Group Read, June 2015: Independent People

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Group Read, June 2015: Independent People

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1puckers
jun 1, 2015, 3:57pm

Our June Group Read is Independent People by Halldor Laxness. Please join the read and post your comments here.

2arukiyomi
jun 1, 2015, 11:54pm

yay... a book I actually have on my shelf and have been wanting to read... I'm on it!

3annamorphic
jun 2, 2015, 12:37am

I'm now reading the introduction. For those of you who hate spoilers, don't read it, definitely spoilerville. I like that, myself. I'm one of those dreadful people who often reads the end of the book early on just to prevent myself from rushing too fast through the rest.

4japaul22
jun 2, 2015, 6:10am

I skipped the introduction! I'm about 80 pages in. I'm glad I've read some other Scandinavian (is Iceland considered Scandinavia?) books so I was prepared for the pacing and tone.

5arukiyomi
Redigeret: jun 4, 2015, 4:47am

okay... anyone know what a "bigging" is as in "this lonely bigging in its moorland valley" which is on p12 in my edition (Vintage)?

... or "ling"?
... or "norn"?

6arukiyomi
Redigeret: jun 4, 2015, 4:48am

"sometimes the south wind blows the spray up over the brink again, so that the waterfall flows backwards" - saw this so many times in Iceland and reading it made me feel a real connection not only to the place but the timeless natural history of this amazing nation.

How many others here have been to Iceland?

7puckers
jun 4, 2015, 6:13pm

>6 arukiyomi: never been to Iceland so the pictures in my head are of Scotland which I do know well - bogs and cairns and sheep were all familiar parts of my childhood.

"Ling" was a common word for heather in Scotland, but I've never heard of "bigging" before even though my dictionary tells me it is used in Scotland for "building".

Just started the book and finding it a little slow to get in to, but I'm hopeful of getting slowly immersed.

8heatherhoarder
jun 5, 2015, 9:06pm

I will be joining you once my copy arrives.

9amerynth
jun 5, 2015, 9:50pm

I'm planning to join in too, though I have a couple of chunky books standing in my way, so it might not be until the end of the month.

10arukiyomi
jun 6, 2015, 12:49am

I guessed "ling" as a kind of moss so thanks for that puckers. There's quite a lot of vocab that has eluded me but it's not essential to the plot thankfully.

One chapter totally caught me by surprise despite the fairly slow pace up to that point, so hang in there! If you're not used to Scandinavian literature and the pace it (and life!) moves at then you might just have to let yourself go with the flow.

11japaul22
jun 6, 2015, 6:36am

>10 arukiyomi: Was it the chapter entitled "Search" in book 1 of part 1? I was kind of plodding along up until there and then I became completely engaged and since then I've been absolutely loving the book. I'm about to start the second half.

Besides the great setting and interesting happenings, I'm loving the small insights into humanity that Laxness works in (without bashing you over the head with philosophical thoughts).

12arukiyomi
jun 6, 2015, 1:39pm

that's the one japaul22... as if the chapter itself wasn't enough, what an ending to it!

I'm just coming up to halfway and Volume 2. I do feel that the philosophy is something we're constantly reminded of however... the way it's shoehorned into the story and the dialogue doesn't seem too subtle in places which is a real contrast with the rest of the prose I feel.

13puckers
jun 10, 2015, 5:13am

As I hoped, I did get sucked in to this story and what a marvellous story it is! The novel is almost entirely based in one remote croft farm, yet the 540 pages don't feel too long - wonderfully drawn characters, an atmospheric location, humdrum and dramatic events, dreams and poetry among the poverty, mythology and superstition, and the bigger picture impact of national and international events make this a novel you are sorry to see finish. 4/5

14annamorphic
jun 10, 2015, 11:13am

#10, the chapter that completely caught me was... I don't remember the title but let's say, a woman and a sheep. This scene, and its consequences, were almost unbearable. Then Book 2 has a whole new flavor. The first chapter is fabulous, with the boy who imagines the cooking utensils as talkative social beings. And there are many moments that are sweet and beautiful in this section, although I can also feel the weight pulling down on us, or on the characters.

15arukiyomi
jun 10, 2015, 11:40pm

I had no idea of the impact of WW1 on Iceland so, as I pull into the last 100 pages, this book has not only been masterfully composed and dreamlike in its narration but also very informative.

annamorphic, I also thought that first chapter was beautiful... a really creative way to segue into the next section. What until you see what happens to these siblings!

16japaul22
jun 11, 2015, 7:27pm

>14 annamorphic: I also loved Nonni and his imagination. His relationship with the grandmother was nice in such a bleak book.

>15 arukiyomi: I also didn't know about the war's impact. I actually wasn't sure of the time period at all until WWI came up. That really grounded the book for me and gave it some wider context.

17japaul22
jun 11, 2015, 7:49pm

I've finished the book and absolutely loved it. It worked much better for me personally than Growth of the Soil or Saga of Gosta Berling, two books that I connected it with in my mind and that I've read recently. I liked both of those books a lot, but this was a better balance of plot, character development, and setting for me.

The following topics may contain spoilers for those who haven't finished, so feel free to skip this part until you've finished, but I have a few things I'd like to write down while I'm really thinking about them.

1) I found the advent of cooperative societies to be interesting in contrast to the severe independence of Bjartur. I kept wondering how this philosophy was going to fit with the Icelandic independence that Bjartur represented, admittedly to an excess. I guess the work ethic of the people is what would make a cooperative system work in the first place? Also, I suppose the harsh elements made this a necessity. I'd be happy to hear any insight into this topic. What sort of political system does Iceland have today? I also noticed in a quick google search that Iceland became independent in 1918, so I can imagine this topic had great significance for the people of Iceland when this was published in the 1930s.

2) I loved the relationship between Bjartur and Asta. I thought it was interesting that they were both stubbornly independent in their own way but ended up really needing each other and loving each other. I thought that it was so humanizing for Bjartur's character for him to love the child best that was not even his.

3) What did you think of the supernatural element, especially in terms of the sheep that kept getting killed and maimed? Did you need to have an alternative "real" explanation in mind, or did it fit with the story and setting to just believe that there was a devil or spirit that interfered in their lives?

4) I was also interested in the mixing of folklore and superstition vs. Christianity. I was surprised when I figured out the time period because of just how much misinformation there still was about Christianity. That alone made me feel like I was reading Kristin Lavransdatter or The Long Ships, i.e. the beginning felt like it had almost a medieval setting.

18annamorphic
jun 12, 2015, 12:33pm

#17, it feels worse than medieval. It's as if Bjartur is deliberately keeping his family in the darkest of dark ages. When the camper asks Asta and Nonni what games they play, they say they don't know any games. They only work. They've never eaten cooked meat because father won't get a churn to make butter from the milk, so they've been boiling the game birds the camper brings them. The battle over whether or not they can have a cow -- a cow, given as a gift, that allows the children to have milk -- is insanely cruel, as is the advent of the calf. The first wife with the sheep, and the second with the cow, are illustrations of a physical and emotional deprivation that is almost unbearable.

This book is written like poetry in many places, just amazingly beautiful, and yet the story is often very hard for me to read.

19arukiyomi
jun 12, 2015, 1:41pm

oh it's going to get crueller!

Just finished this off this evening. For me, Bjartur is, unfortunately, a flawed character. He goes on and on about being independent and makes things incredibly hard for those around him as well as for himself in his pursuit of this ideal. However, later on in the novel, he does something which makes him completely dependent on others and there seems no real rationale for him to do so.

For fear of spoilers, I'll not say what it is at the moment, but it seemed weird to me that Laxness would allow such a wonderfully crafted character to do such a thing.

Growth of the Soil remains for me the best Scandinavian novel I've read, followed by Kristin Lavransdatter. Bjartur's story will be on the podium at third. A full review on my website soon in good time.

20annamorphic
jun 12, 2015, 4:31pm

#19, oh great!
If there is a Scandinavian novel that's actually better than Kristin Lavransdatter, the book that's constantly on my mind as a comparison as I read Independent People, then I really have to read it before I die. Maybe in a few months, after I've recovered from the current read, I will nominate Growth of the Soil for a group read.

21japaul22
jun 12, 2015, 5:06pm

Kristin Lavransdatter is by far my favorite of the books mentioned. I loved Independent People in a different way and can't really compare the two. To me they have a very different tone.

22puckers
jun 12, 2015, 6:27pm

SPOILER ALERT

>17 japaul22: I assumed it was Helgi who was killing the sheep given his involvement in the sightings of the monster in the barn and his disappearance as soon as the legal investigation was announced. Bjartur's subsequent indifference to his fate implied he had the same suspicions.

>19 arukiyomi: I agree this seemed out of character. We're all entitled to one or two brainstorms in our life, but Bjartur's stubbornness to this point made any change of attitude unlikely. Maybe it was his reaction to all that he'd lost for no gain to that point, but there didn't seem to be any indication of a change of heart until the closing pages.

23annamorphic
jun 19, 2015, 1:45pm

Finally finished this one. The last 100 pages were a really hard slog for me, far less good than the rest. Just too much about the economics and politics of Iceland, and too little about human beings -- and what there was, was implausible. Some of those things people above have commented on, but I also wondered -- at the end, why does he leave his son with the protestors? And what about that weird chapter "America" with the boy and the girl and the horse --dreamlike, bizarre, not plausible.
I thought this was a flawed book, with real greatness at its heart but a slow beginning and a very weak ending.

25ELiz_M
jun 27, 2015, 8:19am

>5 arukiyomi: It is probably too late now, but Norn (capitalized) is one of "three female divine beings who have more influence over the course of destiny than any other beings in the cosmos". (I know them from the beginning of Gotterdammerung, the fourth opera in Wagner's ring cycle. They are weaving the destinies of the world, trying to hold the strands together, but they keep breaking.) According to this website, "there are countless norns with a lowercase 'n' – norn is an Old Norse word for a generic practitioner of magic."

26ELiz_M
jun 27, 2015, 8:47am

>17 japaul22: Excellent questions! After Asta's journey "into the world" and the incident at the Inn, I was never quite comfortable with the relationship between her and her father. But I did appreciate her comments to her brother at the end of the book as how their father was in them, they could never escape, because he was part of who they are.

I, too, assumed that the sheep incident was done by Helgi. The rest of the book was too down-to-earth for me to accept this one, bizarre, incident as "supernatural".

I am wondering if Christianity was really so misunderstood, or was it a particular problem of this one family, living in the dark ages -- never going to church or receiving any kind of formal education, so the religious teachings are filtered through the faint memories of a doddering old woman.

>18 annamorphic: I was also frustrated by Bjartur's extreme philosophy, never doing anything but what was good for the sheep and wished that the camper could have taught the children some of the other basic homestead skills! Nonni and the Grandmother could have been fishing or churning butter or keeping a kitchen garden of vegetables or picking/preserving berries instead of spending hours and hours knitting.

>19 arukiyomi: Are you referring to the house as the unrealistic action of Bjartur? I am not so sure it was out of character -- it was part of his dream of being an independent man that could, through hard work and perseverance, make his farm successful. After all, he did take out a loan to buy the land in the first place.

He was just too unworldly to understand that building a house takes 150% of the time and money that you expect it will take. And he also had awful timing -- borrowing at the peak, just before the bottom fell out of the market. (And his friend that was trying to persuade him to take the longer mortgage through a different bank was also ruined, so it's not as if Bjartur's case was unique).

27arukiyomi
jun 27, 2015, 1:19pm

yes Eliz_M, in my review, I mentioned that taking out the loan for both the land and the house seemed to contradict the extremes that Bjartur would go to to stress his independence over simple things. It's like his whole philosophy was flawed. Those kind of loans dog you for life so it's not like he ever would be independent of them but would rather be at the mercy of (dependent on) market forces, the caprices of those who he was in debt to. Didn't make sense to me that he would go to such lengths to do that.

28amerynth
jun 30, 2015, 3:32pm

Just squeaked this one in for the end of the month.... a bit late to join in the discussion, really. I really enjoyed it, though I also liked Growth of the Soil just a little bit more. So glad this was picked as a group read, since it wasn't on my radar at all.