July 2015: Halldor Laxness
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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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
>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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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?
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!
I'll share my impressions of The Fish Can Sing once I'm finished it but was just wondering, has anyone read it already?
>21 sweetiegherkin: It is a relief that I was not alone in thinking it was set so much earlier than it was!
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.
Also, a couple of things that showed up in my Twitter feed recently:
- Which country is the most peaceful? (Spoiler: It's Iceland)
- Which country is the happiest? (Spoiler: Iceland comes in second)
edited for formatting issues