almost 600 pages, Independent People is not a book to be read
in one sitting, and, even if it were possible, to read the book in
such a way is not to be recommended. This is a book that has to be
digested slowly. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century it is
not a happy read: the abject poverty of the lower classes compared
with the relative comfort of the ruling classes was definitely not
isolated to Iceland, but in Laxness' book the hunger and the misery
is played out against a harsh, cold, unrelenting landscape.
in 1902, Laxness is writing about a period he actually experienced, in
the environment where he grew up,
book exudes a definite
I would even go so far as to guess that parts of the book are
autobiographical or, at least, semi-autobiographical. In other words,
Laxness has obviously referred to his own experiences and to those of
people he has known when writing the book.
For example, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1955, he
mentioned his grandmother in his acceptance speech and commented on
how close she had been to him. He went on to say that she had always
him the importance of respecting those who hold a lowly position in
the world and that
he should never
ill-treat animals. In the book Bjartur's mother-in-law says
practically the same thing to her grandson Nonni.
around Gudbjartur of Summerhouses, the
book delves into the concept of independence versus the dependence
that is the lot of the lower classes. Gudbjartur, or Bjartur as he is
called throughout the book, spends eighteen years slaving for the
landed gentry so that he might be able to buy his own piece of land
and become independent. After an introduction that gives some
historical aspects to the story the actual novel begins with
Gudbjartur, newly married with Rosa, on his way to take up ownership
of his plot of land in an isolated part of northern Iceland.
is not only grim, it is unbelievably awful, and Bjartur's fixation
with being independent means that he cannot, and will not, accept any
kind of help from anyone. This attitude did not endear him to me, in
fact I found him extremely irritating, and as the story proceeds it
is frustrating to see how he hurts those closest to him. Until the
very last pages of the book, he seems to be completely devoid of any
kind of emotional connection with his fellow man; though perhaps it
is to his merit that he does finally let go of his stubbornness and
his fixation on independence to be able to experience a deep
emotional connection with another human being.
is an amazing novel, beautifully written and wonderfully
orchestrated. The descriptions of the landscape and the climate are
so magnificent that I froze through most of the book. A subdued kind
of humour acts as a foil to the serious theme of the book while
historically it gives a very good picture of the social situation in
Iceland in the early part of the twentieth century.
not a book to be missed.
Photo of Halldor Laxness from Encyclopaedia Britannica