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Independent People: An Epic ()

Nobel Prize Winners

Contrary to popular belief, the sole intent of this website is not to establish my own idiosyncratic hegemony over the reading tastes of friends and family, nor simply to provide a forum for my own peculiar opinions and views.  Those are simply the side benefits.  The real purpose of Brothers Judd is to point folks in the direction of books that they will enjoy.  One of the abiding disappointments of all this is that there are books that I wish everyone had read, but nothing I can ever say will get most of you to read them.  This book is assuredly a case in point.  The greatest novel of Iceland's greatest novelist (I somehow feel assured that I can say that without threat of contradiction) and only Nobel Prize winner, Independent People tells the epic story of Bjartur of Summerhouses, an Icelandic sheep farmer who lives in a turf croft.

See, I've lost you already.  But I swear to you, this is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read.  Bjartur, this simple farmer who it is difficult to even place in time, is one of the authentic heroes in all of literature and he enunciates one of the most moving universal messages imaginable: "To stand alone, is not that the perfection of life, its aim?"

The book seems almost to be an ancient Icelandic Saga and Bjartur to be an epic hero out of myth.  There is a certain timeless nature to the narrative; we're hundreds of pages into the text before it becomes clear that the action is even occurring in the 20th Century and Bjartur battles not merely modern problems like bankers, but ancient curses and magic spells.  Local legend holds that there is a curse on his new property and folk superstitiously add stones to a cairn to appease the woman, Gunnvor, who cast the curse.  But, from the first word that Bjartur speaks, while approaching his new home with his new bride who wishes to place a stone, we know that he is a man of stubborn determination who will not bow to the challenges of past or present:

    Century after century the lone worker leaves the settlements to tempt fortune on this knoll between
    the lake and the cleft in the mountain, determined to challenge the evil powers that hold his land in
    thrall and thirst for his blood and the marrow in his bones.  Generation after generation the crofter
    raises his chant, contemptuous of the powers that lay claim to his limbs and seek to rule his fate to
    his dying day.  The history of the centuries in this valley is the history of an independent man who
    grapples barehanded with a spectre which bears a new and ever newer name.  Sometimes the
    spectre is some half-divine fiend who lays a curse on his land.  Sometimes it breaks his bones in
    the guise of the norn.  Sometimes it destroys his croft in the form of a monster.  And yet, always,
    to all eternity, it is the same spectre assailing the same man century after century.

    "No," he said defiantly.

    It was the man who was making for Albogastathir on the Moor a century and a half after the croft
    had last been destroyed.  And as he passed Gunnvor's cairn on the ridge, he spat, and ground out
    vindictively: "Damn the stone you'll ever get from me, you old bitch," and refused to give her a

Later in life, after battling the elements and sheep pests and bankers and debt and death, he is still able to say:  "The chief point," he said, "and the point towards which I have always directed my course, is independence.  And a man is always independent if the hut he lives in is his own.  Whether he lives or dies is his concern, and his only.  Otherwise, I maintain, one cannot be independent.  The desire for freedom runs in a man's blood, as anybody who has been servant to another understands."

That Bjartur is supposed to be archetypal is made obvious in the response to his statement:

"Yes," agreed the Fell King, "I for one understand.  The love of freedom and independence has always been a characteristic of the Icelandic people.  Iceland was originally colonized by freeborn chieftains who would rather live and die in isolation than serve a foreign king.  They were the same sort of men as Bjartur.  Bjartur and men like him are the free-born Icelanders on whom Icelandic independence and Icelandic nationality have always rested, rest now, and always will rest."

I'll not try to convince you any further.  Anyway, I can not hope to compete with Brad Leithauser's laudatory essay in the New York Review of Books, to which I would direct you.  Let me just add my voice to his and urge you to read this odd but powerful literary masterpiece.


Grade: (A+)


Halldor Laxness Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Halldor Laxness
    -Halldór Kiljan Laxness--April 23, 1902- February 8,1998
    -ESSAY: Laxness – Why You Should Still Read Him (Tanja Rasmussen, March 5, 2024, Iceland Review)
    -ESSAY: Reading the Selfie-Filled Memoir of Halldór Laxness: What's Not to Love About Descriptions of Food and Strong Opinions About Poets? (Gerður Kristný, May 7, 2019, Lit Hub)
-ESSAY: Bard, Misunderstood: The political fictions of Halldór Laxness (Charlie Lee, May 2022, The Baffler)
    -PROFILE: The Great Weaver From Reykjavik: Iceland's treasured independence became both matrix and subject for novelist Halldór Laxness. (Bruce Allen, April 2003, World and I)
    -ESSAY: HALLDÓR LAXNESS AND THE CIA: ...the Agency can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request... (Chay Lamoine, February 09, 2007, Reykjavik Grapevine)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: How Halldór Laxness Brings the Heroic to the Everyday: John Freeman on the Moral Power of Independent People (John Freeman, October 6, 2020, Lit Hub)
    -ESSAY: Bard, Misunderstood: The political fictions of Halldór Laxness (Charlie Lee, May 2022, The Baffler)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Rediscovery of Halldór Laxness: A long eclipse for Iceland’s greatest novelist has been followed by a continuing renaissance. (Salvatore Scibona, 7/04/22, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of ICELAND'S BELL By Halldor Laxness (BRAD LEITHAUSER, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Independent People by Halldor Kiljan Laxness (Jill Owens,
    -REVIEW: of Independent People (Anne Dilliard, NY Times Book Review
    -REVIEW: of Salka Valka by Halldor Laxness (The Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Salka Valka: The Faith of Halldór Laxness: Salka Valka, the first novel written after the Nobel Prize winner’s apparent loss of faith, betrays an ongoing religious aesthetic. (Jack Hanson, DECEMBER 28, 2022, The Nation)
    -REVIEW: of Salka Valka (Jane Smiley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness by Halldór Guðmundsson, translated by Philip Roughton. (Michael Hoffman, LRB)

Book-related and General Links:
-HALLDÓR KILJAN LAXNESS 1955 Nobel Laureate in Literature (Nobel Prize Internet Archive)
    -Halldór Kiljan Laxness (Icenews)
    -MEMORIAL ESSAY: End of an Epic  (BRAD LEITHAUSER, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: A Small Country's Great Book  (BRAD LEITHAUSER, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: Hard Times in Ultima Thule  (Annie Dillard, NY Times Book Review)