How Halldór Laxness Brings the Heroic to the Everyday
John Freeman on the Moral Power of Independent People
In the spring of 1927, the Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness had reached a crisis point in his young life. He had begun his journey as a writer in Reykjavik in 1919, making his debut at just seventeen years of age, taking the pen name “Halldór from Laxnes” from the farm where he grew up, then boarding a boat for Copenhagen where he would stroll arms linked behind him, waistcoated, like a true intellectual. This posture hadn’t worked out so well. Even his new friends in Denmark, where many of Iceland’s books were then printed—Iceland being a poor and sparsely populated country—had mocked him for this haughtiness.
Laxness had resolved to reject where he was from, and set out further yet to make himself a European novelist. In the early 1920s, under the stern sway of Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s work, he began to travel extensively in Europe, seeking out an idea system to encompass his desire to be of a broader, wider world. In short order he’d converted to Catholicism, moved into an abbey and briefly considered be coming a monk. He wasn’t going to retreat into Iceland’s rich history of sagas. “I have nothing to learn from them! Those old Icelandic fogeys,” he complained in a letter to a friend in April 1923.
Nearing the end of the 20s, with his first significant work under his belt, The Great Weaver of Kashmir, Laxness instead gave up on God and art and—in the throes of constant economic precarity back in Iceland again—decided to give commerce a shot.
“I discovered within myself a completely uncontrollable calling to go to Hollywood to write ten movies,” Laxness wrote to a friend that summer with all the enthusiasm of a man discovering a mirage and believing himself the first to have seen it. “I am convinced that I can earn millions of dollars by making movies in a considerably short amount of time.”
Laxness’ confidence was not as entirely delusional as it sounds. At twenty-five he had already lived a remarkable life. Raised on a small farm along a stream on a remote island, he’d scratched a life of cosmopolitan travel and idea-seeking out of gumption, gifts, and sheer determination. Hollywood, though busy creating a fantasy of American normality and metropolitan pizazz, was run by emigre directors, set designers and actors. Greta Garbo, born Greta Gustafsson, who’d come to California from Stockholm, had become a sensation—the latest in a series of people who went West and remade themselves. Laxness planned to be the latest of them.
It is also hard to blame Laxness for this fever. Film was a relatively new medium, and in 1927 it took several giant leaps forward. The first synchronized sound musical hit screens that year, The Jazz Singer, bringing home near $8 million at the box office (over $100 million today). Fritz Lang also released his modernist masterpiece, Metropolis, which showed what kinds of interior spaces a moving picture could create, and how it would coax an audience into contemplating the state of a world under going great change.
And so in June 1927 Laxness traveled by boat from Reykjavik to Scotland, and then steamed across the Atlantic, landing in Montreal. He then took a train to Winnipeg, where he broke his journey in a small community of Icelandic immigrants. These long, roundabout itineraries were common in his lifetime. Restlessness slaked in slow motion. Letters sent along the way were often delivered long after he’d moved on to a new location. By the time Laxness arrived in California, months had passed, but he’d gained a new benefactor, and lost none of his confidence—which proved necessary, because over the next two years, as he worked to get The Great Weaver of Kashmir translated into English, and scale the heights of Hollywood, not one of his plans panned out.
The indignities a novelist faces in Los Angeles have been often documented and well lampooned. Like so many writers before and after him, Laxness always came close enough to a deal on a script to make riches seem possible—he was practically spending the money in his head—only for it to sputter out and leave him dejected. It was like he was cursed. The translator he’d all but hand-picked to translate The Great Weaver of Kashmir became a friend, but their work stumbled when the man became bankrupt, lost his home, and had to move to the state of Washington. Laxness wrote home to his future wife Inga in despair, and while her replies arrowed back, he found himself a companion in Hollywood, a young Icelandic woman with whom he shared two years of dreams, and who cooked for him when his fortunes were so low he couldn’t eat out.
To read Laxness’ letters to Inga of this time is to watch a man tack, through failure taken personally, toward a theory of human civilization which had been staring him in the face all along. With each passing rejection, his pride stung, but not fatally damaged, Laxness took to writing essays on socialism (later published as The Book of the People), branding a savage, baroque humor onto many of the sacred pieties of Icelandic life and the growing debates over collectivism—which he knew a thing or two about, having traveled in the east of his country in the middle 1920s, witnessing the abject poverty in which many croft farmers lived and worked. In a nation where independence was a point of pride, and yet debt was essential to farmers, there was a powerful contradiction worth exploring. In 1929 Laxness would even begin a short story, “The Heath,” about a man trying to grind out a living in such an environment, but the story stalled. In the meantime, his own labor all but ignored in California, Laxness pondered, with a certain degree of narcissism, what was a world that treated people with such—indignity? Was life simply suffering?
Here is the overarching question of what became Laxness’ great novel, Independent People, an epic tale of a stubborn sheep farmer named Bjartur of Summerhouses who decides to spit in the direction of his country’s pagan traditions, and its landowners, making his way alone. As the novel begins, Bjartur has taken a new wife, Rosa, and a plot of land, which he plans to farm without debt. It required nearly twenty years oflabor, but finally he has stepped out from beneath the shadow of usury. He will not go back. Passing by a cairn where a stone has always been offered to appease a malevolent ghost, he says: no. “We pay our dues to the living, which is more to the point than pandering to people that have fried in hell for centuries,” he pronounces grandiosely. Rosa begs her husband to indulge this belief, but he refuses. “I am a free man. And you are a free woman.” They arrive at their marital home—a structure made of turf, built into the slope of a damp hillside—with her in tears.
From this moment on, the fuse of Bjartur’s long slow-burning curse begins to burn. This is a damp, roomy book, full of rippling digressions and hilarious potted histories of everything from Icelandic poetry to the best way to cure sheep of diarrhea, so there are sizable moments when it seems, perhaps, that Bjar tur has got the better of his landscape. When he has simply outworked it. But the curse always catches up—aided often by Bjartur’s stubborness and the distorted vanity born of his faith in his own flinty economy.
If you want to learn how to live in the wilds of Iceland with little more than a flock of sheep, some dried fish and moldy flour, and heaps of decaying coffee beans, here is your book. Laxness had traveled and stayed in such places in 1926, and he made a point of getting the details right, and he also knew, growing up the child of farmers, that destitution quickly reached the gut. At one point, Rosa—tired of yet another meal of almost rotten, dried catfish—traps and kills a river eel, brings it home and cooks it in its own fat, and eats the entire beast. “It’s a water-worm, that’s what it is,” Bjartur cries out in disgust. “All the more for me, then,” Rosa replies while her husband looks on in dismay.
One of the great gifts of Laxness’ vast and sweeping novel is how it moves between the mania of Bjartur’s self-belief and his industry, its consequences and the slow seep of the earth’s power. How this awesome, beautiful force can remind us of our smallness in smothering and comforting ways. In the early pages, when Bjartur is away, tending to his beloved sheep, Rosa feels the whole weight of the life they’ve undertaken come down in an afternoon of rain. “Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marshgrass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect,” Laxness writes. “And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.”
Would that he spent more time attending to Rosa’s worries or needs, let alone those of anyone else across the book. The only form of achievement Bjartur cares about, though, means he must treat his sheep like gods, as beings of far more value than a mere human. When one of them goes missing, Bjartur races off into the terrible weather to find it and winds up riding the back of a bull reindeer down a frozen river. Though the ill-advised trip nearly gets him killed, he briefly considers this a triumph. A sign of his devotion. Meanwhile, in his absence, Bjartur’s wife—already suffering from depression—has died in childbirth. It is the first gouging sadness of this book, but there is more to come. In time, Laxness shows you how every misfortune and terrible event becomes an opportunity for the poor to become yet poorer. When Bjartur of Summerhouses visits the older, wealthy Reverend Gudmundur to ask if he will officiate at his wife’s funeral, the ill-tempered minister has no patience for the bereaved, stubborn farmer, whom he scolds and cranks full of coffee and brandy. Then, sensing a deal, he presses his case. “And how much do you think you can give for such a speech?” he asks. Before the reader can begin to feel fury on Bjartur’s behalf, Laxness does something brilliant. He shows how Bjartur has been schooled by time’s cruel orbit to find in every interaction a transaction. Even in death. He comes looking for a burial speech, and he leaves with another wife.
The scene, like so much of Independent People, is blackly funny, richly detailed, and terribly sad. It captures how a mercantile spirit so often develops not out of opportunity, but its lack. It reveals how a national fetish for resilience—be it in Iceland or anywhere—is born of a marriage of economy and myth. How else can a society encourage people to work themselves possibly to death without a heroic tale that doing so is in their character? Finally, the scene reminds us how this unholy union of necessity is very often hardest on women. Here’s why Independent People breaks your heart so, for after watching Bjartur bury one wife and take another, while plunging all of his resources into the sheep he tends, you know his chance to truly outdo the past will come in the form of a girl, his baby daughter—one more chance to show some tenderness to someone who is dependent on him.
Where did this come from? Why would a novelist so enamored of success, so believing in himself, so determined to leave a backward nation—so hungry for it to catch up with the rest of the world—plunge headfirst into it and its spiritual questions? During his American years the itinerant writer had been to every studio lot in LA, and all over the West, visiting a Mormon tabernacle, consulting a spirit medium in the desert (on assignment as a reporter), attending black spiritual music concerts. He even had an audience with Krishnamurti, one of the world’s leading Buddhist gurus at the time. And yet, somehow, none of it was enough. The only beliefs that persisted through all this were one, in himself—which was unshakeable—and two, in socialism, a force rippling through America at the time.
In popular culture the 1920s are often depicted as a heyday of wealth and largesse, especially in the United States. Decadence. Flappers. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s glamorous novels. Indeed, conspicuous consumption was all the rage, but for most Americans it was a decade of pain. By some accounts, sixty percent of the nation lived below the poverty line. In 1924, some 600,000 farmers went bankrupt. This had a crushing effect on people who were sharecropping or working the land. One million black farm workers lost their jobs in the 1920s. It was in this context that Jean Toomer wrote his great elegiac 1924 novel, Cane.
Halldór Gudmundsson, Laxness’ great biographer, notes that the wandering writer reached a departure point with modernism while living in America. In those two years, seeing the way people lived in obvious destitution, Laxness fell hard for the country’s reigning social realists: Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair. Sinclair was by this time a well-established author and had already published The Jungle and dozens of other books. The two men met and dined together and Laxness wrote of the radical American writer and his work with high praise. It was under Sinclair’s auspices that Laxness would later speak to the IWW (International Workers of the World) union, the most radical workers’ rights group in the country. Laxness pecked and tested at socialism, dispatching himself to rallies and events, writing them up, getting drawn into political debates like a slow-motion Twitter brawler. He eventually would become known as the most famous “red pen” in Iceland.
Laxness’ flirtation with radicalism sat differently in America than back home. In fact, it earned him enemies within the immigrant community of Icelanders, who were by nature conservative and grateful to be in the US. Several of them even filed charges against him, leading to Laxness being arrested by the LAPD. Greeting him with a file “four-five thumbs thick,” the police wanted to know if this guest from Iceland was stirring up sedition. With the help of Sinclair and the American Civil Liberties Union, Laxness was released, his passport eventually returned, but his faith in the American project was dented.
Not long afterward, the stock market crashed and Laxness watched the chaos which ensued. “In California everyone was happy and rich and fortunate until the Great Depression hit,” he told Gudmundsson. “It happened in one day, and I actually watched it happen. I walked around the streets, which were full of lost people and crying women with children; they had lost everything. People thought that capitalism was dead and no-one was satisfied or happy any longer. They had lost everything that they had in banks and stocks, and a friend of mine lost his home, and there was no longer any need for a young man to speak about Iceland at afternoon parties.”
Failure—both his own, and proximity to that of so many others—turned out to be good for Laxness. As Gudmundsson describes, Laxness returned home with a clear idea of what he wanted to do, a sense of purpose and a desire to accept at least part of what he always had been. “His cinematic dreams had come to an end, and he no longer fantasized about becoming a writer in a foreign language. His intention was to write in Icelandic, about Icelandic subjects—but hopefully for the world. And he intended to participate in the struggle to improve living conditions in Iceland.”
By and large, he did all these things. In the following decade, Laxness published some fifteen books, including his essays on socialism, Book of the People, which stirred up strong feelings in Reykjavik; a book of poems; a volume of stories; and most of his best novels including Salka Valka (1931- 2), which chronicles the life of people in a small Icelandic fishing village, Independent People (1934—5), and World Light (1937—40), a brilliant farce about a poet from a small village who feels destined for greatness.Exceptionalism is the gremlin capital sends to torture the poor. It whispers in their ears and says, it has ever been thus, but maybe, just maybe, you are different.
He also married Ingibjorg Einarsdottir, whom he had met in 1924 at a house party—”Little girl—you can light my cigarette with your eyes!” were the first words he’d uttered to her—fathering a son with her, trading trips abroad as each took up the pressure valve on their tolerance for life in a country that could feel very small. They left immediately after being married in the town hall for a literary conference in Oslo—Laxness would attend many in his life—where he met Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset, then launched into a decade of travel that zigzagged be tween Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, and even a brief stint in the Soviet Union (which resulted in a terrible wishful-thinking book, Going East). He was often broke, so broke in fact he didn’t even have a clean shirt to attend a PEN conference in Paris once and had to borrow the money. Still, he always came home. In the spring of 1933, he traveled all across Iceland and as Gudmundsson notes, couldn’t help but notice the conditions so many farmers had to endure: “It rained an enormous amount throughout the south; hardly a single stone was dry the whole summer. From the final weeks of winter until well into haymaking I meandered around isolated farms both in the west and north, viewing the land and chatting with the people.” Not long after that, Laxness left Iceland for Spain, holed up in a hotel in Barcelona and began writing.
Laxness allows us to see the poor without us only seeing their poverty. Here is the mistake so often made by Marxist social novels. So determined do they become in telling us what they think we need to know, that they take up all the light necessary for sight. You cannot see in the dark. In novels, this is especially true. There needs to be love and humor, song and ritual, food and drink and its pleasures, however meagre, and landscapes which provide more than a reminder of what they do not pro vide—even if, in the end, they do not provide total succor. How can such a long, tragic book be such a joy to read, so hilarious and also so moving? We know Bjartur is cursed. We know that it’s a bad idea to get a cow, that his ill-treated second wife will get sick, that denying his daughter the education she so desperately wants will have repercussions, and that the pride he polishes like a weapon will ultimately stab him somewhere vital, as it does in times of prosperity, when the surge in wool prices during the War leads him finally to build the home he so often said he didn’t need, and take out the mortgage that will ultimately sink him. Yet until we reach these moments in the novel, we proceed as if they were not predestined. As if he will dodge the fate others have succumbed to for centuries. Why? Laxness has successfully, brilliantly, brought us into the mindset of Bjartur of Summer houses, and that is the mindset of exceptionalism.
Exceptionalism is the gremlin capital sends to torture the poor. It whispers in their ears and says, it has ever been thus, but maybe, just maybe, you are different. It murmurs that you are not a pauper, but a temporarily challenged aristocrat. It fosters an almost pathological strength from the body, this gremlin, because poverty falls first and most heavily on the body, and so it is the body’s will to survive that proves the virtue of exceptionalism. If I can survive a hair-raising ride down an icy river on the back of an ornery bull reindeer, say, as Bjartur does, then through force of will and bodily determination, exceptionalism teaches, I can survive anything. It trains you, in other words, to listen to its message.
In this way, Independent People tells us two things at once. It adopts the episodic format of a Saga, a traditional Icelandic tale full of adventure, bravery, and strange occurrences, yet what it chronicles for the most part are the daily occurrences of an ordinary life. A life ground down over time by its dailiness, its relentless dailiness. Feeding the sheep, watering the horse, tracking down the ewe. Chiseling with merchants on their prices. Battening down for the winter the leaky house which smells of horse urine and ram farts. Juxtaposing this heroic format and his hero’s rather unadventuresome life, Laxness creates a kind of time not often seen in fiction. He gives birth on the page to epically static time.The precariousness of dignity, more than its eternal lack, cuts to the root of poverty and vulnerability. Will it ever end?
We need to feel this scale of time in order to understand Bjartur’s poverty, and so a huge amount of this book is dedicated to ritual and circularity. The tilt of seasons, the return of conversations about lung -worm and sheep diarrhea. The drinking of coffee upon the arrival of guests, the perpetual tussling with a bailiff over a deal. Independent People doesn’t merely paint these habits and seasons and eternal qualities as a prison, either. One of the book’s most beautiful passages is the burst of prose poetry that announces the beginning of the second section, “Free of Debt,” which unfolds as seen through the eyes of Bjartur’s son, who walks us through a typical winter’s day, from the first smell of coffee to the sweetly arriving oblivion of sleep that sweeps him back under to the next. Coming swiftly on the heels of an agonizing funeral, this interlude is a reminder that in each generation there is, at root, a birth of possibility. As a young person learns these rituals, there’s a tremendous comfort in their predictability and scrutability—but it’s something which will slightly burn off with time.
It will burn off piece by piece, and Independent People shows how this happens, taking us into a new generation that feels the desperate pinch of hunger upon waking, the longing for milk, the specialness of sugar, the humiliation of seeing richer guests, such as the Bailiff, eat their fill. A generation which dreams of cakes so big the circumference cannot be seen, cakes filled with raisins the size of a man’s eyes. A generation that grows up in the penumbra of a man’s penury so long that it is starved for touch. So desperate is Bjartur for his sheep to survive, he cannot recognize that all his daughter truly wanted, as a child, was some tenderness. Something which cost him, technically, nothing. This is poverty embodied, not through the simple brutalization of bodies by their landscape, but by emotional starvation. Asta Solillja will be shaped by what she cannot have yet yearns for—all of which Bjartur believes is a luxury he cannot afford.
How do you retrieve dignity from such a cycle? Independent People recognizes this is an impossible question. That a writer cannot simply paint dignity onto characters this complex and vivid by setting that cycle in motion so we can watch them struggle, but that dignity must constantly be given and taken away over the course of the book—as if at some magical moment the cycle might be transcended. The precariousness of dignity, more than its eternal lack, cuts to the root of poverty and vulnerability. Will it ever end? Won’t someone get a leg up? Perhaps only when someone else dies or leaves or gives up their position. You read Independent People eventually as a page-turner to find out if any one of these things will happen—perhaps with more hope than is rational. That Laxness elicits such an emotion, in spite of what we’re witnessing, attests to this novel’s great moral power to engage us still and make us feel. Like a rain that will not stop.
From Independent People by Halldór Laxness, with an introduction by John Freeman. Used with the permission of Everyman’s Library.