The Icelandic author Halldor Laxness (1902-1998) published Independent People in 1946, and later, in 1955, went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, mainly because of this novel.
Independent People is about the struggles of a very proud Icelandic sheep farmer, Bjartur of Summerhouses, who slaved and saved for 18 years for a man he detested to buy his own farm and become “an independent man”. For Bjartur, to be independent is the most important thing of all, and to maintain his own complete independence he brings destruction even to the people closest to him – his wife and children.
Halldór Kiljan LaxnessLaxness published his first book when he was 17 years old. He is known for his fiction depicting the hardships of fishermen and farmers on Iceland, and for his historical novels that draw on Iceland's sagas and mythology while dealing with national and social issues.
Laxness was educated at the Icelandic Latin School andattended the gymnasium in Reykjavík briefly without graduating. In 1923 Laxness turned to Catholicism and got the name Kiljan after Irish St Kilian. He spent some time at Saint-Maurice de Clervaux, a monastery in Luxemburg, studied in London at a Jesuit-run school, and continued his spiritual search at Lourdes and Rome.
Laxness was a very productive author, he has over 60 works to his name (novels, plays, essays, short stories, memoirs and travel books). Laxness's awards include, in addition to the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Stalin Peace Prize, the Danish Nexö Award, and Sonning Award. Laxness, born in 1902, died on February 1, 1998.
You can read more about Halldor Laxness at kirjasto.sci.fi!
See also The Islander: A Biography of Halldor Laxness, an excellent biography written by Halldor Gudmundsson.
In Independent People, Laxness describes the tough, challenging life of sheep farmers spread out in the wilderness of Iceland in an age when sheep farming is slowly becoming less and less tenable. The never-ending fight against the elements, the foul weather, the extremely hard work required to keep the sheep alive, the poverty, religion, the relationship to officials and government, as well as how external events such as the First World War influenced Iceland. It is all told and viewed from the perspective of Bjartur and the people he interacts with, in an off-hand, somewhat remote way that somehow gives the descriptions added persuasiveness . Yet the hard Bjartur also has another side to him – he is a poet of sorts and frequently recites Icelandic poetry.
Bjartur was a hard, in some ways brutal man, sometimes even seeming uncaring of the pains of others, even his closest, yet we somehow understand that hardness as a necessary shield, a layer of protection of the mind, that is a requirement for a man wanting to maintain independence under such extreme circumstances. An example of this is when Bjartur loses a son: “I suppose I have lost sons before", Bjartur muttered as he left his final son to certain death.
To me, the ability to tell this tale so off-handedly, so distantly - to show us all the pain and all the hurt that constitutes the extreme price paid for independence by Bjartur and his family – without making us hate or despise Bjartur, but actually strongly respect him, that is the true genius of Halldor Laxness. Bjartur is stupid, stubborn to the extreme, lacks sensitivity, lacks the ability to communicate his emotions, yet in him and his actions we sense a kind of historical necessity – that being determined as he is, Bjartur of Summerhouses acts out the sum total of the harsh reality surrounding him. And therefore, we cannot but respect him. So Bjartur shocks us, over and over, but still he does not repulse us.
Independent people is a true masterpiece. Every scene is carefully set up and marvelously described. It is a book best read slowly, with lots of pondering on the side. It is beautiful, lyrical, poetical, austere and full of mythical mystery as far as the writing is concerned, yet describes hardship and ugly events that are shocking. And in the middle of it all is the ever constant independent man, who only understands the flaws of his own ways when all is done and all is finally lost. Independent People is a book of the kind that is likely make you laugh and cry, and that will leave you with the feeling that you have done something important when you have finished reading it!
We Icelanders have never had any great respect for kings … for everyone is equal before God; and as long as a farmer can call himself an independent man and no one else’s slave, so long can he call himself his own king. (Independent People, p. 373)
Birds are happier than men, it is their wings that make all the difference; “grey-goose mother, lend me thy wings.” (Independent People, p. 37)
The Fish Can Sing is one of Halldor Laxness’s most beloved novels. It is a tale of Iceland written with a very pointed pen and with considerable amounts of Laxness’ blend of light irony, love for Iceland, warmth and dark humor. The setting is Iceland in the early years of the twentieth century. Modernization of Iceland, perhaps even independence from Denmark, is on the national agenda. It is wonderfully written, flows slowly and grows while you digest it.
On the outside The Fish Can Sing tells the story of the orphan Alfgrimur. He has spent an idyllic childhood being sheltered in the simple turf cottage of a very generous and eccentric elderly couple and all their various house guests who come there to stay. His dream is to become a fisherman, like his adoptive grandfather. He is a strange character. The price he charges for his fish never change. And his regular customers buy his fish both when it is the cheapest and the most expensive at the market because he is considered fair and honest. The grandfather teaches the boy about the eternal truths of the world.
Then Alfgrimur hears about the internationally famous opera singer, Gardar Holm, a very mysterious man who spends most of this time abroad where he supposedly is extremely famous. Gardar rarely visits Iceland, but when he does, it always causes a stir. Yet somehow he always fails to perform for his beloved countrymen.
Alfgrimur meets this famous singer. And Gardar is interested in Alfgrimur, as he recognizes in him a budding talent for singing which he seeks to encourage. However, Alfgrimur is somewhat suspicious of Gardar, and realizes that he is not what he seems to be. And Alfgrimur learns, in several ways, that there is “the one true note”, and that whoever has heard this note never sings again. But has he heard it?
In The Fish Can Sing, Halldor Laxness finds large ideas in the minds of modest and rustic Icelanders, and he portrays their lives as imbued with an eclectic, uniquely Icelandic dignity. Iceland needs singing fish – celebrities like Gardar Holm – that can promote the country and increase national pride. Is that to be the role of Alfgrimur as well? And more than just only the tale of Alfgrimur and Gardar Holm, this tale is perhaps the tale of an Iceland in transition.