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Independent People Paperback – International Edition, January 14, 1997

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Originally published in 1946 and out of print for decades, this book by the Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic author is a huge, skaldic treat filled with satire, humor, pathos, cold weather and sheep. Gudbjartur Jonsson becomes Bjartur of Summerhouses when, after 18 years of service to the Bailiff of Myri, he is able to buy his own croft. Summerhouses is probably haunted and is certainly unprepossessing, but Bjartur is a stubborn, leathery old (whatever his age) coot, and he soon has his new bride and few head of sheep installed in a sod house. When his wife dies cold and alone giving birth to the daughter of the Bailiff's son, Bjartur takes the child on almost as another test of his independence. Bjartur survives another wife, three sons that lived and several dead ones, all with his "armour of scepticism," which "endowed him with greater moral fortitude than that possessed by the other men." Through hard times (in the guises of worms and a cow that threaten his precious sheep), Bjartur maintains his ferocious and self-destructive independence, one aimed not so much at bettering his condition as being able to tell his former employer where to get off. Laxness is merciless with the hypocrisy of the upper classes, as exemplified by the Bailiff's poetess wife, who applauds the simple life of poor country people, or the Bailiff's son, whose social-welfare schemes help him but undermine the crofters. Laxness is not easy on Bjartur, who is bloody-minded in the extreme, but he is tender enough to compose a poem to his exiled adoptive daughter, and bold enough to engrave a simple marker in honor of the misunderstood ghoul who has haunted his farm and family. He's a figure that Snorri Sturluson would have recognized.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"Reader rejoice! At last this funny, clever, sardonic and brilliant book is back in print. Independent People is one of my Top Ten Favourite Books of All Time." —Annie Proulx

"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. . . . My favorite book by a living novelist is Independent People." —Brad Leithauser

"This beautiful and heartbreaking novel has haunted me ever since I was lent a rare copy years ago, and I am delighted that what is clearly a masterpiece by a relatively uncelebrated genius will now be available to a wide audience of book lovers. If there is any justice in the world, the name Laxness will soon become a household word, at least in those households where timeless works of the imagination are cherished." —Joel Conarroe

"Laxness has a poet's imagination and a poet's gift for phrase and symbol. . . . Bjartur is a magnificent and complex symbol of peasant independence." —The New York Times Book Review

"A strange story, vibrant and alive. . . . There is a rare beauty in its telling, a beauty as surprising as the authentic strain of poetry that lies in the shoving, battering Icelander." —Atlantic Monthly

"A saga that somehow contrives to recapture the broad, clear air of older Icelandic tales." —The Observer (London)

"[Laxness] gives a large picture of life under primitive conditions, [he] writes vividly, using irony with vigorous effect; amid the brutality and squalor there are rich moments of humor and poetry." —The Spectator (London)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage International Ed edition (January 14, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780679767923
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679767923
  • ASIN: 0679767924
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (145 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #20,436 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

122 of 126 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 16, 1999
Format: Paperback
Independent People is not a book for everyone. It is a long, slow and sometimes punishing read. Laxness paints the sheep farmer's life in bleak tones. Think of Solzhenitsyn's Siberia or Rolvaag's Dakota prairie. So dismal is the mood at times that the reader feels the imminent onset of seasonal affective disorder. But Independent People also contains moments of pure, distilled beauty so arresting they seem to stand out from the cold landscape like stars in the ink of darkness. Bjartur of Summerhouses is a true epic hero. As Monte Christo is to vengeance, Bjartur is to self-determination. His emotional intransigence and the suffering he visits on all those close to him is balanced only by the enormity and brute force of his will. Asta Sollilja, his daughter, is the only possible counterweight to his obstinacy, in both emotional and literary terms. She is strong and sensitive, beautiful and grotesque, half Bjartur, half anti-Bjartur. Her duality provides the story's central drama and the book's over-arching metaphor. Masterfully constructed of vignettes woven into small books, Independent People is seamless. Laxness's voice is clear and lyric, never showy. The writing is fresh and modern, yet seems to be channeled from Iceland's mythic past. This is a land populated by many dark spirits and one never feels quite free of their presence here. Certain images from Independent People are indelibly etched on my consciousness. A man violently and accidentally riding a reindeer. A girl longing by a window for a stranger she's met just once. A young man seduced back to the home he has left by a siren on horseback. There is something more to why I love this book. I spent a week in Iceland in July 1998, and was transfixed by its rugged, austere beauty.Read more ›
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99 of 103 people found the following review helpful By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 2, 2003
Format: Paperback
I first read "Independent People" in 1996 after reading Brad Leithauser's essay in the "New York Review of Books." Leithauser's praise of the book and the author were so intriguing that I went to the library that day and found an earlier edition. I recently had the opportunity to read the book again, with Leithauser's essay serving as an introduction. A single reading cannot exhaust this outsize, obscure novel by the 1955 Nobel-prize winner from Iceland.
On a simple level, "Independent People" deals with the lives of the poor sheep grazers in Iceland early in the 20th Century. The hero is a farmer named Bajartur of Summerhouses who, after 18 years of working for another, the baliff, earns enough money to buy his own small farm. Bajartur's goal is to be independent and self-sufficient, to take what he earns and not take or give to others. In addition to this simple economic credo for independence. Bjartur is an "independent person" emotionally in his relationships with his wives -- he is twice married in the book -- his three sons and his daughter -- actually his first wife's daughter but not Bjartur's -- whom Bjartur names Asta Sollija the "beloved sun -lily" whom he refers to as his soul's "one flower." Much of this long, multi-faceted book involves Bjartur's relationship with Asta Sollija -- their estrangement and ultimate reconciliation.
Bjartur and Asta Sollija and their relationship frames but hardly exhausts this book. There is a picture of Iceland -- or of modernizing society in general with its conflict between farmer and town. There are long discussions of poetry and literature, of war, of politics, and particularly of philosophy and religion, see below.
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40 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Richard S. Harman on February 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
Having just read INDEPENDENT PEOPLE, I feel as though I have been drawn into the vortex of some great hurricane and am being carried around the globe by it, high above the surface, trapped in its gravity.
This story has captured me and will not let me go. It is above all the heroic struggle of a Viking farmer to be free and his refusal to grieve in loss and defeat that grip me. He never grieves. Why then did I continually grieve for him? And why am I grieving for him still?
The answer must be that my character is weak in comparison. Laxness may have spoken for all survivors everywhere. "Never mourn what you have lost."--"rather content yourself with what you have left, when you have lost what you had."
Some people learn Russian to read Pushkin. I want to learn Icelandic to read Laxness.
As for politics and ideologies, not to worry. They are just a little dust here and there on the floor of the croft, at times a little distraction. The story unfolds outside and above and all around them and in its enormous weight little concerns them.
Could this book possibly have been written just for me? To enjoy it most, a reader should probably have lived at least a thousand years.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 1, 1998
Format: Paperback
Every year, I try to read at least one classic work of fiction, whether I need to or not. So far in 1998, my choice has been Halldor Laxness' 1946 Nobel Prize winning novel Independent People. This is a book which I had never heard of until it was re-issued in English (the original is in Icelandic) in 1997. Laxness, who subtitles his work "An Epic," tells the tale of sheep-farmer Bjartur of Summerhouses, and his life-long, monomaniacal struggle for financial independence. In the process, he loses two wives, a son leaves him, and his dearest child -- Asta Sollilja ("Beloved Sun-Lily") -- is disowned. Only by losing all of his wealth does he find what he truly values. While styled "an epic," this is also a whimsical and lyrical work. Bjatur, in addition to farming, is a bit of a poet, and the most remarkable extended scene is Bjatur's desperate struggle with bitter cold in the wilderness while trying to find a strayed sheep. In the middle of the night, to keep his senses and way, he returns to his muse:
'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 he learned from his mother, and all the lampoons that had been known in the Fourthing from time immemorial about baliffs, merchants, and sheriffs.'
Ultimately, the poetry keeps him alive as he finally crawls his way on all fours to safety. I found myself reading this book in short doses so that I could savor the language, and so it would not end too soon.
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