I'm having one of those skittish times, when my reading brain won't settle. I sit down to write about Independent People by Halldor Laxness, which I want to praise to the skies, and ten minutes later I'm up and at the bookshelf, unsettled. You'd think I'd never strung two thoughts about a book together before. So I pick up Daniel Deronda, which I'm enjoying, and twenty pages later I'm stymied. I get up and make coffee, then open David Starkey's history of England's monarchy Crown and Country but I can't even get through one of its bite-sized chapters before I'm disturbed by something or other. The result is lots of hours spent thinking about reading, and very little actually read.
I think the blame must be laid on Independent People itself. It has confounded me. Does this ever happen to you? You read a book that has a strong, personal impact, stylistically or morally or both, and it takes root and won't be displaced by what comes after it. I've always had some difficulty beginning a new book on the same day that I finish another, but 24 hours is usually enough of a hiatus to clear the way; it's only now and then that a novel lodges in my reading brain and downright refuses to make room for weeks afterwards. It's not that its presence is malevolent (although Independent People is a fairly malevolent sort of novel) but that it is so strong and willfull, that it overpowers anything put in its place. The majority of my reading experiences are transient; books come and go. The ones that stick like this are a bit unnerving.
Independent People is a book about ghosts, sheep and love; and also the wearying of a proud and unyielding man by harsh realities and his own mistakes. It's author, Halldor Laxness, was just 22 when it was published in his native Iceland in 1934, which is astonishing given the book's thematic maturity, and its insight into the experiences of age. The English translation I read by J.A. Thompson first appeared in 1945; it was Thompson's first and last work of literary translation, and everyone seems to agree that it is a triumph.
Bjatur, our thoroughly flawed hero, is a sheep farmer. His life altogther has been a succession of long white, howling winters and short, bright summers, spent almost entirely in the company of his dog and flock. The first eighteen years of his adult life have passed in the service of the largest landowner in his corner of northern Iceland, the bailiff, Jon of Rauthesmyri. It is a service that he has resented and chaffed against, in the determination that one day he will be an independent man, with his own sheep and his own land. As Independent People opens Bjartur is about to embark on this long awaited and highly valued independence: he has taken a mortgage on a remote valley croft, Winterhouses, and has married Rosa, the plump daughter of another crofter. He envisions their life as one of utter independence, without luxury or comfort or strong feeling (except, perhaps, pride), and without any debt owing to others. They will raise sheep, and children, and, perhaps, build a house. In what appears to be an uncharacteristic fit of sentimental optimism Bjartur renames the croft Summerhouses.
But, wait a moment. That isn't actually how the novel begins; I'm ahead of myself. Actually it begins with a ghost story, like this: Gunnvor, the witch who sold her soul to the devil Kollumkilli, and lured men to their deaths to suck their marrow, casts a shadow over all of Summerhouses. Bjartur's croft is infamously haunted by the spirit of this murderess, Gunnvor, whose stone cairn marks the entrance onto his land. Over the past seven hundred years men and women have endeavoured to build a life there, and been driven out, apparently by her malign spirit. Which is no doubt why Bjartur can afford to buy it in the first place. The land on which he intends to graze his flock is generally believed to have been a battleground in a monumental struggle between good and evil, in which evil has repeatedly won out.
Only Bjartur himself is unperturbed by this. His very first act on taking possession of his property is to piss to each of the four winds, and counter-curse the cursing spirits. He is determined never to stand beholden to anything, especially not other men's superstitions. He won't allow Rosa to stand beholden either. When they arrive at Summerhouses after their wedding she wants to place a stone on Gunnvor's cairn, as an offering to placate her rage. To her horror, Bjartur refuses to allow it. It opens a rift between them that never heals. As the months pass, Rosa becomes silent and unresponsive. Often left alone while her husband hunts for sheep in the mountains, she grows paranoid. Loneliness and terror eat away at her. She and Bjartur barely speak; he does not acknowledge the fact that she is pregnant, even when it becomes clear that she is too far gone for him to be the father. Now and then he shows some small tenderness, the most that his unbending pride will allow: leaving her a lamb or his bitch for company, or milking one of the old ewes.
Bjartur leaves his dog behind with Rosa on the stormy day that he sets off to hunt down a lost lamb (a lamb which she has, in fact, killed and eaten without his knowledge). She protests that she is too near her confinement to be left alone; he responds that no child of his is due to be born for another two months at least. When he returns, after a gruelling three day odyssey on the mountain which he survives only through dint of will, he finds his wife dead. She has given birth and then bled to death alone. The weak girl-child is almost dead, only kept alive in the sub-zero temperatures by the warmth of his mangy dog lying over her. Whether out of guilt, or out of some deep-buried goodness, or from a perverse pride in its survival, Bjartur accepts the child as his own and humbles himself before his former master to buy her some milk and a future. He calls her Asta Sollilja, a compound name that brings together the Icelandic words for star, flower and sun. He eulogises her mother as a saint of independence - so independent that she did not even seek help in her time of greatest need.
This could be the whole novel, but is in fact only the first (and most powerful) third. The remainder charts Bjartur's fortunes over the next 25 years at Summerhouses, with which comes a second marriage and three sons. The power of the book, however, remains steadfastly focused on the implications of his first year on the croft, and on his moving, unsettling love for 'Soli', the flower of his life. He shares with her the only other great loves of his narrow life: the poetry of the Sagas, which he knows by heart, and his sheep. Perhaps he sees in her, from the moment of her unlikely birth, the mirror of his own chilling stubborness and extraordinary will to independence.
My memories of the book are dominated by Laxness' dogged journey into the heart of Bjartur's difficult, stunted soul. He is, in some way, the archetype of a hero: handsome, rugged, honourable. And of a villain: implacable, cruel and heartless. He is unpleasant, and only just sympathetic. He is the kind of character that many novels aim at, and fail to hit on. Laxness success, I think, is that Bjartur is not simply flawed, and is not changed by the hardships and tragedies of his valley life. He is well adapted for his environment and his nature is perfect for the life he must lead; and when he does act against his nature, the changes bring nothing but greater despair. There is no sentimental moral driving the book. That said, its theme throughout is compassion. Laxness is fascinated by the minute gestures that bring compassion and love into the world. The picture he paints is one of such terrifying hardship, that the tiniest gesture of tenderness is amplified into something of enormous beauty and importance. So when Bjartur rests his dirty great hand on Asta Sollilja's head in passing it resonates for pages and pages; such an insignificant thing to restore the reader's belief in humanity.
Reading back over what I have just written, I realise that I'm making Independent People sound like a very lean and focused novel. In some ways this is true, certainly of the first 300 pages. It isn't spare by any means - the prose is expansive, descriptive and repetitive in a way that reflects its inspiration in the narratives of the Sagas - but it has underlying muscle. These early sections of the book are like Bjartur himself. The beauty of the natural environment is marvellously invoked:
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.
The final third of the book, however, is very different. Whereas the first and second part are concerned with the isolated fastness of Summerhouses, with only the occasional and brief foray into the outside world, the third part is concerned with the encroachments of the modern world. Politics, economics and world trade enter to confound Bjartur's simple vision of life in the valley. The narrative expands and slackens to admit them; the emotional intensity is reduced, at least until the final pages. It doesn't spoil the overall effect of the book - thematically it is essential, because it reinforces Bjartur's growing alienation and displacement - but it did detract a little from my pleasure. The first two-thirds of the book are a literary high, and I didn't want to come down.
One last final thing: I am a little vexed at the jacket quotes Harvill Secker have chosen to champion the book. It is sold as though it were a comedy; and even compared to Wodehouse. This is downright puzzling to me. Don't get me wrong; Laxness never misses the opportunity to have a sardonic dig at sheep farming, and sometimes he attacks his characters foibles with an acute sarcasm. But I would stop short of calling it a 'clever, witty, sardonic and funny book' (the front cover quote chosen from Annie Proulx). The humour is a byproduct of something hard and unyielding; and the dominant note is almost unremittantly dark.
One day I will read it again, when I am feeling stong.