Tuesday, July 15, 2014

My Reading Life: Slogging through the saga -- Independent People (Laxness)



Independent People
(Laxness)
This book has been a burden to my reading life for the last couple of weeks. Yet, I've made myself finish it. Why? First, because I don't like to quit books, especially ones that have garnered such high ratings from readers that are much more well-read than I. Second, my curiosity was teased; I did want to find out what happened in the end to Bjartur of Summerhouses. And third, because I wanted to have a "taste" of Iceland before traveling there in a few months. 

In the beginning of the book, I liked what I read for the most part. Yes, as others have said, author Halldór Laxness is most descriptive and wordy; he reminds me of how I think. His lengthy descriptions are like a translation to words of our lightning-quick thoughts or dreams that flit from one thing to another and make sense only to us in our own minds. Describing a dream that you cannot seem to wrap your own head around is most difficult, yet we alone understand something of the dream without the use of words. Laxness, however, paints a picture with these words, and what a bleak picture he paints. I did not realize when I began this book that it is basically a tragedy. If I had, I’m not sure I would have started the journey. With the many five-star reviews, I was confident that I would enjoy the story. But the further I read, the less I liked. I reminded myself of my favorite book ever, Michael O’Brien’s The Island of theWorld, which is some ways, began similarly with me. There was bleakness there for many pages, yet through a series of crucifixions and resurrections, the protagonist emerged triumphant. Independent People, however, never had resurrections or triumphs, only crucifixions, unless you count the last few paragraphs.

I see books in color when I read. And this book is the antithesis of the extraordinary beauty of Icelandic landscape pictures I have seen. When I read this book, I saw gray everywhere. Everywhere except at the very beginning and later towards the end of the book when son Gvendur travels to the coast in anticipation of going to America. There is a drabness, dreariness, dirtiness, and darkness in the shadows of descriptions in Independent People. As far as reading this book for a "taste" of Iceland before travelling there, umph. I'll settle for pretty Internet pictures instead.

Bjartur of Summerhouses is a character that causes a disturbance within me and makes me want to slap him. He is independent for sure; he is uncaring and unloving to his family and so “practical” that he is almost machinery. His first and foremost care is toward his sheep. And the more sheep he has, the more help he needs. And that help has to come from his family. I’m not sure I can really use the word “family” to accurately describe those people around Bjartur; they are actually his physical family, but he treats them not at all like family. Life for them is drudgery and miserable and the only thing they know. I'm not truly sure that Bjartur's foremost care is toward his sheep though; I think Bjartur is a man eaten up with pride in himself and keeps only those things around him that add to that pride. Yes, I meant things; I don't think Bjartur saw people, even his family, as anything more than things.

Someone said that reading this book was like Bjartur’s life struggle to independence: slogging through snow, ice, and mud. It is. And my stubbornness to finish the book anyway is a smidgeon of the ornery stubbornness that Bjartur embraces. I have to say that that man did not give up in the face of difficulty and grief, though I don’t think he was capable of grieving much at all. He persevered, yet in his determination to be beholden to no one, he loses everything. Almost. The last few paragraphs of the book, after 482 pages, redeemed Bjartur for me. But only a bit.

Whenever I hear or read the word “independent” now, I don’t think my mind will conjure up positive images again. At least, not for a long time.

Should you read Independent People? If you are a fairly fast reader, at least you won’t feel like you’re living in frozen mud on a gray landscape for too long, so go for it. If not, be prepared. And, I will one day read another one by Laxness since I have several. But not for a while.


Some interesting links I found:


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