Independent People (or, Sjálfstætt fólk) by Nobel-laureate Halldor Laxness is difficult to classify for me on the axis of x = literary quality and y = political statement. Usually favouring one arm of the axis means a sharp decline in the other, and the whole discussion in favour of y tends to be from white men who still wear skinny jeans, performatively love Maya Angelou and think we should move towards a “resource-based economy” but can’t really explain why.
Often the discussion in favour of y makes the case that cultural expression is the battleground of mass opinion, and that an artwork’s political thrust should move society towards a more progressive bent. To them I would point out that most people who voted for Trump probably loved Star Wars, a series of movies about fighting Nazis.
However, this leaves me in a difficult position when talking about one of my favourite books, because on the surface it’s very political! In this way it’s similar to The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, a book it shares many qualities with, not least the quality of succeeding at being art (arting?) while having pronounced political elements.
But there have been novels about going down an escalator, a man locked in his house sampling various sensory experiences, a man completing jigsaws, and a novel about crawling through infinite mud. Subject is mostly unimportant in any serious discussion about quality. It’s a success simply by using political elements knowingly and with intent; as an inciting incident in the case of Grapes, and as an unstoppable force in Independent People.
“Two human beings have such difficulty in understanding each other – there is nothing so sad as two human beings.”
Independent People is a novel about Icelandic sheepherders, who lived in earth huts on the lava fields of that horrible island. The story focuses on one such “crofter”, Guðbjartur Jónsson, referred to through the book as Bjartur. Bjartur has worked for the wealthy landowner and parish Bailiff, Jon of Myri, for eighteen years.
Bjartur is obstinate in his belief in independence and is willing to tolerate any awful misery in his search for it – his only reprieve is muttering complicated ballads beneath his breath, which I guess is the time’s version of me reading Proust at my desk.
When he finally scrapes up enough to buy his own farm, which he calls Summerhouses, he has to marry so he can gain a farmhand he doesn’t have to pay. He marries Rosa, who doesn’t seem too thrilled about that, and their marriage is predictably hollow and lacking in understanding. Bjartur is unable to empathise with her because of his extreme emotional numbness, a trait that makes him both impressive and horrific in the things it can make him do.
On their journey to Summerhouses she tries to leave an offering to a folk-spectre named Gunnvor at her supposed resting place, but Bjartur refuses to let her down from her horse in a comically harrowing scene. The fear Rosa gains from this begins a series of events that lead to her death in childbirth while Bjartur is away, her baby narrowly surviving.
We then skip forward twelve years, after Bjartur has remarried and sired three more children, but he has taken Rosa’s (probable) bastard for his own and named her “Ásta Sóllilja”, or “little flower”. She is described as having an unsettling left-side of her face that is notable for a squint on her left eye – people often framing it as her having two souls within her:
And he gazed at her cheek in the glimmer of the dip and had certainly no inkling of the emotions that tormented her soul; but he saw that it was her left cheek, her left soul, that old, unhappy, afflicted soul which was a thousand years older than the girl herself, a soul from another century with oblique malicious vision, fragile desires, and features that reminded one of sworn oaths and deadly hatred. The full lower lip, whose curve was so delightful when seemed from the right, seemed from this side distorted in a grimace. It was impossible that she could be a fifteen-year-old child; it was as if her profile, when viewed from this side, gave evidence of some complete loss, blindness even, blindness which lived nevertheless in some hateful harmony with its own world, without demanding another and a better, and which was endowed with that contempt for death which senses all misfortune and endures it.
Also with the clan is Bjartur’s new mother-in-law, Hallbera, who is a senile and spiritually numb lady who spends all day muttering scripture to herself and sewing. She mystifies everyone around her, and seems to be in that old-timey senior fugue state of survival and religious pleading.
We follow the family through the repeating seasons and the children’s adolescence, and watch chances at happiness, even fleeting moments of it, be continually defeated by the worst aspects of each character’s nature – particularly Bjartur’s. We see family tragedies, and Asta’s obsession with romance that ends hauntingly predictably for a girl in her time. Her experience of sexual awakening prior to this is surprisingly tender and sensitive, belying Halldor Laxness’s emotional intelligence. Unfortunately, Bjartur cannot allow his daughter to express her sexuality. She tries to ask for a book of love poetry one Christmas Eve and Bjartur slaps her, hard. This is the beginning of her complicated dynamic with romance, and desire.
Near the end of the novel we learn unexpectedly that it has taken place in the late 19th century into the early 20th when the First World War provides an unexpected economic boom to Iceland’s industry, and the family grows wealthy for a year or two. However, this soon slips away and they are left in a worse position than before. There the novel ends, with the family left with nothing, off to start another croft somewhere to the north.
The novel is a work of naturalism, and a mostly successful attempt to create an epic novel. Naturalism has always flirted scandalously with determinism, in that its characters are often guided by their intuitions, which are born from their experiences, which perpetuate their shitty circumstances because they make shitty decisions. In that, is life.
Naturalism has two flavours – the American branch (like Grapes of Wrath) and the European style popularised by Émile Zola in The Experimental Novel. It is likely Halldor Laxness was more influenced by the American tradition, as his novels share that school’s hard-on for detailed accounts of nature through lyricism, and in its depiction of human beings as just another seasonally recurring part of the natural order.
The novel is a critique of a cultural attitude in Iceland, one that lauds independence and self-sufficiency as the highest ideal. This comes from the first settler of Iceland, Ingólfr Arnarson, who is the poster-boy of this masculine attitude. Arnarson’s shadow hangs over the crofters (and Bjartur to the extreme) as the guy they desperately want to embody, but Laxness makes it quite clear that he is as facile as Uncle Sam.
Throughout the book, there is a worker’s co-operative and a socialist uprising on a very localised level – both are unanimously pointless. They just leave the crofters worse off, and the end is a perpetuation of the same situation. I bring this up because Laxness is often unfairly described as a socialist author, to such a degree he was blacklisted by the United States in the 1950s. The attaching of this qualifier is mad disrespectful in my opinion – it implies Laxness is very good at being a socialist who is an author, as opposed to being very fucking good at being an author at all.
Halldor Laxness’s lyricism is widely well-regarded, and he manages that tenuous authorial feat of forcing me to read about the composition of hills and landscapes without smoothing out the wrinkles on my brain.
His style is what amounts to a souped up family saga, the literary tradition of the Icelanders.
The style of those sagas is threadbare and drowns you in proper nouns, but Laxness decorates that frame with a lot of nice poetic prose more in line with Naturalist sensibilities. This actually stems from the original home of sagas, Denmark, and their heroic sagas that would wax poetical with zeal. This means Independent People exists as a composite of both, fantasy and reality.
The most noticeable comparison to the family sagas is in the structure – they would often break up their narratives into several smaller installations, often with simple explanatory titles, and often covering minor events that convene into a greater whole at the end of the story. Independent People, published as two instalments of novels originally, does this in both.
Each instalment might be quite mundane, titled The Shepherds’ Meet, or The Croft House. In embracing this custom Laxness simulates reality with expertise, being able to montage the passing of days and weeks while also sowing the seeds of the characters’ next devastating misstep over a realistic passage of time.
The sagas could also span years, part of why they are epics, and in this way Independent People follows them, taking place over three decades of pointless toil. We begin to measure the passing years as a procession of summers and winters, the summer being a tragically brief respite before the arduous lean months return. This makes the seasons feel of supreme importance, as they even affect the style of the prose itself. And Halldor Laxness portrays life itself like the weather, and in a lot of ways it rings true; people go through their overhanging moods, with breaks and intense portions punctuating them, but then they might move on to some other obsession.
To compare the novel and the family sagas’ style, here is an excerpt from The Story of Hen-Thorir:
So weareth the night, and betimes on the morrow Blundketil let gather horses from the pastures, and when all was ready Herstein drave an hundred horses to meet the chapmen, nor need they crave any from any other stead.
Sick. And here’s an excerpt from Independent People:
And when the spring breezes blow up the valley; when the spring sun shines on last year’s withered grass on the river banks; and on the lake; and on the lake’s two white swans; and coaxes the new grass out of the spongy soil in the marshes – who could believe on such a day that this peaceful, grassy valley brooded over the story of our past; and over its spectres?
While Laxness adds a poetic flair often lacking in the family sagas, these excerpts unfold with the same aesthetic. The author allows the sentences to run long, and in doing so it establishes for itself a particular rhythm, one like a drop of water trickling down a rocky hill, guiding the reader’s mind’s eye impressively, and patiently.
Halldor Laxness evolves the saga’s style to the modernist ideal while retaining the trademarks of Icelandic storytelling; of brevity, and austerity of adverbials. The sagas are often described as precise, or surgical, and Laxness adheres to that for the best part of the book. However, in a Joycian flourish, when there is a break in the monotony of fieldwork the characters’ emotional extremity begins to rush out of the prose and takes the reader with it on that characters’ reverie.
And Ásta Sóllilja, it was she who swept on wings of poetry into those spheres which she had sensed as if in distant murmur one spring night last year when she was reading about the little girl who journeyed over the seven mountains; and the distant murmur had suddenly swelled to a song in her ears, and her soul found here for the first time its origin and its descent; happiness, fate, sorrow, she understood them all; and many other things. When a man looks at a flowering plant growing slender and helpless up in the wilderness among a hundred thousand stones, and he has found this plant only by chance, then he asks: Why is it that life is always trying to burst forth? Should one pull up this plant and use it to clean one’s pipe? No, for this plant also broods over the limitation and the unlimitation of all life, and lives in the love of the good beyond these hundred thousand stones, like you and me; water it with care, but do not uproot it, maybe it is little Ásta Sóllilja.
It’s this intensity in the characters’ longings that keeps the narrative interesting, sampling a diverse palette of emotion to aestheticise. This is a departure from the sagas, part of the evolution to the modern – it resonates with the feeling that six hundred years prior seems closer to the characters and their lifestyles than a hundred years in the future. The aged conventions being broken through by bursts of emotional and sensuous modernity, like the above flower, and Ásta Sóllilja herself. This is such a universal symbol that you could apply it to some many concepts; love, art, the pursuit of knowledge, and it stirs you in your recognition.
And Laxness indulges in this psychological prose frequently. The section titled Free of Debt opens almost like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce, following the perspective of Bjartur’s youngest child, Nonni, the prose reflecting his undeveloped mind. This section establishes the new dynamic in the croft after we skip twelve years, following Rosa’s death. In Ásta Sóllilja’s perspective the prose becomes almost sludgy and thick, like treacle, and indulges in the new romantic poetry that she’s shown to adore. The saga style only really remains with Bjartur, who can’t let it go.
This perspectival prose can also be seen in character descriptions – characters of a similar level of poverty are spared, but when the family meet someone from the middle classes great care is paid to what they are wearing. The family from Rauthsmyri are often the subjects of this. You can tell this comes from a combination of awe and insecurity, Ásta Sóllilja at one point revealing she had felt like one of the old saga’s trolls all her life.
Another aspect of the sagas that Laxness mimics is something I touched on above: the complete bombarding of proper nouns – the names of people, places. In original sagas, which had a historical element to them, this was to presumably ensure a legacy for exceptional individuals in the cultural hemisphere. This is from the Saga of Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue and Rafn the Skald:
Now, Thorstein had to wife Jofrid, the daughter of Gunnar, the son of Hlifar. This Gunnar was the best skilled in weapons, and the lithest of limb of all bonder-folk who have been in Iceland; the second was Gunnar of Lithend; but Steinthor of Ere was the third. Jofrid was eighteen winters old when Thorstein wedded her; she was a widow, for Thorodd, son of Odd of Tongue, had had her to wife aforetime. Their daughter was Hungerd, who was brought up at Thorstein’s at Burg. Jofrid was a very stirring woman; she and Thorstein had many children betwixt them, but few of them come into this tale. Skuli was the eldest of their sons, Kollsvein the second, Egil the third.
In Independent People it’s never that extreme – Laxness prefers to suffuse them. People will always be named in a sentence as opposed to the impersonal, and the names of surrounding holdings will always be stated instead of left vague. This specificity of place forces us into the characters’ perspectives – one where Rauthsmyri, where the Bailiff Jon of Myri conducts his business, is a universe away, as opposed to under ten kilometres.
The more something is repeated the more monumental it seems, especially when in such an oppressive vacuum as the croft. The children are always in a haze of lethargy, so any novelty amazes them and by extension the reader. When Ásta Sóllilja deviates from the holdings of Summerhouses with Bjartur, it is remarkable because it’s the first time we also have for hundreds of pages.
Halldor Laxness mimics not just the style of the sagas but also their attitudes. The spiritual or mystical is only ever hinted at, principally with the tale that opens the novel, of the devil Kollumkilli and his witch acolyte, Gunnvor. These spectres haunt the characters’ minds constantly, especially as the valley of Summerhouses is where Gunnvor is said to be buried. Bjartur is defiant of them, Rosa fears them, the children are in wonder of them. All of their failings somehow are attributed to them. This is a way for the characters to assign a name to life’s cruelty, and the tyranny of reality. Their failings are due to exploitation, and mankind’s efforts to oppress itself, and often just awful luck.
The heroes found in the family sagas mostly, say, start successful businesses, or survive the landscape. Laxness clearly believes even this is fantasy – success is mostly the result of generational wealth, and the emotional resources to escape your own traumas. Heroism is inherently a bit silly, as seen in the following section:
Late in the evening he reaches his lodging, a cave under Strutfell formed of projecting rocks, and sitting down in the entrance, he ate facing the moon. When he had eaten he went into the cave, where a great, flat block of stone, lying on some large pebbles, had served from time immemorial as a resting-place for travellers. On this Bjartur lay down to sleep, using his bundle as a pillow. He was practically the only traveller who paid a regular yearly visit to the cave at this season, and as he had acquired the art of sleeping on the block without ill-effect in any weather he was very fond of the place. When he had slept for a good while he woke up shivering. This shiver was a characteristic of the lodging, but it was unnecessary to lose one’s temper over it if one only knew the trick of getting rid of it. This trick consisted of getting up, gripping the block with both arms, and turning it round till one was warm again. According to ancient custom it had to be turned round eighteen times, thrice a night. It would have been considered a most formidable task in any other lodging, for the block weighed not less than a quarter of a ton, but Bjartur thought nothing more natural than to resolve it fifty-four times a night, for he enjoyed trying his strength on large stones. Each time that he had given the block eighteen turns he felt warm enough to lie down again and go to sleep with his bundle under his head.
In this way Laxness is one of those annoying writers who can make a passage funny, but also give insight into the character’s soul with that humour. The humour in the book is mostly from the juxtaposition of the mundane with the epic – at Bjartur and Rosa’s wedding the Bailiff’s wife Madam Myri gives an overblown and pompous speech about the beauty of rural existence, one that is clearly Laxness rawdogging the pastoralist movement, where she essentially says not much. But this interrupts a discussion the shepherds are having about common sheep illnesses, and the consistency of their droppings.
The many discussions of the shepherds are insightful and very often extremely fucking funny, but it never sacrifices the characters’ own sense of themselves to achieve that. Instead, we watch people with a very narrow experience try to decode reality with the limited reference points they have, and if that isn’t relatable, I can’t tell you what is. The shepherds are a vivid portrait of insecurity, ego and camaraderie.
Another source of humour, black as treacle, is Bjartur’s habit of saying his shit living conditions are a blessing, and he has coped with a thousand times worse:
It was pretty miserable wretches that minded at all whether they were wet or dry. He could not understand why such people had been born. “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry” he would say. “I’ve been wet more than half my life and never been a whit the worse for it.”
This pastiches a notion of masculinity that resonates with me, as I have the bad fortune of living in Yorkshire, England, where wearing as few clothes as possible on cold days is a matter of dumbfuck pride. Bjartur’s masculine ideal is tied with independence, like in this segment where his new wife Finna asks him to borrow hay from a holding further north, and he responds enraged;
‘But Bjartur dear, the cow’s almost dry and it’s terrible to see her hunger. The poor creature is wasting away before my very eyes,’
‘That’s no business of mine,’ he replied. ‘I don’t intend to be in anyone’s debt up-country. We are independent people. I am beholden to no one. I am a free man living on my own land.’
She continues to beg, and he begins a rant that exposes his insecurity;
‘No power between heaven and earth shall make me betray my sheep for the sake of a cow. It took me eighteen years’ work to get my stock together. I worked twelve years more to pay off the land. My sheep have made me an independent man, and I will never bow to anyone. To have people say of me that I took the beggar’s road for hay in the spring is a disgrace I will never tolerate. And as for the cow, which was foisted on me by the Bailiff and the Women’s Institute to deprive the youngsters of their appetite and filch the best of the hay from the sheep, for her I will do only one thing. And that shall be done.’
‘Bjartur,’ said Finna in a toneless voice, staring at him in distraction from the impassable distance that separates two human beings, ‘if you are going to kill Bukolla, kill me first.’
Bjartur is one of the most well-realised literary characters I have read – and all the other characters manage to come across as completely human, too. Bjartur is, like the rest of us in one way or another, a person blinded by his ideology, and his misfortunes, and his pride. He’s an interesting case of this in his obliviousness to his own feelings and those of others, a trait all his family share – the above impassable distance. Our unfortunate position as the reader is knowing him better than he knows himself and seeing the objective truth.
In the course of the book, he is given the above cow by the Bailiff out of concern for his starving children, but he eventually slaughters it. The Bailiff, during good economic years, offers him an enormous cash sum to repurchase the land he had sold to Bjartur. This too Bjartur refuses, determined to make his own fortune without any real knowledge of how that might be accomplished.
The most minor, but the most devastating, is when he employs a local woman to help with the farm after his second wife passes and his children move on – as a treat during hard times she buys luxury goods for them from the merchants. Bjartur immediately dismisses her and says no more about it. He is striving for an ideal, and he is willing to have nothing before compromising that.
He speaks to an attitude common in the working class; being unable to accept anything from those above them. He certainly doesn’t imagine the condescension he rails against at first – the Bailiff at first seems bored by Bjartur’s existence. However, as Bjartur’s farm persists through the years he has become embittered and refuses to view any genuine offer as anything but charity.
But Laxness’s view of every level of the class system is an unflinching and critical one – the working class are stubborn and paranoid, and small-minded – but it’s not their fault. The middle-classes are condescending and dismissive, but it’s not their fault either. Politicians on both sides of centre perform their ideals while rubbing elbows with each-other when the debate is over. All of these social forces coincide to keep the established strata in place, as much motivated by human nature as it is by capital. Each level perceives one another unfairly, an impassable distance between each-other.
This is why I refuse to classify this as a socialist novel. Instead Halldor Laxness portrays a world where our own neuroses and insecurity, and judgment of one another, keeps us separated. This is a problem of the lightness of being – our aspirations are guided by our mythologies and aspirational heroes, the ones so long spoken about that all their imperfections have been sanded away in the retelling. Reality can never compare. The belief systems that make us succeed will often make us discount others who haven’t, and the limited nature of our perspectives makes those people into failures. Socialist novels are intended to inspire revolution, even Grapes of Wrath makes a good go at it. Instead, Independent People shows the evil and tyranny of the world system and explains it, subtly, and then suggests that you can do little about it. The best you can hope for is comfort, and the ability to escape into fantasy.
Like in life, these things trickle down generation after generation – of the four children only two survive. One wanders into the night, and Bjartur later finds his body in a creek, decomposed. He is unable, or unwilling, to believe it’s his son, so he gives him a burial with no headstone. One he abandons to a band of newly formed revolutionaries, angered by the recession, who are going to fight the police in a nearby town – we never learn the result. One is sent to America to work on a fellow Icelanders’ farm, and the last we hear he is doing well. Asta Sollilja makes it to the end, but she is weathered into a reflection of Bjartur.
Once she is told of her real parentage, she flees the croft to the port-town nearby and has a family of her own. Gvendur, the middle son, runs into her in town. They talk a while, and she seems to have aged many times over what Gvendur has. She eventually asks for clarity on something he had said, something about the myth Kollumkilli, a folk devil a lot of folk take stock in:
‘Didn’t you say there was somebody harder still than father, someone who ruled over him and held him in his hand?’
‘Well, I did say so in a way, but it wasn’t because I believe in Kollumkilli’
‘No, and it isn’t Kollumkilli either,’ she said. ‘It is the power that rules the world, and you can call it what you like, Gvendur boy.’
‘Is it God?’
‘Yes, if it is God that benefits from people slaving like brute beasts all their lives long and never have a chance of all that life has to offer – then it is God all right. And now I am afraid I shall have to leave you, Gvendur, the washing is waiting for me’
‘No, listen,’ he said, without having fathomed this deeper wisdom, ‘there’s something I’ve got to tell you before I say good-bye, Sola: I was thinking of making you a present of my ewes.’
She checked herself in the middle of her first step and looked at him; there was perhaps a trace of unfeigned pity in her eyes, as when people regard an incredibly stupid person who has given himself away in conversation. Then she smiled again.
‘Thank you, Gvendur,’ she said, ‘but I don’t accept gifts, even from Bjartur of Summerhouses’ son. You mustn’t take it in bad part, it isn’t the first time I’ve refused a gift. Last year when I was starving with my little girl in an unheated cellar along the fjord there, the most influential man in the district came to see me one night in secret and said I was his daughter and offered me a lot of money; yes he offered to provide for Bjort and me as long as we lived. “I would rather see my child die,” said I.’ Once more she gave her cold laugh, then added: ‘My little girl and I are independent people also, you see; we also are a sovereign state. Bjort and I love freedom just as much as our namesake does. We would rather be free to die, than have to accept anyone’s gifts.’
The man who approached Ásta Sóllilja is the Bailiff’s son, Ingólfur Arnarson Jónsson. Named for the hero I mentioned at the beginning, he ironically has been given everything by his father, from education to contacts and opportunities, and uses generosity as a tool to get power. He is the real spirit of Iceland of that time – his entire income and being is owed to shepherds like Bjartur, but he does little to earnestly help them.
If I try to summarise the theme of Independent People, I would probably say that it’s longing, and misery, and how both reinforce one another. Nowhere is this more telling in Bjartur and his heir, Ásta Sóllilja. We never know much about Bjartur’s upbringing, but we can only assume it was much of the same – taken in by the Bailiff, who his surname is from, and moulded into a shell of a person by implicit mistreatment. We see the same happened to Ásta, and the same will probably happen generation after generation. The one relief the characters get is their fantasies, the ideal life they could lead if it weren’t for the onslaughts of Kollumkilli.
The tyranny of mankind; it was like the obstinate drip of water falling on a stone and hollowing it little by little; and this drip continued, falling obstinately, falling without pause on the souls of the children.
In our lives, Laxness argues, we can’t influence our fates. We are at the whims of the moods of those around us, of the place and time we are born, of the weather and how it affects crops and our livelihoods – the random turning of economics, and world conflict. The way others perceive us, and the belief systems we form, and how that belief system reacts when it encounters contradictions. Kollumkilli is the unpredictable nature of what comes next. Life turns us into somebody’s monster, and somebody’s redemption. But we are surely not independent. Ásta wanted only romance and to see the world, that would have been her independence – instead:
Such has she become, the little Midsummer Night girl of bygone days. It was the left cheek in her life that had gained the ascendancy; or, much more probably, that had saved the helpless right cheek that she had turned to Bjartur of Summerhouses many years ago, one Christmas Eve.
As the novel comes to a close, Laxness once again echoes Grapes of Wrath, in that the prose begins to state matters of fact. By then it’s like the end of a good dissertation, having provided its evidence it concludes its opinions on the matter:
“There is a holy story that tells of a man who was fulfilled by sowing his enemy’s field one night. Bjartur’s story is the story of a man who sowed his enemy’s field all his life, day and night. Such is the story of the most independent man in the country. Moors; more moors”.
Overall, Independent People is a great novel, so don’t be put off by the rabble of people trying to sell it as a Marxist’s handbook – it’s more than that. Halldor Laxness justifies the existence of the novel in the way he writes it, and weaves it seamlessly into his culture’s literary heritage, and what results is a tragedy that is universal in its relatability, but so specific in its scope.
Or the original was shit and the translator’s just fucking great at what he does.
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