1997-07-26: Independent People

Independent People (1934, tr 1997, intro 1995)

by Halldór Laxness (1902-1998), tr by J. A. Thompson (-), Introduction by Brad Leithauser (1953-)

I first became aware of this novel on an Icelandair flight, in the airline magazine. I purchased it in the (exorbitantly expensive) airport shop at Keflavik. It was my primary reading matter during our three week vacation in Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and France.

In his introduction, Leithauser posits “the book of your life … a novel which inspires so close a kinship that questions of evaluation … become a niggling irrelevance.” This book is that to him.

To me, it is (no surprise) less. It begins with the possibility of an independent person, not beholden to any other. Independence is first defined in financial terms, as Bjartur seeks to establish himself on his own farm, rather than working for another. But through the book, Bjartur’s notion of independence grows into an unsustainable thing, self-sufficiency in every realm: financial, biological, emotional. Eventually he is a community of one, talking and listening only to himself. Of course, in the end the unsustainable cannot be sustained.

The book also takes advantage of the theme of independence to revile the dependence of the poor man on the rich, and the nefarious ways the rich extract their wealth from the poor. The merchants and bankers, and the institutions they create, are the villains of the piece.

In my estimate, the weakness of the book is the adoption of a viewpoint that accepts that which the author abhors. By setting up ideal conditions that cannot be sustained, and showing that they are not sustained, he seems to imply that there are reasons in the people that prevent their achieving success. I would rather have read a book that was more realistic or optimistic (or, ideally, both).

Taken on its own terms, the book is interesting enough to recommend. It is somewhat like Moby Dick in this respect. It deals with large issues in a peculiar setting, and it devotes at least as much space to sheep as that book does to whales.

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