‘Human beings, in point of fact, are lonely by nature, and one should feel sorry for them and love them and mourn with them. It is certain that people would understand one another better and love one another more if they would admit to one another how lonely they were, how sad they were in their tormented, anxious longings and feeble hopes’.
– Halldór Laxness
Having never read any Icelandic fiction, I decided (with trepidation) to order a copy of ‘Independent People’ by Halldór Laxness on the recommendation of a friend. Originally published in two volumes in 1934 and 1935 respectively, Laxness’s epic novel centres around Bjartur of Summerhouses, an Icelandic farmer doggedly determined to acquire one thing in life: Independence. Set against the backdrop of early-twentieth century Rural Iceland, the novel effortlessly blends social realism with fiction in a way that acts as both an indictment of Capitalist materialism as well as highlighting the true cost of pursuing stoic self-reliance.
As Bjartur aggravatingly pursues his quest for independence at all costs in an environment where interdependence is key, the reader is taken on an epic journey that shows the cross-generational consequences Bjartur’s obsession has on his immediate family, friends and neighbours. Yet within the brutal climate and harsh Winter’s endured by all those on the Summerhouse homestead, it is the beauty of fractured family relationships that remain the most lasting and haunting part of Laxness’s story. It is moments of vulnerability between Bjartur and his daughter Ásta Sóllilja that the beauty of the prose is perhaps most striking in its raw intensity:
‘“This was the first time that he has ever looked into the labyrinth of the human soul. He was very far from understanding what he saw. But what was of more value, he felt and suffered with her. In years that were yet to come, he relived this memory in song, in the most beautiful song this world has known. For the understanding of the soul’s defencelessness, of the conflict between the two poles, is not the source of the greatest song. The source of the greatest song is sympathy’.
-Halldór Laxness, Independent People
It is, quite simply, one of those very rare novels that consumes you; it is dark, gritty and yet full of sardonic humour. Only recently reprinted in paperback form after being out of print in the United Kingdom for over 50 years, it is clear to see how this novel contributed to Laxness winning the Nobel Prize in 1955 for his contribution to literature. I failed to put this novel down.
Written by Steph Reeves
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