Saturday, April 15, 2017

Halldór Laxness' "Independent People": Book Review


Regarded as the best of his many novels in English, this is the most widely known and the one which made his reputation and secured for him the 1955 Nobel Prize. Halldór (I follow Icelandic convention as no surnames for most people are used) Laxness' prickly personality seems to be channeled through one of the least likable protagonists ever. One who relegates women and cattle to the same herd, easily or not corralled, Bjartur of Summerhouses holds out two decades to uphold what he insists is his right to the land, the women, his herd.

The story takes its time to unfold. Halldór due to his own intense involvement in Icelandic and Marxist politics places increasingly detailed accounts as the plot progresses. It's clear that while Halldór and his chief character have a lot in common, that perhaps, subtly, the Stalinist sympathizing creator (this was written in the mid-1930s) may harbor doubts despite his determined sloganeering in the noble workers cause, as near the end of the novel they prepare to take up pickaxes against the capitalists in the small town near the farm. But this is a rural tale.

For most of the action, it's away from any habitation larger than a croft or the one gentry's home. As with the island's sagas, bits of previous deeds by the sung heroes sprinkles across the memories and inward voices guiding, or distracting, the man who sets himself against all odds. This complicates itself when his daughter, Asta Sollilja, "the beautiful Sun-Lily" tries to stand up for herself too. Their relationship, as the cliche goes, is complicated. Sexual energy is largely sublimated or thwarted, but as with many traditional storylines, chances are that an encounter will result in a pregnancy appear the norm. This fatalism, as many die in childbirth and many young succumb to the harsh conditions, dampens the mood, and this is a sobering epic. It focuses more on the shadows and the stones than the sunlight and the stars, so to say, and as one traveling itinerant who comes to stay a while at Summerhouses enchants Bjartur's offspring if not himself with snippets of scenes from California and the world beyond, the Icelandic preference keeps one's eyes cast down, intent on hunkering in. 

Such contrasts show the isolation of Asta. When she hears bible tales, she cannot comprehend their messages. A package of books elucidating to her and her siblings the wonders of the greater globe fascinate her, as about the only glimpse of delight. It's that or emigration to America for those who cannot cope with the extremes. Halldór presents his humans as set upon, whether by a co-operative enterprise, by the wealth brought in as Iceland capitalizes on its separation from WWI, and by the monopoly that prevails in the local county, and then under the reign of the Prime Minister, as the nation prospers and its humbler residents endure inequality. 

For all the meanderings of this book, it's memorable for J.A. Thompson's translation. Somehow he captures the rhythms from the difficult native language, into a measured, often slightly dated-on-purpose, quasi-liturgical tone. This enhances the shifting registers Halldór chooses to move about in. As with his other works, so here: the style is capricious, encompassing much of beauty and of pain, and a restless set of men and women, beset by their mental limits, their spiritual capitulation, their stunted intellects, and their political and economic servitude. 

I read this in the 1946 hardcover, but nowadays it opens the series from Viking of his major fiction, brought back into print near the end of a century when Halldór almost spanned its entirety. I did not see the introduction by Jane Smiley, but readers apparently warn the newcomer away from its spoilers. Best to start fresh, and trek on. 
(Amazon US 4/14/17) 

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