A Longing for Freedom

Halldór Guðjónsson, later christened as Halldór Laxness after the homestead he was raised in, in a way, was the personification of a prodigy. He started writing stories at a young age and when he was 14, he finally had one of his works printed in a local publication. Three years later, at the age of 17, he published his first novel. Before turning thirty, he has already published five novels, poetry collections, travelogues and essay collections. Not many can lay claim to have achieved the same level of success at such a young age but if these achievements were any indicator, Laxness was certainly destined for greatness. He would later on expand to writing pays, memoirs, and translations. In 1955, he reached the zenith of the literary world after he was awarded the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature.

With a prolific career that spanned decades, several of his works were credited by the Nobel Committee as instrumental in his recognition. One of these titles is Independent People. Commencing in the early year of the 20th century, Independent People charted the story of Guðbjartur Jónsson, referred to in the novel as Bjartur of Summerhouses. For nearly two decades, he worked as a shepherd at Útirauðsmýri, under the employ of an affluent bailiff. His hard work paid off as he was finally able to save enough money to pay the first installment on his own farm. At long last, Bjartur of Summerhouses is fulfilling his life-long dream, that of obtaining independence and of not being manacled to the ground by the man he detested.

The land Bjartur of Summerhouses purchased was said to be cursed by Saint Columba, referred to in the story as “the fiend Kolumkilli”. Legend also has it that the valley that Bjartur’s land is situated was once inhabited by a murderous, blood-drinking witch named Gunnvör. She has formed a pact with the infernal spirit of Kólumkilli. Centuries after her death, she still haunts the land. To renounce the curse and, thus, avoid misfortune, one must appease Gunnvör by adding a stone to her cairn. However, the ever defiant Bjartur, refused to do so. He was nonplussed, refusing to be daunted by folktales and by the supernatural. He also renamed the farm from Winterhouses to Summerhouses.

“The farm brook ran down from the mountain in a straight line for the fold then swerved to the west to go its way down into the marshes. There were two knee-high falls in it and two pools, knee-deep. At the bottom there was shingle, pebbles and sand. It ran in many curves. Each curve had its own tone, but not one of them was dull; the brook was merry and music-loving, like youth, but yet with various strings, and it played its music without thought of any audience and did not care though no one heard for a hundred years, like the true poet.”

~ Halldór Laxness, Independent People

Despite the imagined failures blighted by curses and supernatural spirits, Bjartur of Summerhouse was determined to live an independent life along with his young bride, Rosa. Rosa, a fellow worker at Rauðsmýri, however, was unhappy in her new home. She constantly yearns for the comfort and luxury of Rauðsmýri. She was also pregnant, not by Bjartur of Summerhouse but by Ingólfur Arnarson Jónsson, the son of the bailiff. Following the death of Rosa at childbirth, Bjartur decided to raise the child as if she was his own despite being cognizant of her biological profile. He named her Ásta Sóllilja, which translates to “beloved sun lily”. Bjartur would later on remarry, to Finna, a woman who had been a charity case on the parish. Out of his second marriage, he sired three sons: Helgi, Gvendur (Guðmundur) and Nonni (Jón).

The underlying theme extensively explored in the narrative was, unsurprisingly, independence. For years, Bjartur longed to live a life that was not bound by debts or other forms of dependence on other individuals. He built his philosophy around this singular idea of liberty and even endeavored to inculcate it into the minds of his children. Driven by this dream of complete independence, he worked hard, from dawn to dusk. He was fixated on the idea of expanding his herd of sheep. In order to do so, he works 16-hour days in the summer, with the expectation that his family will work as hard as he does. These were the sacrifices that must be made in order to achieve that life-long dream.

However, Independent People does not reduce itself into the story of a single man. Through the story of Bjartur, Laxness projected the struggles several Icelandic farmers had to deal with in the early 20th century. Like Bjartur, burgeoning family debt bonded them to powerful and affluent landowners like the bailiff. For years, they worked hard and diligently, inching towards the day they are finally free off those debts. Freedom, as Bjartur also learned, also comes with its own steep price. The newly debt-free farmers, mostly unsure of the uncertainties that lie ahead, must now learn how to live on isolated crofts situated in inhospitable landscapes and harsh environments.

Bjartur’s struggle for independence was contrasted with the changing economic and political landscape. Interestingly, Iceland only achieved complete independence in 1918, shortly before Laxness started writing the novel. For almost seven centuries, Iceland was a colony governed by Norway, and then Denmark. This changes the complexion of the narrative as it elevates the discussions from merely personal or class-bound to a national scale. All throughout the narrative, we see the characters engage in discourses on politics, and provide opinions on how to govern a young nation. These discussions also intersect with discussion on major economic themes, such as the cooperative movement, the contrasts of socialism and capitalism, and the overall status of the working man.

“Well, there’s always one good thing about it; no one that lives here need slave all day long at housework, and I always thought you had sense enough to appreciate your independence. Independence is the most important thing of all in life. I say for my part that a man lives in vain until he is independent. People who aren’t independent aren’t people. A man who isn’t his own master is as bad as a man without a dog.”

~ Halldór Laxness, Independent People

Independent People superficially portrays sheep raising. However, sheep was a leitmotif that permeated all throughout the story; it was almost synonymous to the narrative. Bjartur was a shepherd and, despite his independence, it was a vocation he returned to. The smell of the animal assaults the olfactory senses but he often dreams of and grown fond of them. He was earnest in his desire of making his herd of sheep grow while his were forced to survive on porridge, salt fish and coffee because Bjartur refuses to swerve from his idea of living a debt free existence. It was his family’s dream to eat real food, especially meat. Apart from poverty, it was one of the many miseries they have to cope with.

The original text, published in Icelandic as Sjálfstætt fólk (literally “self-standing/reliant fold), was printed in two parts. The first part was published in 1934 and the second part a year later. Over a decade later, in 1946, the first English translation of the novel was published. Its intricate exploration of independence was accentuated with cultural touchstones. If the novel’s opening sequence is any indication, ancient Icelandic sagas and folklore were woven into the narrative. If the characters were not engaging on discussions about politics or economics, they are most certainly telling stories and fables about ghosts, elves, demons, and witches. It has become a part of their daily life. In stark dichotomy to the callous and a cantankerous character he was portrayed, Bjartur was revealed to be a poet, a wordsmith who embodies the traditions of his birthplace. In dire straits, Bjartur can be found reciting poems; it was a comfort zone he resorts to.

Bjartur of Summerhouses loomed large in the narrative. He was a character study, a character that one can learn to love yet hate and vice versa. He was stubborn, with a defiant attitude which refuses to deviate from his principles. His resolve, however, adversely affected his family. He was stoic with a misguided perspective of independence which weighed heavily on his children. It led to the alienation and, in some cases, the death of those around him. But his resolve was grounded on the realities of squalor that characterized his life. He cannot shirk his principles and allow himself a moment of vulnerability lest he be crushed by death and destitution.

Whilst he can be callous and, even, cruel, Bjartur was not altogether unloving or uncaring. In his relationship with Ásta Sóllilja, who was not her biological daughter, the readers were provided with glimpses of a doting and caring father. Ásta Sóllilja – headstrong, equally tenacious – was a finely developed character that complimented Bjartur. She was also the only character who can penetrate his father’s dense exterior.The two primary protagonists were ably supported by an eclectic but equally interesting set of secondary characters such as Olafur of Yztidale and Bjartur’s youngest son, Nonni.

“I have noticed that poor people are always happier than these so-called rich people of whom, actually, there are none in existence: for what are rich people? They are people who have much business, and own, if everything were reckoned up, nothing but anxiety; who go to the grave as destitute as anyone else, except that they have had more worry about their means of livelihood, and less happiness.”

~ Halldór Laxness, Independent People

These elements were carefully woven together by Laxness’ prose. His storytelling complimented Bjartur’s story, capturing melancholia, tragedy in vivid details. Abound with suffering, both physical and emotional, the narrative’s bleaker elements were contrasted by moments of humor, great joy, and even love. The text was not, however, always accessible. Long paragraphs and chapters were ubiquitous but the lyrical quality of Laxness’ prose made for an interesting dichotomy. The prose was specially breathtaking when describing nature, of which Iceland has aplenty. Laxness captured the raw and untamed beauty of the landscape with evocative passages.

What does it take to obtain full independence? Independent People does not provide a grand picture nor does it purport to portray one. Rather, Laxness regals the readers with the labyrinthine mind of Bjartur and making them inhabit it. Transporting the readers to the wild Icelandic countryside, to another period, the story provides an insight about the nation, its history, and its people. Overall, it is a story anchored on survival in an extremely harsh and unforgiving physical conditions. It is coupled with an extensive exploration of a vast territory of subjects, extending from death, to the different layers of power dynamics, to the plight of the working class, and, even, to the poignancy of memory. It was bleak but rarely depressing for it was anchored on realities. It was also a story off dichotomies, juxtaposing elements such as humor on cynicism, the ornery on poetry. Beyond the darkness, a beacon of hope illuminates in the closing pages of the story. Ambitious and grand, Independent People is truly a masterpiece of literature.

Ratings

86%

Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) –
 25%
Writing (25%) – 
22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Before 2020, I have never heard of Halldór Laxness nor have I encountered any of his works. However, when I saw some of his works being sold by an online bookseller, my interest was naturally piqued. A quick search showed that he was an Icelandic writer and was the winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature. I was intrigued so I fought tooth and nail to obtain copies of his works, of which I managed to cop two: Independent People and World Light. As the former was also listed as one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I decided to immerse in it first. I was hoping to gain an understanding of his body of work. Independent People was a challenging read. It was complex and covered several heavy subjects. It does, however, give the reader an insight into the history of Iceland. The cultural touchstones also complimented the story. The discourse on poverty and economic themes, e.g. capitalism, did remind me of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. Nevertheless, Independent People was its own distinct voice, an epic on its own.

Book Specs

Author: Halldór Laxness
Translator (from Icelandic): J.A. Thompson
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: January 1997
Number of Pages: 482
Genre: Literary Fiction, Epic

Synopsis

This magnificent novel – which secured for its author the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature – is at last available to contemporary American readers. Although it is set in the early twentieth century, it recalls both Iceland’s medieval epics and such classics as Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. An if Bjartur of Summerhouses, the book’s protagonist, is an ordinary sheep farmer, his flinty determination to achieve independence is genuinely heroic and, at the same time, terrifying and bleakly comic.

Having spent eighteen years in humiliating servitude, Bjartur wants nothing more than to raise his flocks unbeholden to any man. But Bjartur’s spirited daughter wants to live unbeholden to him. What ensues is a battle of wills that is by turns harsh and touching, elemental in its emotional intensity and intimate in its homely details. Vast in scope and deeply rewarding, Independent People is a masterpiece.

About the Author

Halldór Guðjónsson was born on April 23, 1902 in Reykjavik, Iceland. When he was three years old, his family moved to the Laxnes farm in Mosfellssveit parish.

At a young age, he was exposed to reading which led him to writing his own stories. From 1915 to 1916, he attended a technical school in Reykjavik. In 1922, Halldór joined the Abbaye Saint-Maurice et Saint-Maur in Clervaux, Luxembourg, where he was baptized and confirmed as a member o the Catholic Church. He adopted the surname Laxness, after the homestead he grew up in and added the name Kiljan, the Icelandic name of Irish martyr Saint Killian. Laxness spent a healthy portion of his young adult life traveling around the world. He spent years living in continental Europe and also lived in the United States from 1927 to 1929 before returning to his native Iceland.

Laxness’ earliest writing first appeared in 1916 in the children’s newspapers Æskan and Sólskin, as well as in Morgunblaðið. When he was just 17-years old, he has published his first novel, Barn náttúrunnar (Child of Nature, 1919). He followed it up with Undir Helgahnúk (Under the Holy Mountain, 1924), and Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír (The Great Weaver from Kashmir, 1927).Among his other popular novels are Sjálfstætt fólk (Independent People, 1934), Íslandsklukkan (Iceland’s Bell, 1943), and Ljós heimsins (The Light of the World, 1937). Apart from writing novels, he has written short stories, poems, travelogues, essays, and memoirs. He has also written plays.

For his works, both in literature and out of it, Laxness has received as score of accolades. In 1952, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. A year later, he received the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Council literary Prize. His biggest achievement, however, came in 1955, when he was announced the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his vivid epic power, which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland”.

Laxness passed away on February 8, 1998 in Reykjavík, Iceland.