature can fill you up fairly quickly and can take more time to digest than other reading material. Often, I was hard pressed to read more than forty pages in a single sitting. But, for the second time in the past month, I am finding myself with an insatiable craving to read more of an author’s work. I think I have been won over by Nobel Laureates.