My best book ever

In my research for a novel I was planning to set in Iceland and Denmark (still unfinished), I came across the writer Halldor Laxness. Laxness won the noble prize for literature in 1955 but he is little known and little appreciated except in Iceland.


His novel ‘Independent People’ has become, for me, a primary source of inspiration. Set in Iceland it is, on the surface, a family saga but its actual concern is humanity and the many trials of being human. A wry reflection on life, it is of universal philosophical appeal.


“All men dream of greater things. That they will mysteriously rise above their station. Some think it will only be fulfilled in heaven.”


Throughout the novel we witness interaction between the individual, and their environment and culture. Influenced by the Icelandic Sagas, his protagonist, Bjartur of Summerhouses, shows relentless and heroic stoicism in the face of equally relentless hardship. While the novel is stripped bare of human action, the human reaction to the cruel and merciless environment is powerfully engaging. And in the stillness and silence of any respite from survival, Laxness creates a triumphant, beautiful narrative without any sentimentality. His writing is exquisitely crafted and manages to be heartbreakingly lyrical, deeply melancholy and wryly funny all at the same time.


Concerning a sunny summer's day, he writes:

“On such a day the sun is stronger than the past.”


And later:

 “Summer was passing and the birds had sung all their sweetest songs – now short and hurried as if they had discovered time.”


Whereas an average novelist will place their character in a story, Laxness places his characters in a world. With many writers, the reader is an onlooker, a listener; with Laxness we are a part.


When I first read this book back in 2004, I remember finding only about four reviews for it on Amazon; now, since Iceland has become a popular tourist destination, there are many more, so its popularity is moving in the right direction. On reading a recommendation from one of the latest reviews (written by Sommerled), I looked at Laxness’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in which he said:


"Love of, and respect for, the humble routine of everyday life and its creatures was the only moral commandment which carried conviction when I was a child."


I think this is absolutely evident in his work which is nothing short of a masterpiece.