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From the Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic author, a magnificent, epic novel—"funny, clever, sardonic and brilliant" (Annie Proulx)—at last available to contemporary American readers.

Set in the early twentieth century, Independent People recalls both Iceland's medieval epics and such classics as Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter. If Bjartur of Summerhouses, the book's protagonist, is an ordinary sheep farmer, his flinty determination to achieve independence is genuinely heroic and, at the same time, terrifying and bleakly comic.

Having spent eighteen years in humiliating servitude, Bjartur wants nothing more than to raise his flocks unbeholden to any man. But Bjartur's spirited daughter wants to live unbeholden to him. What ensues is a battle of wills that is by turns harsh and touching, elemental in its emotional intensity and intimate in its homely detail. Vast in scope and deeply rewarding, Independent People is a masterpiece.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679767923
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/28/1997
Series: Vintage International Series
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 82,353
Product dimensions: 5.19(w) x 7.98(h) x 1.03(d)

About the Author

Halldór Laxness was born near Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1902. His first novel was published when he was seventeen. The undisputed master of contemporary Icelandic fiction and one of the outstanding novelists of the century, he has written more than sixty books, including novels short stories, essays, poems, plays and memoirs. In 1955 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1998.


Independent People is a pointedly timeless tale. It reminds us that life on an Icelandic croft had scarcely altered over a millenium; the seasons shifted, but the overall pattern of want and hardship and stoicism endured. Midway through the novel, however, off at an unimaginable distance, something called the Great War erupts. Normally, there would be nothing noteworthy in this (on the Continent, people were forever "hacking one another to pieces like suet in a trough"), but this time the conflict lifts to unprecedented heights the prices for Icelandic mutton and wool. Even the poorest of farmers begin dreaming of an emancipation from their tight, tethered poverty.

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Independent People 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 35 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was almost in 'real time' as far as Icelandic epics go. As a real lover of Laxness, this book was well worth every moment spent under the sheets, amidst a cold winter chill. Read it and travel there (or vise versa.)
ChuckRedman More than 1 year ago
Independent People, by Halldor Laxness (Nobel Prize winner, 1955), is one of the foremost sagas of rural family life. It is the life and times of Bjartur, an Icelandic peasant who becomes a landowner and a human metaphor for mankind’s struggle against nature, hunger, and human evolution itself. Written and translated with such poetic realism, the book makes its reader feel like an honorary Icelander—and not a city-dweller but a citizen of the endless, inhospitable moors.
whitreidtan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you were being quizzed, how many of you, even those of you who are well read, could come up with an Icelandic author off the top of your head? I know I certainly couldn't have before being introduced to not only an Icelandic author but to THE Icelandic author, 1955 Nobel Prize winning author Laxness. This bleak, desolate novel of a poor sheep farmer ekeing out an existence for himself and his unhappy family can be a tough read. After all, it doesn't sound terribly appealing, does it? But it is far more than the plotline would suggest.Opening the story with the recounting of a old myth, the reader first Bjartur of Summerhouses hiking to his newly purchased croft, which is reputed to be haunted by the characters of the myth. We see the measure of the man when he refuses to toss a stone on the cairn built to appease the mythic figures he disdains. And we know his hard-headed determination will not yield to anything, not to softness, kindness, foolishness, or truth. He has worked for 18 years to be able to put down a downpayment on a poor farm with only a small sod home/barn on it and a few animals but he feels richer than the richest man around. To this remote holding he brings first a wife, who gives birth to another man's child alone during a blizzard, bleeding to death in the process. Surprisingly Bjartur opts to raise the baby as his own, finds another wife (one who seemingly had little to no choice but to marry him) and fathers more children, only two of whom live past infanthood. This is really Bjartur's story as most of the other characters are one dimensional, with the exception of eldest daughter Asta Sollilja. Life is hard and nature cruel but Bjartur continues to eke out an existence. There are great descriptive swathes spent on worms killing sheep and butchering animals and the like but somehow, they only add to the narrative. Like a homegrown sort of Odyssey, all experienced within a day or two's walk, the experiences and adventures of the bombastic Bjartur are all oriented towards a striving for home (and in Bjartur's case, of independence). Almost all reviewers have called this an epic book, and it does indeed feel epic. Echoes of poor farming settlers everywhere abound but there also seems to be something indescribable that is purely Icelandic here as well. It feels as if this must have been written under the lowering sky of sunless winters. And yet, I think it brilliant in a depressing, downtrodden sort of way. Probably not for all readers, as there is little (no?) joy to be found in the characters here. But for those who want to persevere, they will be rewarded with nuggets of truth.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Finally finished Independent People today.I wonder how many times I read some version of Bjartur's statement of hisphilosophy: "Independence is the most important thing of all in life." (p.31)Independent man struggles to survive in Iceland in the early part of the 20th century. Recommended.
elsyd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story of Bjartur of Summerhouses, of Iceland. He is a sheep farmer who has put in 18 years of near servitude in order so secure a farm of his own and be independent. He manages to survive about 25 years before being foreclosed upon. This man is without any compassion whatever. While keeping his farm afloat, he buries two wives, and many children without ever seeming to care at all. While the book is informational about the politics of Iceland itself, and the politics of farming, I found it to be just about the most depressing thing I have ever read!
Stig_Brantley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most enjoyable books I've read in a very long time. It's as good as Knut Hamsun's 'Growth of the Soil,' which is the only book I can think of to compare it to.Brad Leithauser's foreword should have been an afterword because he gives away every key scene in the novel. Do yourself a favor and read it last.
lauralkeet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Independence is the most important thing of all in life. I say for my part that a man lives in vain until he is independent. (p. 29)Bjartur of Summerhouses is an Icelandic crofter, having earned his independence after 18 years in service. He is a proud man who works hard and has little time for emotion: For once the crofter was rather at a loss for words, for to him nothing had ever been more completely unintelligible than the reasoning that is bred of tears. He disliked tears, had always disliked tears, had never understood them ...(p.296) Bjartur establishes his homestead, marries, and raises a family, but he is entirely focused on retaining and strengthening his independence, often at the expense of relationships. His children grow up uneducated and ill-prepared for the rapidly-changing world in the first half of the 20th century. Bjartur is conservative to the point of being reactionary, and refuses to acknowledge the realities brought on by politicians and economic conditions. This epic novel takes place over many years, following Bjartur through good times and bad. Bjartur was not the most likeable character. His single-minded pursuit of independence and financial security meant that most of his family were unable to realize their full potential. Their emotional needs were largely unmet. And Bjartur experienced losses of his own, but It had never been a habit of his to lament over anything he lost; never nurture your grief, rather content yourself with what you have left...(p. 450)While Independent People is sobering and often sad, I also found it moving. With its expansive scope and tough characters, it reminded me of John Steinbeck's East of Eden, which I also enjoyed. It is not an easy read, but is well worth the effort.
fieldnotes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Hardship and frontier sagas have their own man vs. nature fan club, whose meetings I rarely attend. When you overlay the whole elemental drama with an exposition of the honest, working man¿s helplessness in the face of manipulative rich people who advance capitalism and modernity, a grim sub-genre emerges. It was done perfectly with ¿The Grapes of Wrath¿ and a guild of other page-fillers have knocked out an unnecessary pile of novels that tell similar tales ad nauseum. Certainly, Laxness¿ creation is distinguished by its Icelandicness; but if you aren¿t dying of curiosity to experience the peculiar iteration of peasants getting screwed that Iceland has to offer and you generally don¿t enjoy long, deliberate, earthbound books of this variety, keep away.Of course, like most people who win the Nobel Prize for literature, Laxness is not a sloppy wordsmith or a bad story teller. ¿Independent People¿ occasionally distinguishes itself with unexpected invention and artful character development. The wry, paper thin humor, the farmer colloquies, a few touching and insightful glimpses into childhood imagination, the humanized animals and the description of Iceland¿s response to World War One, were all well-wrought, unique and pleasurable. The articulation of the book¿s lamentably stubborn protagonist Bjartur of Summerhouses as the man who thinks, ¿Possibly his best course would be to marry the bitch, so that he could have full leave to tell her to shut up; or at the least go to bed with her, as she herself was suggesting in her own starchy fashion;¿ and the man who does this: ¿He floundered madly about in the snow, thumping himself with all his might, and did not sit down again till he had overcome all those feelings of the body that cry for rest and comfort, everything that argues for surrender and hearkens to the persuasion of faint-hearted gods¿ is consistent, believable and, eventually, frustrating. Bjartur¿s tendency to self-justify with references to Icelandic hero legends and complex, traditional poetry, is also a wonderful counterpoint to his expertise in the various disgusting ailments of sheep. The jury is sort of out on this book. It is an absolute success at being what it is and the historical perspective that I gained on Iceland in its nearly 500 pages is not something I will forget; but, this isn¿t my sort of book. I¿d rather recommend it to my grandfather.Somehow, I have to add that it reminds me of Knut Hamsun¿s ¿Growth of the Soil,¿ (the last book I recommended to my grandfather) which is nothing like ¿Hunger,¿ which is Hamsun, the Nazi¿s, most commonly read work in translation. If you enjoyed ¿Growth of the Soil,¿ ¿Independent People¿ will be a superior treat.
writestuff on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Halldor Laxness published Independent People in 1946 and later went on to win the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 - largely because of this novel. The author has created a sprawling, generational saga revolving around Bjartur of Summerhouses - a stubborn Icelandic sheep farmer who is determined to be free and independent after spending 18 years as an employee to a wealthy landowner. Bjartur purchases land from his former employer and quickly marries the tragic Rosa. Tough, spirited and wholly dedicated to his sheep and worm-infested dog, Bjartur fathers several children including a daughter - Asta Sollilija (translated ¿Beloved Sun-lily). The relationship between Bjartur and Asta is tender and heartbreaking and is what drives the narration of the novel. Bjartur stubbornly follows his path toward independence and refuses to mourn his losses as the years slip by. Only when he finally succeeds in achieving his dream of building a house (and discovers the dream is empty), does Bjartur recognize all he has lost through the years.Thematically the novel explores freedom and independence within the context of Icelandic politics and agricultural progress. Entwined in this idea of independence at all costs are moral questions about our connections to others. Where does the search for independence and freedom from others¿ influence become loneliness and isolation? At what point does a person¿s quest for autonomy interfere with his ability to establish and nurture relationships? Bjartur¿s dream to become self-sufficient is marred by the rigidity of his definition of independence.Laxness fills his novel with complex and multi-layered characters living in a harsh and desolate countryside. They all seek their dreams, stumbling through their lives with their eyes on an uncertain future. Little Nonni - Bjartur¿s youngest son - clings to his mother¿s dream that he will ¿sing for the whole world.¿ Asta dreams of love. Bjartur sees the construction of a real house as the ultimate sign he has become independent.Independent People is the story of one man, but in many ways is a universal tale. Laxness writes with an eye on scene, describing the vast moors of Iceland in such a way as to place the reader there. His language is poetic, touching and authentic. Although at times the novel seems to drag, Laxness always redeems it by bringing the reader back to the soul of his characters - individuals who I found myself wanting to get to know better, who I wanted to see succeed despite their failings.
eberickson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A classic tale of the conflict between self and community, as expressed through family, faith, national identity and ideaology. Iceland is the perfect setting for this story of a stubborn sheepherder and his quest to live on his own terms.
Kanikoski on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although intricately detailed character portraits and scene descriptions usually turn me off, this cleverly textured tale of a proudly self-sufficient Icelandic sheep farmer supplied sufficient charisma and narrative thrust to keep the pages turning, at least for the first half. A hero whose simple wish is never to owe anything to anyone is the epicentre of a catalogue of the miseries that occur when one imagines that a man can, indeed, be an island. The unfortunate consequences of his icy determination mean that the novel, although not exactly a satire of a saga, certainly questions what is heroic and what is just plain stubborn. The narrative becomes somewhat strained upon the introduction of the historical context of World War I, and the threads of philosphy and psychology that have been painstakingly gathered begin to unravel. The story revives, however, and the frustratingly single-minded protagonist, though unmoved by the loss of a wife or a son, is eventually hard to dislike.
bobbieharv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I probably wouldn't have read this if I hadn't been going to Iceland, but it was quite enjoyable to read it while I was there. Very stark, as is the country; also very depressing. But the writing was as beautiful as the main character was detestable.
seidchen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"Independent People" is a strange, delightful, funny, entrancing, sorrow-filled brew--not flawless, but one of the most idiosyncratic and best books I've ever read. It is unforgettable, and yet I hope to read it many times more.
klh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This Bjartur of Summerhouses is something of a thick-headed unsympathetic ass, but somehow beguiling, like a wart you've had for years. I'm half-Icelandic and have visited Iceland, some years ago; one of my cousins there sent me the book. The characters and the landscape really came to life for me, as I could easily conjure up their faces, their voices, the environment. I took my time reading it and I'll have to reflect on it a bit to come to any conclusions. Truly a great piece of writing. I'd say there's much to be found here if one is interested in Iceland. Late developments in the book revolve around the brief prosperity that comes to Iceland during World War One. The musings on the hazards of plenty, of real estate bubbles, of credit-fueled ambition, are especially striking in the wake of the Icesave collapse and the banking troubles of 2008. The Marxist tilt toward the end verges on the heavy-handed, but that is an artifact of the time. Bjartur remains no one's comrade.Reminds me, in a tangential way, of 'Giants in the Earth' by O. E. Rolvaag.
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MEOOHMY More than 1 year ago
Good story with an unusual setting. Some elements appear disjointed and leave you wanting additional explanation.
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