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Halldór Laxness: Sjálfstætt fólk: hetjusaga (Independent People)

Some critics consider this to be Laxness’ best novel and there is certainly a good case for it. Though mainly set in an isolated part of Iceland, it does, as other first-class novels do and as one of the characters claim, show an entire world. The hero or, at least, the main character, is Bjartur, a determinedly independent man, who buys a farm near the village of Rauthsmyri. The farm is cursed because of a previous inhabitant who is buried on the land. The farm is called Winterhouses but Bjartur proceeds to name it Summerhouses.

Bjartur wants one thing only – to be independent. He seeks to pay off his mortgage and increase his flock of sheep but to do so without help from anyone. He needs a woman and finds and marry one but, only later does he realise that she is pregnant with someone else’s child. As he is so tight-fisted he does not eat the sheep he breeds but, when his wife steals one for her own food when he is away, he assumes the ewe in question has gone missing and makes a long journey to find her but, of course, without success. When he returns, his wife has died giving birth but the child – later named Asta Sollijla – survives. We jump to a few years ahead. Bjartur has married but his new wife is sickly, not least because Bjartur overworks her. The house now has more inhabitants. In addition to Bjartur, his wife and Asta Sollijla, there are three boys and Bjartur’s mother-in-law, always complaining. The focus is on Asta Sollijla and Little Nonni, the youngest boy, who is somewhat precious and will eventually leave for America. The oldest boy dies, when he is lost in the cold and the middle boy, Gvendur, plans to emigrate to America but does not, primarily because he falls in love with the bailiff’s granddaughter.

Meanwhile Bjartur’s fortunes rise and fall with the change in the world economy. World War I brings about a boom while the Great Depression affects Iceland as it does elsewhere. A certain amount of wealth arrives in the country but Bjartur’s ambition – to build a house – ends up costing him a fortune. When he has to leave to find work, his daughter stays behind and he sends a teacher to the family but he impregnates Asta Sollijla and when she is condemned by her father (something we only learn later) she moves away. In the end, Bjartur has lost his home, because of financial difficulties, his four children (one in America, one dead, one estranged and one, the last of his sons, off in Reykjavik) and two wives. What has his independence of spirit brought him?

Of course, Laxness’ novel is long and no summary can do justice to how he shows Bjartur’s independence and how Bjartur, without realising it, is the main cause of his own downfall. That he is shown both as a hero but also as, ultimately, bearing the seeds of his own destruction, as heroes often do, is a tribute to Laxness’ skill.

Publishing history

First published 1934 by E. P. Briem
First published in English 1945 by Allen & Unwin
Translated by J. A. Thompson