Laxness is Dependably Frustrating in Independent People

independent-people-halldor-laxness-paperback-cover-art

This is the real thing: a head-over-heels incredulity that there exists in the universe so perfect an imperfection.

(from the intro by Brad Leithauser)

After hating The Great Weaver of Kashmir without being able to dismiss its quality, I read Independent People and didn’t know what to think. My relationship with Laxness will always be volatile; he inspires fervor and frustration in equal measure.

Independent People is often cited as his masterpiece, and it proves that Laxness’ Nobel Prize is well-earned. It holds up in comparison to The Grapes of Wrath; in both stories, dirt-poor farmers who epitomize the national spirit fight for survival and dignity against economic forces they don’t understand. In the case of Independent People, the farmer is Bjartur, who sacrifices everything of value in his life to pursue his ideal of independence.

While Steinbeck and Laxness grant their ignorant peasants both strength and folly, Steinbeck never mocks his with the wry humor that marks Laxness. I think this is a reflection of the difference between Americans and Icelanders – sarcasm was a critical ingredient from the earliest sagas, while even the most literary Americans have a weakness for the maudlin.

Leithauser speaks of the first time he met Laxness in person.

“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…For by the time you’ve passed through the storm with him, it’s impossible not to be rooting for that monomaniacal, unkillable, wonderfully stupid old bastard, Bjartur of Summerhouses.

And he is delightfully stupid, at first. But each spring a baby is buried and a little bit of Bjartur’s humanity with it. He clings so strongly to his bloated idea of independence that when his last child is about to leave for America, he doesn’t even climb out of the ditch he is digging to say goodbye, thinking

“The strongest man is he who stands alone…Is not the ability to stand alone the perfection of life, the goal?”

I had already stopped rooting for monomaniacal Bjartur by this point. Perhaps it says more about me than it does about the book that I lost patience with Laxness himself when he killed off Bjartur’s eldest son, Helgi. Yes, the bitter Helgi’s death was symmetrically necessary to counter dreamy Nonni’s fortune. But Helgi’s bitterness at Bjartur’s cruelty seems to me the only appropriate response among all the characters’. I begrudge Laxness killing Helgi as much as I despise Bjartur for valuing his sheep above his son. I stopped rooting for Bjartur the day he found Helgi’s body.

It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Bjartur would lose the farm – Bjartur’s success would be the literary equivalent of Ahab chowing down on albino whale with a nice Chardonnay.

“He returned to his senses, now that the boom years were over, to find himself stuck in the bog that, with infinite labor, he had managed to avoid in the hard years; the free man of the famine years had become the interest-slave of the boom years.”

“Ha! What are your sheep worth now, Bjartur?” I thought when the post-war price of mutton fell. But that is just where Laxness’ genius lies, because it’s the point of the whole story. Bjartur’s precious independence is a false victory, even as his principles are proven true – if he had refused to take out credit for the house, he would have kept his independence. Laxness captures the whole complicated mess of human existence. He doesn’t let anyone off the hook, and there are no clean finishes. No villain falls to his death; a few villains go bankrupt, but they are quickly replaced by more villainous ones.

There are traces of the disappointing ending from The Jungle. Bjartur gives his son to the communists, suddenly regaining his humanity and with it, the precious daughter. (Communism has never been kind to fiction – it leaves no room for subtlety.) But a true Icelander, the irascible Laxness avoids Sinclair’s too-clean ending when he reminds us that Bjartur has sacrificed his principles, lost his farm, and regained his daughter only temporarily.

The only perfection Laxness gives us is the perfect catch-22 of the peasants’ situation. Bjartur and his neighbors can’t win for losing. The forces of nature and powerful men are always allied against the small farmer. But it’s almost unnecessary for them to do so, because the farmers are almost as good at destroying themselves as their enemies are. Bjartur could have found a happy marriage with the housekeeper, whose savings might have saved the farm. Sending her away was too stupid to be wonderful.

I wish I had a little more historical context. I’ve peered into the model of a crofter’s house at the National Museum in Reykjavík, and it seemed very like the descriptions in the book. But I still don’t know if Laxness meant for Bjartur to be worse off than others. He seems to imply that Bjartur’s refusal to borrow money is responsible for his annual trips to the cemetery. Certainly his second wife’s death is the result of his delightful stupidity.

I have many other questions about the book, large and small, that are probably obvious to an Icelandic reader. To answer them, I will spend time reading the Laxness in Translation page that helped me so much with Great Weaver, and even though I found myself crying in frustration at Bjartur’s stupidity, I suspect that I will read the book again.

Even when I can’t stand Laxness, I still love him.

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A Hard Dog’s Night

Happy Yatsu

So I have this memory of John Denver sitting on a cabin porch in a Rocky Mountain sunrise, eating GrapeNuts cereal. I’ve spent unsuccessful hours online trying to prove John Denver did a GrapeNuts commercial, but the memory is there if the evidence isn’t. The reason this commercial stayed with me while it was forgotten by the rest of the world is that the image of wholesome predawn hopefulness is so foreign to me. Even as a child, I was a night owl. I always wanted to stay up with the grownups and got my best ideas for games and projects when it was time for bed. Continue reading