There are good books and there are great books and there may be a book that is something still more: it is the book of your life. If you’re quite lucky, you may at some point chance upon a novel which inspires so close a kinship that questions of evaluation (Is this book better than merely good? Is it some sort of classic?) become a niggling irrelevance. Luck has everything to do with it. For the sensation I’m describing has its roots in a poignant, tantalizing feeling that this marvelous new addition to your existence, this indelible Presence, has arrived by serendipity. Anyone who cares seriously about fiction eventually will get around to The Brothers Karamazov or Madame Bovary or Pride and Prejudice or Moby-Dick or Don Quixote, and if you’re somebody whose closest literary attachment is to a book of this staple sort, the satisfaction you take from it will not be graced by the particular haunted feeling of good fortune I’m talking about; you will have, instead, the assurance of knowing that your keenest literary pleasures were preordained. One looks differently on the book of genius that, even in a long bookworm’s life, one might never have stumbled upon.
The feeling I’m describing may account for Henry Miller’s pronouncement about Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries, which he declared “is closer to me than any other book I have read…. Reading this book, I always feel as though I am reading another version of my own life.” Or John Fowles’s reverence toward Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes: “I am, in short, a besotted fan, and still feel closer to Fournier than to any other novelist, living or dead.” Or Randall Jarrell’s obsession with Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, which eventually precipitated the longest essay he ever wrote. (It concluded: “The Man Who Loved Children makes you a part of one family’s immediate existence as no other book quite does. When you have read it you have been, for a few hours, a Pollit; it will take you many years to get the sound of the Pollits out of your ears, the sight of the Pollits out of your eyes, the smell of the Pollits out of your nostrils.”) Or what Rilke felt about Jacobsen (“Of all my books, I find only a few indispensable … the Bible, and the books of the great Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen”), particularly his Niels Lyhne: “The more often one reads it, the more everything seems to be contained within it, from life’s most imperceptible fragrances to the full, enormous taste of its heaviest fruits.”
No doubt Miller and Fowles and Jarrell and Rilke recognized that greater novels were to be found than the objects of their devotion. But what does this matter once you’ve met the book that seems made for you? For what we are talking about is a sort of imperishable romance, in which the flaws of a book are—like the flaws in the face of one’s sole beloved—endearing. This is the real thing: a giddy incredulity that there exists in the universe so perfect an imperfection.
I don’t suppose it’s any accident that in three of the above four cases the book was written in a language foreign to its admirer, or that in every case the novel’s author and its admirer came from different countries. Distance naturally enhances a sense of mystical unity—adds to it the wonderment of experiencing such intimate ties with somebody who worked at various removes from you.
And the book of my own life? I remember vividly my initial encounter with it. I finished its last chapters one late afternoon in Rome, seated in an all-but-deserted café. Outside a storm had abruptly blown in and a chill autumn rain was lashing the streets, and I read as though furtively, hunched over the pages. I did this for two reasons. The light had turned dim. And I didn’t want anyone happening to glance my way to notice I was weeping.
The novel was Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. It always strikes me as a bitter irony that, in urging the book on someone, I often must first identify its Nobel Prize-winning author. But the facts are that Laxness won the Nobel many years ago, in 1955, and that he represents the smallest country ever to produce a Laureate: Iceland, with its population of a quarter of a million. All but one of Laxness’s books (the appealing but slight The Atom Station) are out of print in English.
Still, Independent People is not hard to come by in the States. When it was published here, in 1946, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection, and copies regularly turn up in usedbook stores. Provided the price is ten dollars or less, I snap them up whenever I come across them. They make an ideal present—though some explanation may be in order when, arriving at someone’s house for dinner, you hand your host not a bottle of wine but a dusty, almost fifty-year-old book, translated from Icelandic, about sheep farmers. At one point, I’d accumulated more than twenty copies; I rarely have on hand fewer than ten.
I might never have read Independent People had I not, in the summer of 1984, spent two weeks hiking in Iceland. However obscure a figure Laxness may be to us, in his native land he is a colossus without peer or parallel, and anyone drawn to Iceland will get around to him before long. The Icelandic literary tradition is of course illustrious, but nearly all the medieval sagas and poems that are its capital glory remain anonymous. Before Laxness emerged, prodigiously and prolifically (his career began in 1920, when he published his first novel, Child of Nature, at the age of eighteen), Iceland had never produced a modern writer of anything like international reputation. He has been translated into more than thirty languages.
Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, with which it shares all sorts of family resemblances, Independent People in its opening pages evokes the dawn of time. (And, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Independent People has been beautifully translated, in Laxness’s case by an Englishman, J. A. Thompson, who has achieved a Hardyesque mixture of the flowery and the rough-hewn—a blending of an old-fashioned diction with a tough, understated humor.) Marquez’s novel commences on a blue morning when the boulders in a stream-bed look like dinosaur eggs. Independent People’s first chapter summons up the days when the world was first settled, in 874 AD—for that is the year when the Norsemen arrived in Iceland, and one of the book’s wry conceits is that no other world but Iceland exists.
The tale takes place among farmers habitually so impoverished that they “died without ever having transacted a business deal involving more than a few dollars at a time.” These are men who might venture outside their valleys once or twice a year, hiking to a little fishing village to purchase a few provisions; for them, even Reykjavik is a misty dream. Nonetheless, they handle their language with pride. If none of them has ever seen a statue—as is revealed when discussion turns to culture on the Continent—they have the satisfaction of knowing that when that same Continent lost its way, during the Dark Ages, Iceland, with its sagas, was one of the bright literary beacons of the world. Meanwhile, their children dispute whether “foreign lands” exist, exploring the question with the same eager intensity with which kids elsewhere might probe the reality of Santa Claus.
The book is set in the early decades of the twentieth century but the dates of individual events are hazy. Independent People is a pointedly timeless tale. It reminds us that life on an Icelandic croft had scarcely altered over a millennium; the seasons shifted, but the overall pattern of want and hardship and stoicism endured. Midway through the novel, however, off at an unimaginable distance, something called the Great War erupts. Normally, there would be nothing new or noteworthy in this (on the Continent, people were forever “hacking one another to pieces like suet in a trough”), but this time the conflict lifts to unprecedented heights the prices for Icelandic mutton and wool. Even the poorest of farmers begin dreaming of an emancipation from their tight, tethered poverty.
War or no war, freedom has always been the aim of the book’s hero, Bjartur. When the story begins, he has just finished slaving for eighteen years on the farm of a man he despises, the Bailiff of the district, in order to save money enough to purchase a pitifully modest holding, Summerhouses, and a handful of sheep. Bjartur of Summerhouses views the Great War coldly and gratefully: “I only hope they keep it up as long as they can.” Ultimately, though, he cannot concern himself with the “madmen” in the South—indeed, can hardly concern himself with the affairs of the people around him. Of far more significance are the sheep around him. On their welfare his world depends. He is fighting his own World War, at once the most significant and the most risible conflict on the globe—the smallest war ever fought. He is a “generalissimo” whose troops consist purely of a dog that helps him round up his sheep. He tends to be much more comfortable with animals than with people.
His existence is less simple than it looks, however. For his world of everyday deprivation, like that of Marquez’s peasants, is encircled by a zone of enchantments. At the edges of life, magic is always afoot—although in Bjartur’s case, all magic is black magic; the miraculous is no less malign than the mundane. Hence his combat is two-tiered. He contends with the hostility of nature—a terrain so cold and forbidding that starvation has always threatened the Icelandic subsistence farmer. And he contends with supernature—a curse. Long ago, the valley in which Summerhouses lies was inhabited by a murderous, blood-drinking witch, the fiend Gunnvor, who formed a diabolical alliance with the demon Kolumkilli. She was eventually brought to justice (she was dismembered), but her scheming spirit still blights the valley. To propitiate her, it is customary for passers-by to “give Gunnvor a stone”—to place a rock on the cairn devoted to her memory. But this, characteristically, Bjartur refuses to do. He scorns the “nonsense these old wives let their heads be stuffed with.”
Marriage, both literal and metaphorical, is one of the book’s great, dark themes, and therefore it seems only fitting that the local spirits of the valley embody an unholy—an infernal—alliance. One legacy of their union appears to be the withering of all romance in Summerhouses. Bjartur marries twice. His first wife, a furtively miserable woman, evidently agreed to move into his hovel only because she was, unbeknownst to him, pregnant by the son of the hateful Bailiff. She dies in childbirth, alone. His second wife, a sickly, broken-spirited woman who during the dark arctic winters scarcely rises from her bed, eventually collapses and dies after a horrific, famished spring.
Occasionally it is borne in upon Bjartur that his women are torturously unhappy. He senses uneasily (his relationships with women are never easy) that they, perhaps in response to his crushing, ruthless drive for self-sufficiency, his conviction that “he who keeps his sheep alive through the winter lives in a palace,” have reserved to themselves some sector of their minds he cannot reach. But in time there comes to Bjartur a different sort of romance, a new form of “marriage”: an affinity of twinned spirits. The child of his first wife survives its mother’s death and Bjartur agrees to rear it as his own. This child, granddaughter to the Bailiff, belongs to the “enemy.” But it turns out that Bjartur, for all his aloofness, harbors a clumsy warmth toward infants; he views them with some of the same tenderness he feels toward baby lambs. Looking down for the first time at this newborn girl, he
marvelled that it could be so small and delicate. “You can’t really expect it to be much of a thing,” he added apologetically, “the way mankind is such a sorry affair when you come to look at it as it actually is.”
He bestows on her, just the same, a lofty name: Asta Sollilja, Asta the Sun-lily. She becomes his soul’s “one flower.”
In time, Bjartur’s sun-lily reaches the gangling verge of womanhood. When she is about thirteen, he guides her for the first time across the downs. After hours of trudging, she can make out, far off, a “strange blue color” that “seemed to embrace all the mysteries of distance.” She has to ask her father what it might be. It is the ocean, he tells her.
“Isn’t there anything on the other side, then?” she asked finally.
“The foreign countries are on the other side,” replied her father, proud of being able to explain such a vista. “The countries that they talk about in books,” he went on, “the kingdoms.”
They enter a fishing village and put up in a raucous and squalid lodging house, where they must share a bed. In the night, the frightened girl reaches innocently for her father and he, for a moment, responds to her sexually—he places a hand on her bare leg.
Aghast at himself, Bjartur leaps from bed and insists they strike off immediately for home. His daughter, having sensed nothing sexual in his touch, is thoroughly mystified. But Bjartur will henceforth see to it that nothing like a sexual exchange arises between them. Their “marriage” must be altogether virtuous.
Asta’s virtue soon crumbles, though. When she’s fifteen, she is impregnated by a whimsical scholar who tutors her and her brothers (the man is also, it transpires, a “notorious drunkard and jailbird who is not only a parish pauper with a horde of children but also rotten with consumption”). On learning of the girl’s condition, Bjartur strikes her and expels her from his home. He informs her that she has “shamed” him—which may be true, but of course he’s also ravaged by displaced guilt and an unacknowledgeable jealousy.
So Asta sets out on her own, in an icy rain, in the middle of the night. For all of her new experiences, she’s a fanciful child even now, dreaming of finding a lover who owns “lands with sungilded palm-avenues.” But she will discover before the dawn that her papery shoes are ripped to shreds and that she is penniless and friendless. Still, she never thinks of retreating, of begging Bjartur for another chance. For it turns out that she, no less than this father of hers who is not her true father, nurtures within herself a proud independence. Somehow she will get by.
Years pass. Bjartur rises—his holdings expand until he, the former “slave” of the Bailiff, actually hires labor to help tend his sheep, cows, and horses. Asta sinks—she calmly describes herself as “starving with my little girl in an unheated cellar along the fjord.” The two of them never meet. Neither will approach the other. Neither will relent, even after Asta contracts tuberculosis. Bjartur had always perceived himself as a soldier whose “war” concerned sheep, but it turns out that the true conflict of the book is between father and daughter. And the two of them are so evenly, formidably matched that it almost seems the novel can never arrive at any sort of satisfying resolution. Asta is the only person in the world who has ever managed to penetrate Bjartur’s leather-like skin. She is an irresistible force. But he is an immovable object. And how (the reader is left continually wondering) can two such ever be reconciled?
I first picked up Independent People with faint misgivings, somewhat put off by both its title and its subtitle, An Epic. (In the original, the book is called Sjálfstoett Fólk—literally, Self-Standing Folk—which doubtless is more inviting.) I feared I was about to encounter an uplifting story composed in a firm nationalistic tenor—a rousing testament to the valiant and indomitable Icelandic temperament. Was this going to be a land of too much steeliness and too little irony?
But one needn’t read very far to perceive Bjartur’s utter unsuitability as any symbol of a nation’s virtues. He’s far too quirky and crusty for that. And too big a fool. The book is as much mock as genuine epic. When Bjartur and his dog first stride into the valley, and he utters the first word of the novel—“No”—it’s clear that he’s a poor man’s Odysseus and his worm- and lice-infested dog is a cut-rate Argos.
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.
“Oh, but he’s so wonderfully stupid!” I replied, and the old man peered at me, and pondered darkly a moment; then his features cleared, and he abruptly laughed with pleasure.
Bjartur is a man who seemingly can hold in his head but one ideal—financial independence, the belief that “he who pays his way is a king”—which looms so large he scarcely has room to entertain another thought. In his eyes, abstract speculation is a pastime for layabouts. At the rim of his thinking, though, other notions—strange ideas with arresting cadences—are forever seething. Iceland’s rich, bardic tradition is in his blood. Gradually—almost shyly—the novel reveals that Bjartur is something of a poet. His verses, not surprisingly, have little to say. He’s a man in a perpetual muddle, who can scarcely be expected to find any clarity in his lines. No, Bjartur comes to poetry, as to everything else, in search of a task to be fulfilled. Yet he is enamored of the old rimur of traditional Icelandic verse, with its obscure kennings and intricate forms: “His poetry was technically so complex that it could never attain any noteworthy content; and thus it was with his life itself.”
Bjartur is for me one of the great twentieth-century literary characters—like Humbert Humbert or Jay Gatz/Gatsby or Gregor Samsa or the four Makioka sisters. He is petty-minded and heroic, brutal and poetic, cynical and childlike. All these traits crystallize magnificently in the novel’s great storm-scene, in which Bjartur, gone off in search of a missing lamb, gets caught in a blizzard. Before it’s through, the storm will impose on Bjartur near-legendary trials. And yet, typically, these are interwoven with the absurd, for Bjartur’s real problems begin when he seeks to capture a reindeer with his bare hands and the beast, its would-be captor slung over its back, plunges into a furious, icy river: “Here he was sitting neither more nor less than up to the waist in Glacier River, and that on no ordinary steed, but on the only steed that is considered suitable for the most renowned of adventures.”
This journey deposits Bjartur on the far—the wrong—side of the river, miles from any shelter. In the dead of the howling night, seeking to stay conscious, he turns to a characteristic refuge:
Seldom had he recited so much poetry in any one night; he had recited all his father’s poetry, all the ballads he could remember, all his own palindromes backwards and forwards in forty-eight different ways, whole processions of dirty poems, one hymn that he had learned from his mother, and all the lampoons that had been known in the Fourthing from time immemorial about bailiffs, merchants, and sheriffs. At intervals he struggled up out of the snow and thumped himself from top to toe till he was out of breath.
Ultimately, it’s a question of whether poetry—in combination with sheer cantankerousness—will suffice to keep Bjartur alive. The storm keeps raging. And Bjartur keeps fighting, and reciting. In the end, he is reduced to all fours, like the sheep he has searched for in vain:
He forced his way at first with lowered head against the storm, but when he reached the ridge above the gully, he could no longer make any headway in this fashion, so he slumped forward on to his hands and knees and made his way through the blizzard on all fours, crawling over stony slopes and ridges like an animal, rolling down the gullies like a peg; barehanded, without feeling.
At this moment, Bjartur might well consider himself alone in all the world. No one knows where he is, and were he to succumb to the blizzard, no one would know even where to search for his body. Indeed, he is still more alone than he realizes, since his wife—his first wife—is lying dead at home; she has bled to death in giving birth to Asta Sollilja.
Nonetheless, there is someone who has Bjartur uppermost in his mind—his maker, Laxness, who feels toward his creation so potent a blend of affection and exasperation that the book’s every page reverberates with the tension. And the reader, too, is tracking Bjartur’s every struggling step. For by the time you’ve passed through the storm with him, it’s almost impossible not to be rooting for that monomaniacal, unkillable, wonderfully stupid old bastard, Bjartur of Summerhouses.
When I tell people I meet that my favorite book by a living novelist is Halldor Laxness’s Independent People and am asked what it’s about, my reply is, “Sheep.” This is a story (I continue) in which farmers are forever analyzing sheep and examining sheep: it’s about tapeworm in sheep and lungworm in sheep and diarrhea in sheep. Whatever virtues the novel boasts, it’s bereft of glamour.
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 is also very much about dung and sheep-parasites; it sets the reader vividly, unforgettably upon a farm. The book is about scything hay and rounding up stray lambs and hauling stones—all of it conveyed so painstakingly that you come away almost feeling that your hands are calloused with its tasks. In Bjartur’s household there are no separate quarters for the animals, whose stinks and bleatings infiltrate even the dreams of the family. Before discoursing on the novel’s grander intentions, Independent People calls on you to acknowledge the total, tactile claims of the land.
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 are soon undone by the need for expansion and qualification. I’ve already said that at the heart of the book lies a war between father and daughter. But perhaps there is a still more pivotal subject: the war waged within a single spirit. Independent People presents the most gripping depiction I’ve ever encountered of the gradual, daily contraction of a human soul and its eventual salvation.
For in his victory over multiple adversity, in his slow and carefully husbanded prosperity, Bjartur somehow loses everything of import in his life. Near the close of the novel, he finds that he has attained what has always struck him as the summit of life—he has become rich enough to build a “proper home”—and he discovers his triumph is empty. Not only are both of his wives dead, but his children have died as well, or moved off. At last Gvendur, his remaining son—the boy he feels closest to—announces that he is emigrating to America. Bjartur is so disgusted he does not even bother to rise from the trench where he’s working in order to bid a final farewell to his son.
And Bjartur is still standing in the mud when, a moment later, the novel realigns itself. Infinitesimally, everything turns. The book has presented the reader with cataclysmic events—deaths, betrayals, storms, love affairs—but when it reaches its climacteric, the narrative could hardly be quieter:
Thus did he lose his last child as he stood deep in a ditch at that stage in his career when prosperity and full sovereignty were in sight, after the long struggle for independence that had cost him all his other children. Let those go who wish to go, probably it’s all for the best. The strongest man is he who stands alone… He had taken to his digging again. Then all at once some new thought struck him; throwing down his spade, he swung himself on to the bank; the boy had got a short distance away over the marshes.
“Hey,” cried the father, and hurried after him until he caught up with him. “Didn’t you say something about Asta Sollilja last night?”
“I was talking about giving her my sheep if you didn’t want to buy them.”
“Oh, I see,” said his father, as if he had not remembered the connection. “Oh well, good-bye then…”
Bjartur may not yet realize it, but his life’s underpinnings have been removed. He has vowed to have nothing more to do with Asta Sollilja (Hasn’t she betrayed his trust? What concern is it of his if she’s dying of consumption?), and he is a man who holds to his word absolutely. And yet he has, minutely, given way. He doesn’t quite know what is the nature of that irresistible force Asta Sollilja embodies (it is love), but the immovable object that is his own soul has been budged. The remainder of the novel conspires to abase him. He must lose his wealth. He must lose his pride. He must lose himself to find himself—to find the decency within that would allow him to humble himself before his daughter.
This process is protracted. Bjartur’s soul dilates as slowly as it has heretofore narrowed. He is a man of resolute obliquity, who could never bring himself directly to admit that he was wrong to have rejected Asta when she most needed him. So, as any wooer might, Bjartur begins his overtures toward Asta with a poem, which is delivered by Gvendur. It is an impacted verse of just the traditional sort that Bjartur admires—tightly rhymed and alliterated—in which he speaks of a stone and of a flower that has “fled.” Asta Sollilja disdains the verses: “And tell him that I also know the empty, drivelling doggerel that he cudgels into shape with hands and feet. But I, I am engaged to a young man who loves me. He has been to school, and he is a modern poet.”
Modern poetry? Contemptibly lax in Bjartur’s eyes: “It’s just like diarrhea. End-rhymes and nothing more.” But merely so “no one shall say of me that I couldn’t write in these simple modern measures,” he prepares a second, more plain-spoken poem for Asta, again to be delivered by Gvendur, and adds a postscript, “No, while there’s a breath of life left in me, nothing will make me go to her.” And a second postscript: “But if I die, you can tell her from me that she may gladly lay me out.”
Asta declares that she “can’t be bothered to listen to it,” and yet attends to it all the same. She then flies into a tirade—“While there’s a breath of life left in me, nothing will ever make me go back to Bjartur of Summerhouses,” but she, too, has an afterthought: “When I’m dead he may gladly bury my carrion for all that I care.”
The two warring spirits already are largely reconciled. They are united eternally; in consigning their bodily remains to each other, they have pledged their bond in death. It is merely in the little, fleeting business of life that they are unworkably at odds—and the generous, ingenious way in which Laxness renders the unworkable workable, propelling Bjartur toward a reconciliation with his daughter, constitutes the most intricate and moving scene in this most intricate and moving novel.
So brilliantly drawn are Bjartur and Asta that they risk overshadowing the book’s every other character. But with each rereading of the novel (six, and counting), I find myself marveling at just how accomplished are all the other characters in the novel. There’s the credulous, book-loving Olafur of Yztidale, whose idolization of the printed word is such that he cannot conceive of a misprint; he confidently announces to a group of fellow farmers that, according to his almanac, next year’s Easter will fall on a Saturday. And there’s the querulous Reverend Gudmundur, who “had bigoted opinions on every subject, but changed them immediately if anyone agreed with him.” Here he is bargaining with Bjartur over the funeral oration for Bjartur’s first wife:
“And how much do you think you can give for a speech?”
“Well, that was really one of the things I wanted to arrange. Actually I consider that you owe me a speech from last spring and I think I might as well have it now. It won’t improve with keeping.”
“No,” said the minister decisively. “I will hold no sermon over a woman who lives in marriage for one summer only, then dies. You can think yourself lucky that I don’t have the matter inquired into. There might be ways and means of letting you have your next marriage sermon for nothing, but to trade a funeral sermon for a wedding sermon is a type of jobbery that I’ll have nothing to do with.”
Even better—as good, in their way, as Bjartur and Asta—are Bjartur’s third son, Little Nonni, and Nonni’s grandmother. In this valley overlain by a supernatural curse, these two provide enchantment from a contrary, benign source. They are creatures straight out of a sunny fairy tale: he the enchanted third son, the dreamer, the little boy whose destiny is threaded with magic; and she the timeless, ageless crone, given to queer, perhaps vatic pronouncements, who serves as fairy godmother.
They, too, have a spiritual “marriage” of sorts. They are not merely sleeping companions; they complete each other—give to each other some quality without which life would be lacking. For Nonni, the old woman represents a feminine clemency and a patient approval which he lost catastrophically with the death of his mother. For the old woman, there is the suspicion that Nonni alone hears her, as she mumbles and maunders through her day. It isn’t as though Nonni is actively listening to her prayers and her chants and her aphorisms. But the sounds of her voice are shaping him; her cadences will be with him forever. Nonni ties her, in her floundering old age, to the land of the living.
How do we know her voice will stay with him? You might think Nonni’s future would be a blank, given that he emigrates to America while still a boy, vanishing from our story. But as befits his status as the enchanted child of the fairy tale, Nonni is accorded special treatment within the narrative. Toward him alone, the novel repeatedly looks forward: “And when later in life he thought of those days…”; “All his life through he remembered it, meditating upon it in secret…”; “… The boy knew it well enough to remember it his whole life through”; “In years that were yet to come he relived this memory in song…”; “It was a sound that was never afterward to forsake his soul, however far he travelled and however resplendent the halls in which he was later received….”
Before she died, Nonni’s mother invested her son with a task whose implications neither he nor she fully understood:
“Listen, my dear,” she said then, “I dreamed something about you the other night.”
“I dreamed that the elf-lady took me into the big rock and gave me a bowl of milk and told me to drink it, and when I had drunk it the elf-lady said: ‘Be good to little Nonni, because when he grows older he will sing for the whole world.”‘
But what can these stirring words, sing for the whole world, possibly mean to a little, ignorant Icelandic farm boy and his miserable, landlocked mother? Nonni knows only that this quest involves foreign countries, and when the opportunity to emigrate arises he seizes it without hesitation. Though still only a boy, he approaches with gravity the maternal duty imposed by the elf-lady.
So Nonni disappears—only to remain. For he manages, present or absent, to suffuse the novel’s every page: this boy who “in years that were yet to come … relived this memory in song” is the presiding genius of the book. He exits from the valley that he might learn to sing—and though the authorial hints are subtle, they also look unmistakable: Nonni has ventured forth in the world in order to write books like … like Independent People. Whether or not Nonni’s boyhood circumstances mesh with Laxness’s, he is a clear stand-in for the author. Quietly, almost parenthetically, Laxness remarks of Nonni that he is fated to become “greater than all other Icelanders.” It’s a roundabout and comely act of self-assertion.
Nonni’s personality is set off strikingly by his older brother, Helgi, his soul’s dark twin. Independent People offers one of the best portrayals I know of the tribal richness—the ritual tussles and the acts of obeisance and the reciprocal manipulations—that binds older and younger sons. The two boys are “complementary antitheses.” They are both philosophers, given to elongated musings about religion and what would happen if time were to stop. But while the older boy is the unquestioned leader, a seeming tower of physical strength, it is he and not Nonni who will crack and shatter in the end. Nonni’s softness will, paradoxically, protect him, for in his dreaminess lies his refuge from life’s cruelty and rapacity. Helgi comes undone at his mother’s death. Nothing, not even prayer to the elves in the rocks, will restore her, and he arrives, in his earnest boy-philosopher’s way, at a terrifying nihilism. He claims to have seen Kolumkilli, the ghost-spirit who haunts the valley:
“And do you know why I see him?” continued the other. Gripping little Nonni’s wrists, he held them fast as he whispered into his face: “It’s because I’m dead too. Nonni, look at me closely, look into my eyes. You see a dead man.”
Helgi will nearly destroy the farm—bring ruination upon them all—before disappearing in the snow in a murky act of suicide. The presiding witch of the valley, Kolumkilli’s bloodthirsty mate, Gunnvor, has claimed another victim. It seems the cycle is never to be broken. And yet little Nonni carries within himself the seeds of a magic greater than that of any fiend: he is, dawningly, the poet, the tale-bearer, the bard. The independent people of Nonni’s family will be redeemed by Independent People. He will rescue them all through the high-soaring sorcery of Art.
When Laxness buoyantly referred to himself, by way of a stand-in, as “greater than all other Icelanders,” he was making a claim that in time would become so overwhelmingly true as to look like an understatement. Given Iceland’s tiny size and its subordinate role in modern history (it did not receive independence from Denmark until 1944), it’s hardly surprising that Laxness is generally perceived not only as the country’s foremost artist of the century but its most influential citizen. He looms larger than any modern statesman or religious figure. Not merely through his fiction but through his journalism and essays and political stands he has shaped the mores of his rapidly changing nation.
The reader who comes, unexpectedly, on the book of his life is apt to feel that nobody else fully appreciates it. This is an illogical feeling, of course—but why should our passion for books show any more sense than our passion for people? I’m continually having to restrain a boastful suspicion that I alone am Independent People’s ideal reader.
Reality has a helpful way of humbling such notions. Laxness once told me an anecdote that had obviously been heartening him for years. One day a taxi pulled up to his farm and a stranger emerged. It was an American who was in a rush (he had come from the airport, during a layover between flights) but who hadn’t wanted to miss this opportunity to shake the hand of the man who had written Independent People.
Keflavik Airport lies some fifty miles from Laxness’s farm. Cab fare for a round-trip journey of a hundred miles would have cost a fortune—today it would run you about two hundred dollars. Who would make such a pilgrimage? Might it not be the extravagant gesture of someone who feels he understands a great novel better than anyone else on the planet?
May 11, 1995