July 2015: Halldor Laxness

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July 2015: Halldor Laxness

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1sweetiegherkin
jun 26, 2015, 10:55pm

So I have to admit that I had never even heard of Halldor Laxness until he was nominated this last round, but I'm excited to explore some Icelandic literature!

For what it's worth, Laxness has one book of the "1,001 Books to Read Before You Die" list - Independent People. That's what I plan on reading this month. What's on everyone else's TBR pile?

2JackieCarroll
jun 26, 2015, 11:26pm

My family has a strong interest in Iceland because my daughter lived there for a couple of years, and my granddaughter was born there. I visited a few times and found it interesting in the many ways it is different from life in the U.S. I've never found an interesting Icelandic author, and I have my doubts about Laxness, but I'm going to give him a try. Scribd has The Atom Station, so that's what I'll be reading when I finish the book I'm reading now.

3sweetiegherkin
jun 26, 2015, 11:33pm

>2 JackieCarroll: I've never read any Icelandic authors before, so it's all a new, exciting adventure for me. I'm glad that you are going to give Laxness a try despite your doubts. :) It'll be interesting to see how your experiences will compare to what you read about the culture.

4JackieCarroll
jun 26, 2015, 11:45pm

One of the first things you notice in Iceland is that the people never laugh and rarely smile. Laughing in public will earn you some startled stares. They don't seem unhappy, just very sober. I understand it's the same in some other Northern European countries. It was very hard for me to remember not to laugh. What I've seen of their literature reflects this culture. I've never found anything to smile about.

5sweetiegherkin
jun 27, 2015, 2:46pm

>4 JackieCarroll: Hmm, interesting insight.

6Tara1Reads
jun 28, 2015, 12:54am

I have wanted to read Independent People since seeing so many people rave about it on LT. However, I do not own a copy or currently have a library card so we will see if I actually read any Laxness this month.

There is a group read of Independent People this month in the 1,0001 Books to Read Before You Die group here: https://www.librarything.com/topic/191640

Last year Club Read had a group read of Independent People here: https://www.librarything.com/topic/171034

I also have seen several people read and review it this year in their Club Read threads so it seems to be pretty popular around LT. The general consensus is positive but some people think it's too depressing or grim. It seems like there is a lot to discuss regarding how various readers feel about the character of Bjartur.

7JackieCarroll
jun 28, 2015, 12:27pm

Well, I tried reading The Atom Station, and it didn't go well. A country girl moves to the city to learn to play the organ and work as a maid for a wealthy family. The family is strange and rude, but not nearly as strange as what she finds at the organ teacher's house. There, she falls into a Wonderland of strange creatures that apparently represent the gods of Icelandic mythology. She also meets politicians who support communism and anarchism. It just gets weirder and weirder, sort of like a psychedelic dream, until nothing makes sense.

I think I could have made a better effort of it if I had a good understanding of Icelandic mythology and politics, but as it is, I'm giving up.

8Tara1Reads
jun 30, 2015, 1:31pm

I have to skip Halldor Laxness. None of the libraries near me have anything by him.

There is some information about Laxness in the Reading Globally group since they are focusing on Nobel Laureates who did not write in English for this quarter. The Laxness info is in message #8 in this here. I didn't know there was a movie made of Independent People!

9sparemethecensor
jul 1, 2015, 2:38pm

I picked up a copy of Independent People at my library today and hope to start it this weekend. Looking forward to it!

>4 JackieCarroll:

That is not my experience in Iceland at all. While people may be a bit more reserved than in most part of the US -- perhaps more like New Englanders than Californians, for comparison -- I saw plenty of laughs and smiles, and we made fast friends with numerous strangers who could not have been more kind and told us tales of Iceland's past and present. All the friends I've known who traveled to Iceland had the same experience.

I have not read many Icelandic authors, just Yrsa Sigurdardottir as far as I can recall, so I'm excited to be reading Halldor Laxness, their Nobel laureate. That said, I don't mind a book that looks at the difficult or melancholic side of life once in a while.

>6 Tara1Reads:

Thanks for sharing those links! I'm surprised to see it is so popular but looking forward to reading the threads to see what others think... after I get at least partway into the book.

10JackieCarroll
jul 1, 2015, 8:36pm

>9 sparemethecensor: Yes, the people can be friendly, but very reserved and hard to get to know. My daughter lived there for a few years and we were there four times for a month at a time. We got to know a few people where we did business regularly, and we invited them to visit my daughter's home, but they were reluctant. I have a dear friend who is a tour guide for a European tour country and she says that's just the way it is in some northern countries. They prefer to keep to themselves. I like to travel and get to know people, but just couldn't break the ice in Iceland.

Could it be that you were in a different part of the country? Although I don't know where you would go if not Reykjavík or Keflavík. Or perhaps the younger generation is more outgoing. We only had rare sightings of young people. We saw lots of babies parked in their buggies downtown, but few people between the ages of three and 20.

11sparemethecensor
jul 5, 2015, 3:27pm

>10 JackieCarroll: Hmm, yes, it could be that the younger generation is more open. We went last year, when we were both 25, and got to know mostly other people in their 20s. In addition to Reykjavík we spent time in Borgarnes, north of Reykjavík, and Vík, in the southern part of the country. A friend of mine who hitchhiked Iceland for a month and made close friends with a number of people also lived for a while in Akureyri. We didn't make it that far north, though, as in late September we worried the wrong storm could get us stuck.

I've started Independent People and I'm enjoying it so far. It is certainly a book that requires you to pay close attention. I will say that July is a great time to read this book -- I hardly need the air conditioner!

12sweetiegherkin
jul 6, 2015, 11:19am

>7 JackieCarroll: Wow, that sounds like an interesting, albeit different, read. I could see how it could be difficult to wade through without knowledge of Icelandic culture, particular the mythological and political aspects.

>8 Tara1Reads: Thanks for all the links. I starred those discussions to come back to later when I have more time and have actually read some Laxness. This is the first time I haven't been able to find ANYTHING by the monthly author in my library system, so I had to order the book through Amazon. I got a print copy but it also came with a Kindle edition. As I don't usually use the Kindle product line at all, I'm not that familiar with it, but I think you can share an e-book with someone else through it. If you want, I can look into that more. I am going to be reading the print copy anyway so the e-book one is sort of wasted on me.

13Tara1Reads
jul 7, 2015, 5:12pm

>12 sweetiegherkin: Thanks for the offer but I don't have a Kindle and I know I could never make it through such a long book in e-book format. My previous e-book reads were strenuous enough with shorter books.

14sweetiegherkin
jul 7, 2015, 7:50pm

>13 Tara1Reads: Hah, yeah I haven't done many e-books myself, and I think a long one would get tedious. Some people are avid e-book readers though, so I guess it's possible!

15Tara1Reads
jul 7, 2015, 8:12pm

>14 sweetiegherkin: Yeah I don't know how those people do it. E-books are okay every now and then, but I prefer the feel of a real book in my hands where I can visibly see my progress and flip through the pages.

16sparemethecensor
jul 7, 2015, 8:21pm

>15 Tara1Reads: I prefer real books to e-books, too, but I have gotten used to reading e-books after I got a Kindle as a gift and started taking it when I travel -- more convenient than packing a bag full of library books to bring along, like I used to.

I'm about halfway through Independent People and I am really enjoying it. Book 2 is about the conflict between a traditional father and headstrong teenage daughter who wants to go to school, standing in for a general conflict between traditional agricultural lives and the forces of (18th century) modernization. Fascinating stuff.

17sweetiegherkin
jul 8, 2015, 9:45am

I just started Independent People yesterday so I have not gotten very far yet. My edition is translated by J.A. Thompson and includes an introduction by Brad Leithauser. This introduction is riddled with spoilers* but also includes some food for thought. For instance, I love this anecdote Leithauser recounts:

"Partly out of love for the book, I've now spent, all told, a year and a half in Iceland and I've met Laxness a few times. The first occasion was in 1986. He was then in his mid-eighties and growing confused and forgetful. When I spoke of my admiration for Bjartur, a look of perplexity gave way to one of alarm. 'Oh, but he's so stupid!' he objected."

So I guess that gives us some idea of how to view the main character of Independent People! :)

Leithauser also explains his interpretation of the character little Nonni as a stand-in for Laxness himself. In addition, he reminds the reader that Iceland only became independent from Denmark in 1944, just two years before this book was originally published ... gives a new interpretation to the title! (Incidentally, Leithauser also notes that the title literally translates to "Self-standing Folk.") Finally, Leithauser draws comparisons between Independent People and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

*A particular pet peeve of mine is that any book even remotely considered a "classic" always contains an introduction that gives away major plot points, as the assumption seems to be that everyone's already read this book. These introductions usually have interesting insights, but I wish publishers included them at the end of the book instead. Sigh.

18sweetiegherkin
jul 9, 2015, 10:07am

There's another bit from the introduction that is becoming increasingly relevant as I read the book itself:

"When I tell people I meet that my favorite book ... is ... Independent People and am asked what it's about, my reply is, "Sheep." ... My reply is actually less facetious than might first appear, for while the book does keep large issues constantly in mind (the largest: mortality and memory and love and duty), it also very much about dung and sheep-parasites; it sets the reader vividly, unforgettably, upon a farm. ... What is Independent People about? Like any big, great novel, it encourages a reader, earnestly wrestling with its scope, to encapsulate it into a single overarching theme. And like most big, great novels, it is varied enough that all such attempts soon come undone."

It seems to me (so far) that Laxness lays out his theme and basic plot right in the first pages of the book:

"The history of the centuries in this valley is the history of an independent man who grapples barehanded with a spectre which bears a new and ever a newer name. Sometimes the spectre is some half-divine fiend who lays a curse on his land. Sometimes it breaks his bones in the guise of a norn Norse goddess of fate. Sometimes it destroys his croft in the form of a monster. And yet, always, to all eternity, it is the same spectre assailing the same century after century."

Following this is the first line of dialogue in the book, spoken by the protagonist Bjartur:

" 'No,' he said defiantly."

But then coming back to Leithauser's point about the difficulty of summing up this "epic" briefly, I started thinking about the conflicts in of most literature, how a given book usually fits into one of several broad categories (e.g., Man vs. God, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Machine, Man vs. Society) and realized this book could probably fit neatly into several of these categories:

Man v. supernatural/god - the curse of Kolumkilli/Gunvor on the valley and Bjartur's defying it
Man v. Man - the conflict between father and daughter
Man v. nature - Bjartur nurturing and defending his sheep against threats of weather, etc.
Man v. machine/society - the threat of modernity that lurks beneath the surface, threatening to undermine Bjartur's efforts for a "good life" and independence

I'm sure I'll have more thoughts on this as I get further through the book. I'm eager to know how >16 sparemethecensor: and others reading the book think/feel about it.

19sparemethecensor
jul 10, 2015, 10:09pm

>17 sweetiegherkin:
I decided to stop reading introductions of classics for this very reason. I distinctly remember the book that did it -- The Awakening by Kate Chopin. The introduction gave away the very end of the book, which was a twist I did not know about, and it was so, so upsetting to me. I have the same edition of Independent People as you, with the same intro, and I plan to read it at the end.

I am truly enjoying Independent People. I think it is beautifully written and really engrossing. Considering the book is, as you point out, a book about sheep, I can't believe how enthralled I am! I really like the way that the conflict between father and daughter is a stand-in for the social conflict between old and new. I also think both Bjartur and Asta are really interesting, compelling characters I want to know more about.

20sparemethecensor
jul 11, 2015, 1:43pm

I finished Independent People. I loved it. The last section, which is quite short, talks about WWI's impact on Iceland and how it saved their economy after a volcanic eruption. I knew nothing about this topic, so I found it fascinating. Plus, Bjartur and Asta reunite at long last.

I put this in spoiler tags because it raised a question for me I am curious to hear your thoughts on: when do you think this book takes place? In the first half or two-thirds, I would have guessed 18th century. What do you think?

21sweetiegherkin
jul 12, 2015, 1:48pm

>19 sparemethecensor: You're smarter than me; I really should have learned by now to save those introductions for last, but I guess the natural inclination to read in the order presented still gets me every time.

I'm glad to hear you've found the book really compelling. I'm still in the early stages and am finding it a bit slow going right now.

>20 sparemethecensor: I could have sworn that Laxness mentions the year 1750 somewhere in the first chapter or two but given the spoiler you mention (also noted in that damned introduction!), clearly that can't be in reference to the events of the book. But given that it's such a traditional, agricultural, religious/superstitious culture, it does seem like it could fit right in to the 18th century easily. At one point, Laxness narrates about a neighbor whose child emigrates to America, which he likens to losing a child to death because he'll never see that child again. How different from today with our multitude of ways to keep in touch across the globe!

22Andrew_MC
jul 13, 2015, 12:04am

I'm new to the group, figured I'd join, I've been meaning to read Halldór Laxness for a while now. But I think I'll start with a shorter book -- The Fish Can Sing -- and then dive into Independent People next.

I'll share my impressions of The Fish Can Sing once I'm finished it but was just wondering, has anyone read it already?

23sparemethecensor
jul 13, 2015, 11:07am

Welcome, Andrew. Interested to hear what you think. I haven't read The Fish Can Sing before but I do plan to read more Laxness. Depends on what else my library has available.

>21 sweetiegherkin: It is a relief that I was not alone in thinking it was set so much earlier than it was!

24sweetiegherkin
jul 17, 2015, 9:55am

>22 Andrew_MC: Welcome to the group! I'm so glad you joined and decided to pitch into the discussion right away. :)

My first foray into Laxness is Independent People, so I'm afraid I don't know anything about The Fish Can Sing. Hope to hear your thoughts about it soon!

>23 sparemethecensor: Happy to hear that you liked Independent People enough to move on to some more Laxness.

25sweetiegherkin
Redigeret: jul 17, 2015, 10:20am

Even though Laxness is very descriptive in the opening part of Independent People, laying out the landscape of Summerhouses, I still felt like I needed a visual. I went searching on Google Images for Icelandic farms and that way stumbled upon this interesting travel-based article, with some stunning photographs: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2011/mar/05/iceland-road-trip-route-1

Also, a couple of things that showed up in my Twitter feed recently:
- Which country is the most peaceful? (Spoiler: It's Iceland)
https://agenda.weforum.org/2015/06/which-is-the-most-peaceful-country-in-the-wor...
- Which country is the happiest? (Spoiler: Iceland comes in second)
https://agenda.weforum.org/2015/06/which-country-is-the-happiest-in-the-world-2/

edited for formatting issues

26Nero56
jul 19, 2015, 10:05pm

I read "Under the Glacier". One book was enough.

27sweetiegherkin
jul 26, 2015, 4:49pm

>26 Nero56: Hah, oh boy. What didn't you like about it?