Review – Laxness, “Independent People”

Halldór Laxness, “Independent People” (1935) (translated from the Icelandic by J.A. Thompson) – I took my time reading this, and I’m glad I did. Critics complain — I complain — about books, mainly literary fiction, where “nothing happens.” For some critics, this means stuff needs to be as action-packed as a thriller (or incident-packed as a romance novel) to be worth their time. While I do like a lot of action/incident, it’s not a requirement for me, or rather, I might have a broad understanding of incident. This novel of rural life in early twentieth century Iceland does have a few humdinger scenes, like a man who winds up taking an unplanned reindeer-back ride into a just-barely-above-freezing fjord river, but for the most part, the incidents we see are the quotidian ins and outs of just barely getting by on an Icelandic farm. But it’s riveting all the same. It wasn’t (just) poor time management that had me reading “Independent People” mostly in dozen-page dollops- I wanted to savor this book.

To the extent we think about Iceland much these days, we think of it as a quirky tourist destination, conveniently located on the flight path between the northeastern US and Britain. It’s an extension of Scandinavian civilization way up north and west, complete with a high standard of living, stability, democracy, free sexual mores, etc. Well, it is indeed an extension of Scandinavia, settled by Vikings in the late ninth century AD, but that meant something very different from hot spring tour buses and pricey Reykjavik beers for most of its history. It meant profound isolation and poverty. It means a couple-ten thousand descendants of the Vikings stuck on a small volcanic rock, with only intermittent boats back to the distant metropole in Denmark, trying to scrape a living as the rest of the world mostly passed them by. Shit gets weird in that kind of setting.

There wasn’t really a “native” population when the Vikings got there, but there were a few people, most of them Irish monks and other religious hermits who wanted to be well and truly alone to contemplate their dark, moody Celtic variant on Jehovah. Our story begins with the Viking settlers driving off one of these monks from a particular valley, and over the centuries, they expanded his memory into a hiberno-papist demon, Kolumkilli (presumably named after the great Irish hermit saint Columbkille), who curses the valley and anyone who tries to make a go of it. Is it the curse, or just the fact that scratching a living from volcanic rock, cut off from all the trade routes, is a precarious proposition? Icelanders tend not to think in those terms. People leave Iceland — a fair number go to America once that’s on option, often via work on whaling ships — but once you leave, you’re gone for good, as though you’ve died, at least as far as those who remain when this story begins are concerned. This makes the remainders an odd breed.

And Bjartur, the main character of “Independent People,” is odd, but in a relatable way. When the main action of the novel begins, he’s just gotten done with eighteen years of indentured servitude to a landlord, debt peonage still being a major institution in Iceland at the time. He takes his accumulated savings and buys some land smack dab where Kolumkilli supposedly cursed things. He doesn’t care. He bows before neither ghost, gods, or men. He will go to almost any length to maintain his status as an “independent man.”

It’s not just economic dependence, or even primarily economic dependence, even if he avoids debt like the plague. One of Laxness’s master strokes is depicting an actual pedant- which is to say, someone who makes himself and everyone around him miserable on principle, but who doesn’t actually follow through all the implications of those principles (John Kennedy Toole was another master of this). Bjartur’s farm isn’t an autarchy- that’d be borderline impossible. He sells his wool and sheep to a small port town merchant, who advances him the rye flour, preserved “refuse fish” and minor household goods he needs. There’s no getting ahead. But as far as Bjartur is concerned, it’s the natural order of things. His real independence isn’t economic- it’s in his refusal to accept any connection or obligation other than the bare minimum sanctioned by longstanding Icelandic custom as what a man ought to have. And so you have brilliant scenes of Bjartur grudgingly doling out coffee (coffee and tobacco seem to be the only foreign products these people seem to have) by the bucket to his neighbors when they walk or ride by, snidely insulting them all (and receiving insults) the while in between rounds of quoting epic poetry (almost none of them have books, even bibles) at each other and comparing the rate at which their respective sheep flocks are being decimated by intestinal worms.

Family is an obligation, but not the haven from the world that we think of it as today. Bjartur is married to a woman with whom he escaped indentured servitude. She gets pregnant — possibly with a landlord’s kid — and dies in childbirth because Bjartur would rather chase one lost sheep up into the wilderness during a blizzard than stay at home and listen to her talk. The daughter survives, Bjartur wrangles some hired peons for himself, knocks one of them up a few times, and soon has a small gaggle of kids… both because that’s what happens when you have sex, and because he wants and needs the labor. Bjartur and the other adults around — his peon-wife (this was apparently considered normal at the time), other hired long term laborers — aren’t entirely unsentimental about children. He especially loves his oldest daughter, Asta Sollilja, in a way that only avoids being super creepy through Bjartur’s hard-assed personal qualities. But the absolute best Bjartur is going to offer them is the opportunity to replicate his own life- endless, unremunerative toil, and after he dies, one of them (one of the boys that is) gets to call himself “independent” and keep the cycle going. The girls and the other boys can go screw. “It’s no business of mine,” as Bjartur would put it.

Much of the middle of the book is told from the kids’ perspectives, mostly Asta Sollilja’s and that of the youngest boy, Nonni. Both are dreamy children who want to experience worlds beyond the miserable sod croft — building a house is a distant glimmering dream — they’re stuck in. That’s another element of Scandinavian culture, the imaginative flights of fancy, waking dreams of elves, trolls, ghosts, and what might as well fall into that category for a 1910s Icelandic child, “the counties” – anywhere not Iceland (or, I guess, Denmark, which sends officials and takes money). The imagination can be as active as you please, but utter monotony threatens to starve it. It’s hard to imagine just how monotonous it was, and conveying this is one of the miracles Laxness accomplishes. Obviously, there’s no media beyond oral tradition- even newspapers are a thing only the landlords bother with. There aren’t schools except private religious schools Bjartur only sends one daughter to, for a little polish. Beyond that, there’s an extraordinarily deprived “material culture.” There’s just not a lot to work with, considering how poor and isolated the Icelandic countryside is. You see the same shit every day and it’s all the same colors. The natural environment is beautiful, but in a stark (and somewhat predictable) way, with an extremely limited color palate and so few animals that cows are some of the most exciting things you’ll ever see. Nonni, for lack of anything else to imagine, spends hours in bed before rising for his fourteen hour work day to fantasize the small stock of metal goods in the croft — a few pots and pans, a coffee service — talking to each other.

Bjartur (and the circumstances he fights in a never ending doomed war that makes mock of the concept of “independence”) dominates the kids but can’t keep them on the farm forever, especially with the tendency of his wives to die. Nonni gets a relative to send him to America. Asta Sollilja comes back from confirmation school pregnant. Bjartur can’t stand the shame, denounces her as a landlord’s bastard, and casts her out, after which she carries on her own doomed struggle for independent survival as a poor single mother in a small port town.

Laxness also shows what change does to such a situation. Cooperative societies arise, and Bjartur refuses on principle to have anything to do with them, especially because the big shots up the hill who used to employ him as a peon are big coop players. Laxness never gets so lazy as to let either Bjartur or his rivals gain the moral upper hand- the big shots foist a cow on him at one point. The cow changes everyone’s life on the croft with its milk and niceness. Bjartur hates the cow and eventually slaughters it wantonly, and the shock helps kill his second wife. Who’s the asshole? It’s an asshole move to kill your kids one source of food other than rye bread and shitty old fermented fish. But he didn’t want the cow, and in a world where everything runs on debt and clients he (it’s worth noting that some libertarians see the old Icelandic social/political structure as a role model for an “anarchocapitalist” utopia), you can see why he may be leery of his former almost-owners, who are always trying to get him indebted to them, bearing gifts.

Coops get big anyway, with or without Bjartur. Then World War One rolls around and all of a sudden people want Icelandic wool for uniforms and mutton tallow for greasing rounds. Even Bjartur starts to make money. In a pretty classic “stubborn asshole” move he suddenly decides he wants in on the Coop, and it’s lending capacity, to finally build a house (among other things, it might get Asta Sollilja to come back home, not that he’ll admit it). But of course, somewhere between Bjartur’s asshole, standard capitalist bad luck, and living in the valley cursed by Kolumkilli, his house sucks, and the war ends, and the market collapses, and he has to sell out and start all over again, and he’s down to the one “practical” son, who wants to go to America but then falls in love with a rich neighbor girl who hates him.

This is positional economic, social, and existential warfare, and I love it. You’d figure depictions of futility would bother me, given everything, but when they’re honest and well-done, I like them better than almost anything. I was a little cautious coming in, used as I am to sentimental American literary portrayals of rural people by urbanites who shower multiple times a day. Especially because I knew Laxness was a pretty big lefty, and some of the worst excesses of American rural sentimentalizing come from American “popular front” type writers… but no, Laxness neither sentimentalizes, or goes in for Faulkner-style (or the many cheaper kinds on the market) of rural gothic. All in all, a great read, one worth savoring. *****

Review – Laxness, “Independent People”

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