TKS, January 24, 2011 (view all comments by TKS)
My goodness this is a difficult read! It's not any one thing that makes it so; you can choose your favorite: remote characters, dense prose, bleak outlook, general unfamiliarity.
BECAUSE of all that, I was drawn in, figuring out what amounted to a sort of literary puzzle for me. And IN SPITE of all that, although I put the book down repeatedly, I couldn't bring myself to leave it lying there. A few hundred pages in, I realized I was enjoying the difficult slog immensely.
Side note: I read this before my first trip to Iceland, in an attempt to get a feel for the place and people. I wish I'd waited until my return. I intend to read the book again, and I'm willing to bet my thoughts will shift a bit.
Jarred, January 4, 2011 (view all comments by Jarred)
Halldor Laxness is truly a great writer and Independent People is his greatest work. Laxness compares to the great Russian novelists in the way that he can take a terribly flawed character and make the reader feel a connection with them. Independent People tells the story of Bjartur of Summerhouses who is a poor sheepherder who is determined to be an independent person in a changing Iceland, even at the cost of his and his family’s happiness. I will admit that the book did not seem like it would be terribly exciting when I started reading it, but the more I read the more I felt connected to Bjartur and how amazed I was at Laxness’ ability to tell a story and develop characters. Independent People is not an easy read, but the readers will be well rewarded with this lost classic.
gray-c, March 26, 2010 (view all comments by gray-c)
I picked up Independent People somewhat reluctantly (it was assigned by my book club), but within a very few pages found myself awakening to the recognition that this is simply one of the great books. It may be hard to imagine getting turned on by an Icelandic novel about sheep farmers, coffee, bad weather, and economic disaster, but Laxness makes us care, with his sardonic and affectionate perceptions of this small group of quirky, indomitable people. At the same time he rivets us, like Melville or Twain, with an absolutely unique and engaging voice. The political and ovine discussions among visiting sheepherders are simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, and Bjartur of Summerhouses is one of the most tragic, infuriating, and sympathetic characters ever invented. He’s a hard, implacable man, but a man who also has a deep love for Icelandic poetry and “a flower in his life” – a flower he eventually feels compelled to cut off. Around this excruciating struggle between a stubborn man and his loving but equally stubborn daughter Laxness brilliantly brings to life a cast of flawed but appealing rural characters and an intensely beautiful, pitiless natural landscape. The random attacks of sub-Arctic weather and disease (of both people and sheep) join with the inscrutable grinding of human markets to overwhelm the Icelandic crofters; and yet Laxness makes us believe that even amid the wreckage of dreams of independence and security, the precious pebbles of human love and loyalty stubbornly preserve their gleam.
agf, January 6, 2010 (view all comments by agf)
Laxness won the Nobel for literature in 1955 so it isn't just my opinion. The book is a translation from the Icelandic, but my goodness it is beautiful. A stark world to be sure, and lots to learn about sheep, but there are great characters and a wry sense of humor. A real joy to read.
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Vintage Books USA -
by Jill Owens,
"Independent People is epic and thorough, covering the sweep of generations as well as detailed hours ticking by during sleepless nights, ambling walks around the plains. It is a novel of contrasts, especially in its nuanced exploration of character: isolation and family; socialist ideals and the guilt of betrayal; symbol and dream against the brutal truth of nature."
by Jill Owens
by E. Annie Proulx,
"Reader, rejoice! At last this funny, clever, sardonic and brilliant book is back in print. Independent People is one of my Top Ten Favorite Books of All Time."
by Publishers Weekly,
"[A] huge, skaldic treat filled with satire, humor, pathos, cold weather and sheep."
by Jane Smiley,
"I love this book. It is an unfolding wonder of artistic vision and skill — one of the best books of the twentieth century. I can't imagine any greater delight than coming to Independent People for the first time."
This magnificent novel—which secured for its author the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature—is at least available to contemporary American readers. Although it is set in the early twentieth century, it recalls both Iceland's medieval epics and such classics as Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter. And if Bjartur of Summerhouses, the book's protagonist, is an ordinary sheep farmer, his flinty determination to achieve independence is genuinely heroic and, at the same time, terrifying and bleakly comic.
Having spent eighteen years in humiliating servitude, Bjartur wants nothing more than to raise his flocks unbeholden to any man. But Bjartur's spirited daughter wants to live unbeholden to him. What ensues is a battle of wills that is by turns harsh and touching, elemental in its emotional intensity and intimate in its homely detail. Vast in scope and deeply rewarding, Independent People is a masterpiece.
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