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on 25 September 2017
Maybe it's just a slow starter and perseverance would be rewarded. However, after 80 pages, I'm not at all gripped and have decided this book is not for me.
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on 24 September 2017
Only part way through
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on 11 January 2015
I'm afraid that I've put this aside for now, a third of the way in, as it's too relentlessly grim and I have no sympathy for the main character.
I will pick it up again at some point to give the book a fair hearing.
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on 1 November 1998
Every year, I try to read at least one classic work of fiction, whether I need to or not. So far in 1998, my choice has been Halldor Laxness' 1946 Nobel Prize winning novel Independent People. This is a book which I had never heard of until it was re-issued in English (the original is in Icelandic) in 1997. Laxness, who subtitles his work "An Epic," tells the tale of sheep-farmer Bjartur of Summerhouses, and his life-long, monomaniacal struggle for financial independence. In the process, he loses two wives, a son leaves him, and his dearest child -- Asta Sollilja ("Beloved Sun-Lily") -- is disowned. Only by losing all of his wealth does he find what he truly values. While styled "an epic," this is also a whimsical and lyrical work. Bjatur, in addition to farming, is a bit of a poet, and the most remarkable extended scene is Bjatur's desperate struggle with bitter cold in the wilderness while trying to find a strayed sheep. In the middle of the night, to keep his senses and way, he returns to his muse:
'Seldom had he recited so much poetry in any one night; he had recited all his father's poetry, all the ballads he could remember, all his own palindromes backwards and forwards in forty-eight different ways, whole processions of dirty poems, one hymn he learned from his mother, and all the lampoons that had been known in the Fourthing from time immemorial about baliffs, merchants, and sheriffs.'
Ultimately, the poetry keeps him alive as he finally crawls his way on all fours to safety. I found myself reading this book in short doses so that I could savor the language, and so it would not end too soon. If someone was with me in the room as I read, I found myself inflicting upon them sentences or whole paragraphs, just to savor the felicity of language and expression. I concur with Jane Smiley's cover blurb: "I can't imagine any greater delight than coming to Independent People for the first time." (Reading this novel and Smiley's remarks, it is clear where she derived many of the themes, descriptions, and grandeur in her 1988 novel Greenlanders. Smiley's work, however, is a much darker book).
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on 26 October 2016
This is a great book. Grim reading, but Laxness's writing just carries one along. In particular, he has a telling way of ending a chapter that leaves the atmosphere resonating in one's mind.

However this edition by Vintage is very poor. Printed on the cheapest paper available, the kind of thing one expects from Wordsworth Classics, this is quite hard on the eye - I wonder whether it might be a facsimile (photocopy) of an earlier printing. This kind of edition is an advert for Kindle. Shame on you, Vintage.

If you like this book, check out the film Rams, which has similarities but is more obviously comic.
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on 8 April 2013
In 2008 I visited Iceland. I never have the habit of reading up about the holiday destination before the trip; I always learn about a place by experiencing it and find the surprise element part of the fun. My trip to Iceland has left me with an indelible memory because of its glaciers, its lava fields / deserts, its numerous geysers which provide their geothermal power, its fields and free roaming sheep but above all, its people and its sagas. It was like a world of its own, of which I had no understanding whatsoever. For example, it is a people who will go and watch a volcanic eruption rather than running away from it! I was fascinated, so I went into a bookstore originally to find their sagas but I also found Independent People. I was drawn to it because it secured its author a Nobel Prize in literature in 1955. I didn't remember reading any literature of that calibre, so I was curious and bought the book. I am not disappointed as this book not only entertains, but also provokes us to think more deeply about norms that we don't challenge anymore. In this sense, it is engaging. My appreciation, I believe, would have been even deeper had I been better acquainted with Icelandic culture and history.

The story is about Bjartur of Summerhouse, who set securing his independence as his life goal. He was determined to the point of obstinacy. But his notion of independence was nothing like a child growing up and growing in independence from his parents. Rather, he sought to owe no debt to anyone or God. The means to this life goal of Bjartur was his sheep which were elevated to a status above human in many's subconscious mind and of an idol in effect, prompting the minister of the parish to reflect in a sermon that "many people had neglected their Creator while they were chasing stupid sheep over the mountains... sheep had been a greater curse to the Icelandic nation than foxes and tapeworms put together... People run after sheep all their lives long and never find them. Such is the lesson we may learn from the parting that oppresses us today." (p.131) In Bjartur's mind, independence and freedom went hand in hand: if you are independent, you are free to be your own master. This was his definition of bliss, of a lifetime fulfilment, if he could achieve that: "The man who lives on his own land is an independent man. He is his own master... No, it is freedom that we are all after.. He who pays his way is a king. He who keeps his sheep alive through the winter lives in a palace." (p.13)

He set out to work very hard towards his life goal, to pay off his mortgage on the land, involving his expanding household. The author was skilful in his vivid description of man's struggle to conquer all elements that the natural world threw at us. As most of us do not work on the land anymore, we sometimes lose the sense of how tough it could have been just to survive. Working sixteen hours a day was their norm; even the children had to be always doing "something"; leisure was something that they never knew; the same preserved food was served everyday; even so, it was a blessing to have something to eat as eating one meal a day during the springtime was not atypical; a bad and wet summer stored up trouble for the winter; a deep and long winter prolonged the problem; starvation was never a faraway possibility. Death was always in the household, of animals, of women or of infant, who lost their battle against the tyranny of life. Physical death was not the most dreadful but the death of the soul, when the sparks in the eyes and enthusiasm towards life became no more. There were a couple of graphic animal slaughter scenes, which expounded in extravagance on the human emotions towards the act. For a city dweller, it was squeamish to read but then this is what eating meat involves, and this book throws this reality back at my face.

He did eventually manage to stand on his own land, and owed no debt to anyone. But then unexplained disasters struck and wiped out most of his sheep. In situation like this, it was natural to turn to the supernatural force as an explanation, whether it was God or others. The community was quick to their opinion as how these things happened but Bjartur of Summerhouse listened to none of them for he was an independent man. Temporarily he left the farm to work as a hired labourer. He managed to rebuild his fortune and became rather "rich", but nothing could compare with the windfall bestowed upon Iceland by WWI when prices for their produce rocketed, passing money into their hands in quantity that they had never dreamt of! The war was stupid, in their eyes, but they did not care as it brought them prosperity. They were lost in their new found wealth. Savings had to find a bank, which then had to lend. Even Bjartur of Summerhouse was caught up in debt as he was arm-twisted into building a mansion to replace his humble hut. It was a building project that did not turn out right, and it kept sucking in more money to make it habitable. The period of prosperity passed and the prices of his produce dropped. Unable to service his debt, his farm was auctioned off, and he was left with nothing but the determination to rebuild his independence all over again. Reflecting on his loss, he came to conclude that "human life isn't long enough for a peasant to become a man of means"; he was doing fine when he did not risk building a house for the people on his croft; he had only built for his sheep; thus "it is safest for one's future welfare to do as little as possible for the people". (p. 456) It was poignant and eerily relevant to our present life too. As we are wrestling with debt, the story of Bjartur shows just how easily everything you have been working for all your life can be wiped out in a flash. And isn't debt the developed world's headache today? Iceland is still living in the consequences of their banking crisis five years on.

This book also highlights that the struggle of man is not just against the natural environment but also the socio-economic environment. Throughout the book, there were debates of how the country developed and of policies; private enterprises were described as "a movement"; and cooperatives were set up against the "merchants". One could be caught up in the socio-economic tides as much as the natural environment, and lost one's footing. At times, we are all dumbfounded. Before Bjartur knew it, his estate was wiped out! His friends lost out in the previous round. Perhaps continuously betting on the winning side is too much to be expected from life?

The story is also enriched by Bjartur's tender relationships with the women in his life - his two wives, his daughter (who was not his own flesh), the mother of his second wife, and very briefly his housekeeper towards the end of the book. He had three boys too, but he "lost" them all albeit in different ways.

All in all, this book has a lot to offer at different levels. First, it asks big questions. First and foremost, in what sense are we or can we be independent? Bjartur of Summerhouse scorned welfare or community relief and insisted he paid for the cow that the community insisted on him so that his family could have diary in their diet. His wife loved the cow and the family looked a lot healthier since they had the cow. He was described as "a thoroughly upright, trustworthy person, one who could never bear the thought of being in anyone's debt. Such people are not found on the parish. It is such people that are the core of national life." I think in today's western society, the pendulum has swung too much to the other side and state welfare no longer carries a stigma but seen as a right. Perhaps a bit of Bjartur's pride in one's independence may do the society much good today.

Second, it asks about God: Does He exist? Do we need Him? Is He a tyrant? "Then why did God allow sin to enter the world?" (p.325) Knowing Christian ethics without the help of the Holy Spirit is clearly tormenting to the soul, as exclaimed by Bjartur's daughter in utter desperation, "there are limits to the amount of Christian ethics that human nature can bear". (p.338) This is true, and this is why Jesus has left us His Counsellor. Is it really possible to find independence in Bjartur's sense? Is being independent of God really freedom? What is freedom?

Third, I believe the author most likely was sceptical about any virtues of capitalism, as his words were stern on the subject. The "merchants" were pictured as oppressors who were against the interests of the peasants. Cooperatives were the solution which cut out the middlemen. These were the two opposing views in the local politics for most of the book. At the end, after the prosperity of WWI had passed, workers hired for public work once again found it the wages did not make ends meet and organised strike. In a striker's angry words, "What different will one loaf more or less make to the capitalism the murdered ten million men for fun in the war? Capitalism punishes people much more for not stealing than for stealing - so why shouldn't a fellow steal?....And the only thief there is is capitalism." (p. 472) Here is a debate that will never die! And on the government's intervention in the economy, the author came up with a rather surprising observation that all the grants and subsidies only really benefited the already rich. "The fact is that it is utterly pointless to make anyone a generous offer unless he is a rich man; rich men are the only people who can accept a generous offer. To be poor is simply the peculiar human condition of not being able to take advantage of a generous offer. The essence of being a poor peasant is the inability to avail oneself of the gifts that politicians offer or promise and to be left at the mercy of ideals that only make the rich richer and the poor poorer." (p. 457)An interesting thought. I wonder how far this holds true.

Besides the big questions, the book is witty and makes insightful observations about human nature. It often makes me smile - I guess this means I enjoy it. There are many but I will only share one with you (because I am a woman and a wife!):

"I do not doubt that many a woman will think it an impossible task to make her home such that wherever one looks is one radiant smile; to invest everything indoors with such tranquility and bliss that all hate and bitterness disappear, and everyone feels equal to the greatest of obstacles; to make everyone feel that he is free and pure and courageous, and to make him conscious of his affinity with God and Love. All this is certainly difficult and perplexing. But that is your part, housewife; the part that God Himself has given you to play. And you have the strength for it, though you may not know it yourself. You are capable of it, if only you do not lose faith in the love within you. Not only the woman whose good fortune it is to tread the sunnier paths of life and who has benefited from a good education, but also she who has had little schooling and who lives on the shadowy side of life in a small house with little to choose from; in her too it dwells, this power, for you are all of the same high birth: God's children all of you. The power of a woman whose home glows with the radiance of earthly bliss is such as to make the low-roofed cottage and the high-timbered mansion equal. Equally bright. Equally warm..." (p.26)

This power of women, beautifully worded by the author, I believe has been lost in today's society, as we are encouraged to make ourselves noteworthy and equal with man in the workplace instead.

And finally, though Bjartur of Summerhouse might have been stubborn, this was his laudable spirit: "It had never been a habit of his to lament over anything he lost; never nurture your grief, rather content yourself with what you have left, when you have lost what you had; and fortunately he had had the sense to hang on to the sheep as long as possible." (p.459)
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Utterly compelling work, set in the bleak Icelandic farming world of 1900-20.
Bjartur has just acquired his own piece of land after 18 years in thrall to the local bailiff. As he comes home to his humble croft - built on traditionally cursed ground - with his new bride, who is pregnant by another, he is obsessed by his new-found freedom. The pleasure of treating his former boss in a scornful manner; the need to increase his herd of sheep at the expense of all else, make him a seemingly hard and curmudgeonly character. And yet moments of intense emotion pepper the work: Bjartur's relationship with his wife's daughter; the occasional meetings of his wife and her father. One of the most moving parts of the book concerns the family cow...
Interspersed with this are the meetings of the uneducated country folk, reminiscent of the unintentionally comic characters in Thomas Hardy's work. Whether they're discussing worms in their sheep, the length of women's skirts or asserting that 'Easter falls on a Saturday this year', the reader feels he's present at their discussions.
Such a beautiful book, I think it'll be my number one read for this year.
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on 27 October 1997
Independent People is the Nobel Prize (for Literature 1955) winning book written by the "undisputed master of contemporary Icelandic fiction". It is a wonderfully written book, although by no means a happy book. The plot is at times dark, but casts an intriguing look at human nature, relationships and a way of life. Laxness covers a multitude of issues and themes that are relevant even today and it is amazing to think that this book was written in the late 1940s. The story is the life of Bjartur an independent person, his family and his farm, Summerhouses. He is a farmer, raising sheep, facing similar difficulties and harsh realities as farmers face today, but his connection with the animals sets him apart from contemporary farmers. Bjartur's complex relationships with his family and the landed members of society and his straightforward relationship with his animals allows for a twisting plot and surprising turn of events. Although the book was of particular interest to me, having traversed Iceland on horseback recently (the horse that Bjartur owned has the same name as one of the horses I rode), but it does not preclude people who have never been to Iceland to feeling the same way as I did. Laxness somehow manages to engulf the reader, making one want to read on and on. The reader is hooked by him creating an interest, as well as concern or care towards Bjartur and his family. Most of the story is seen through the eyes of Bjartur, but by changing briefly to the point of view of the daughter and son, gives the story a smooth rounded feeling. This allows the reader to understand the complex feelings of the children, as well as conceptualize how they see and feel about their surroundings and life. The writing is fluid and the story and events unfold easily. I would categorize the writing style to be minimalist in areas, as Laxness leaves things unsaid or just uses one word to describe an incident. Allowing the reader to get involved by using their imagination. Because of this strong writing style, it is hard to believe that the book is a translation. It makes one wonder what the Icelandic version must be like. The only disappointment of the book is the introduction by Brad Leithauser. It is frustrating to see that he was unable to write an introduction to the book without divulging some of the key aspects of the plot. Not only is that unnecessary, but very unprofessional. I, therefore, recommend reading the introduction after finishing the book.
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VINE VOICEon 1 December 2002
This is probably my favorite book of all time, even though I have only managed to read it once. I was assigned to read this book for an Icelandic literature course when I was living in Reykjavik for the year. Every time I went to read it, I had to brace myself to withstand the onslaught, but when you are reading it, time passes quickly, and you can lose yourself in the words. It is only when you put the book down and have to think about what you have just read that the full scope of Bjartur of Summerhouses' life hits you. The detail that is contained in these pages makes for a depressing catalogue of deprivation.
The story contained here revolves around sheep, and the determination of Bjartur to accept no help, aid or loan. Bjartur manages to raise the money necessary to buy a piece of land and a flock of sheep. No-one has wanted this land, because it once belonged to a witch, and she still curses the land. (This may be difficult for the average person to accept who has not been in Iceland, but a more desolate and wind-scoured landlacape does not exist. When you are there, you can easily accept trolls, elf-mounds and witches.) Bjartur buys his land and marries a girl who has worked at the nearby prosperous farm, where he worked as well. She is already pregnant with the son of that family's child, and this starts the long and depressing marriage of Bjartur.
As the book continues, you can feel the great difference in their lives that a single cow makes, the prosperity that comes with world war one, and the return of poverty after the war. The rest of the world seems to move on, without touching the cold interior of Iceland.
I love this book, but warn anyone who goes to pick it up, that this book demands involvement, and it is NOT a piece of light reading.
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on 29 August 2017
Wonderful book, reminds me of a Thomas Hardy novel. It is rather grim, but then, the life of the Icelandic peasants was grim! A superb cast of unforgettable characters1
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