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By Halldor Laxness
Translated from the Icelandic by J.A. Thompson
New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1946
470 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2013

The novel is the story of the life of Bjartur of Summerhouses and his struggle for both independence and survival in the hard life of a rural sheep farmer in Iceland.

The novel opens with a bit of early history of the settlement of Iceland, and then jumps immediately into unnamed times long after this early history. It seems the point is to sort of indicate that Iceland IS the world and little that matters exists outside Iceland. Life and death will be centered in this later Iceland.

In his early years Bjartur works for others in slave-like conditions, saves and scrapes, finally getting enough money to buy some rural rough land and begins his life of freedom and independence as a sheep farmer. The central theme of the book is as the title suggests, his independence. He is willing to suffer (and does) incredible hardships and to inflict those hardships on his family as well, in order to protect his independence. Over and over he tells anyone who will listen that he is an independent man and will remain so until death.

Eventually he marries Rosa, a local woman, only to discover later that she is pregnant with another man’s child. However, he accepts Rosa and their daughter, Asta Sollija, as his own child.

We readers are given very few clues as to the time in which the novel is set. The first real clue of time was when he purchased his daughter a book, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This was nearly half way through this 500 page novel. I paused in my reading to race off to the computer to see when Snow White was written, which was about 1812. Thus allowing time for the book to be translated into both Dutch and Icelandic (his copy was an Icelandic translation from the Dutch), I figured it was likely to be in the late 1800s. The clue was bad, but it was more than 300 pages into the novel before he actually names World War I and the American Depressions. As it turns out then, by back referencing the children’s ages and such, the reader comes to realize the novel is set in the years from about 1910 – 1930s. However, Laxness was at careful pains to NOT reveal that sort of information. It seems clear that he thought it irrelevant.

The novel catalogues the hard life Bjartur and his family have and how he struggles to remain an independent man. In many ways he tells us over and over:

“People who aren’t independent aren’t people.”

Finna, his second wife, has three sons with Bjartur and these six people along with another older woman all live at his “croft” (sort of a barn-like structure of earth and wood) and lead an extremely hard life of struggling day by day for existence. But FREE and INDEPENDENT, which is what counts for Bjartur.

Interestingly coffee is the major drink, seemingly in Iceland as a whole, not only at Summerhouses. That intrigued me since it would all have to have been imported and thus must have been fairly expensive.

One day the local Bailiff comes calling and is claiming that Bjartur really needs a cow and pushes the issue. Bjartur dislikes cows and loves his sheep and declines any notion of spending his hard earned money for a cow, so the Bailiff arranges for the local social society to get them a cow. This infuriates Bjartur and so he goes ahead and pays for the cow in order to protect his critically important self-image as the independent man.

“I would certainly have bought a cow and have had hired help as well. But it so happens that all my life I’ve had the opinion that freedom and independence are worth more than all the cattle that any crofter ever got himself into debt for.”

Bjartur is a really tough guy. The family lives in dire isolation and is fully self-sufficient raising sheep.

In about 95% of the novel everything we read of is very hard life and difficult times. One very magical day, however, stood out. When his daughter Asta Sollija’s arrives at the age where she should be confirmed in the Christian church (which Bjartur does not belong to) it is required by law that she be trained and do this ceremony. Her father gives in to this and takes her to town, her first such visit. It was a magical day of father and daughter, one I would well relate to thinking back to such occasions with my two daughters. It was an experience for her of new clothes, a new world and she even saw the ocean for the first time.

Alas, there were very few such touching moments in the novel. Much more typical would be this sort of description of what life was really like at his croft. His wife is often ill:

“She had always some trouble with her chest, of course, as had her mother too, that dreadful range with its eternal smoke, they coughed from the time of kindling till well on in the day, then started another fit in the evenings. To make matters worse, there was the strong stench of cowdung and horse’s urine in the croft, and this, coupled with the reek, caught Finna’s chest and gave her all sorts of sickly feelings.”

In the period of the novel Bjartur has especially hard times and some better times. The best times came during WWI when Iceland was not involved in the war itself, but an important source of goods of various sorts for the rest of the world. It was a rare period of the growth of wealth and even lured the very financially conservative Bjartur into debt to build a “proper” home which eventually brings his financial collapse.

Nonetheless, the central dominating theme of the novel is the importance of a man’s independence -- independence from EVERYTHING – the wealth of others, one’s relationship to one’s family, one’s own health and well-being. Anything must be sacrificed for this notion of independence.

As a father who also wanted my children to be as independent of me and my values as I could tolerate, I couldn’t help thinking back on various interactions with my own 7 children as they (inevitably) now and again began to make decisions which worried me. I just didn’t have the absolutism that Bjartur did. At one point Bjartur’s brother in American sends money to Bjartur’s youngest son, then 17. He wants him to go to American. The boy is fascinated, flattered and excited. His father is quite stern in his advice -- DO NOT GO. But, after simply stating his principle one time and in just a few words, and the boy still wants to go, Bjartur backs off quickly.

“He made no further attempt to talk his son over; it is a mark of weakness to try to talk anyone over. An independent man thinks over for himself and lets others do as they please.”

One might think that Bjartur doesn’t want any change and is willing to live a virtually medieval type life. But this isn’t so. He recognizes and accepts change and even sees significant parts of it as progress. It’s just that this “progress” isn’t worth it for the individual, as he sees it, if it costs one ANYTHING of one’s independence.

“Many a man may have his doubts for the moment, but when all comes to all and a long view is taken, one discovers usually that things have been making some sort of forward progress, some headway or other.”

In the very end his decision to take a loan on his property does cost him that property. He certainly regrets this loss, but does not brood over it nor become depressed, nor does he blame others or the system itself. Rather, he rents a tiny farm in the far north and heads off to begin a new chapter of his life:

“It had never been a habit of his to lament over anything he lost; never nurture your grief, rather content yourself with what you have left, when you have lost what you had; and fortunately he had the sense to hang on to the sheep as long as possible.”

While the question of independence of the individual is the dominant theme, there is a great concern in the novel with the various forms of economic theories and practices which were dominant in Iceland at the beginning of the 20th century. He examines and presents his own radical individualism and capitalism, socialism, forms of democracy and such. He has great sympathy toward socialism, but no trust in it, and is even saddened that raw and harsh capitalism is often useful to the careful man. His one thrust into debt to build a new house really costs him dearly. However, he doesn’t blame others or lament what he did. The novel ends as he begins a new and even more primitive life than he’s already had.

At the personal level Bjartur was not an advance man. Perhaps a very later rather humorous outburst can illustrate this. In his short wealthy period he hired a housekeeper who was an incredibly strong individualist, a match or even over match to his own independent ways. His traditionalist diatribe to this “liberated” housekeeper is instructive of the man.

“Now we turn to housekeepers. It is difficult to keep housekeepers. Housekeepers differ from married women in this respect: that they insist on doing as they please, whereas married women are required to do as they are told. Housekeepers are continually demanding things, whereas married women may think themselves lucky for getting nothing at all. Housekeepers always need everything for everything, whereas married women need nothing for anything, and think it quite natural. Most things are considered by housekeepers as being beneath their dignity, but who bothers listening to a married woman if she starts grumbling? No one is any the worse for it but her. One needn’t mention their fits or sulks or the fact that they’ll argue the head off a man if everything isn’t exactly to their liking; and it’s hard, surely, to have to marry a woman first just to be able to tell her to keep her trap shut. ‘I’d rather be married to three women at once than have one housekeeper. . .’”

The novel is long, the time lines are purposely very obscure, the story is quite harsh and the main figure, Bjartur himself is not much to be admired or liked, but, at least for me, still respected.

I’m quite happy I stuck with it. This read, from beginning to end, of the past month, was not my first time into the book. Twice before I began the novel, but after a few pages of the very difficult first section (early history of Iceland) put me off and I set the book back on the shelf. This time I stuck with it and I think I was well rewarded in the end.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett