March, 2013: I started to read Patrick White's Tree Of Man, but having spent the past nine years writing a novel about a young couple living in an isolated bush hut, I found myself unable to bear White's setting - a young couple in an isolated bush hut. I mentioned this to our flatmate, Tony, and he said, "Then you wouldn't be interested in reading a novel about a family living in an isolated hut in Iceland." Perhaps guided by the spirit of contrariness, or else by my summer habit of reading books set in snowy places, I borrowed Halldór Laxness's Independent People (1946).
I was immediately won over by Laxness's tone. Rural culture is very attractive to writers, not only because it's usually an exotic culture for anyone who spends their time stuck inside at a desk writing, and trying to get what they write published, but also because it is a good frame for that perennial theme of 'what have we lost or gained in adopting modern life?' There are plenty of writers who have thoroughly researched rural culture, and get all the details right, and many who use an insightful understanding of it to make some good points, but few who can write about rural culture from within. Thomas Hardy and Halldór Laxness are the best I've come across. They provide the reader with all sorts of fascinating and obscure details, and they are worldly enough to contrast traditional life with modern life. But their sharpest tool is their ability simultaneously to criticise and praise rural culture. This seems to be the proof of thoroughly knowing one's subject. I think of how the trait that most irritates us about a beloved friend is also often the one we most admire; it's because this trait is strong, distinctive, notable, and we have suffered at its hands.
In Independent People, and Hardy's novels, there is a lot of suffering - detailed suffering. Because of the suffering, these writers know that this way of life should and will end; yet they value it enough to document it before it disappears. I keep thinking of the conversations the crofters have on the rare occasion of a get-together: although epic poetry might be momentarily touched upon, the recurring topic is parasitic worms. Laxness's sheep-farmers have much to say about worms, and it's not uninteresting. Sometimes, such as when they gather at the farm of Bjartur, our independent man, to see evidence of the gruesome sheep-massacre possibly perpetrated by a ghost, I was relieved when their conversation left the spooky, and reverted to the here-and-now of worms and sheep - the staff of life for the independent crofter. But we, like Bjartur's children, who know there's more to life, suffer at the hands of the prevailing worm and sheep obsession, and long for beauty, love, anything else! Another writer would carefully recreate authentic-sounding sheep-crofter conversations, admiring the earthiness, immediacy, depth of knowledge; yet another writer would depict the oppressive and maddening narrowness; but Laxness presents the reader with both angles, and a few in between.
Often when a writer views a subject equivocally, it results in a coolly dispassionate tone - a kind of balancing act that ends up neutral. There's nothing neutral about Laxness's novel; it's full of extremes. There's a description of the farm in summer, where the whole family is harvesting hay for eighteen or more hours every day, and it's raining constantly, and everyone is sick (except the iron-clad Bjartur), with their noses streaming, forever hungry, one or another of them falling asleep in the wet grass with a load of hay on their back, the mother slowly dying of overwork and malnutrition. It's a horrific description of 'summer in Iceland', a time of year I would have thought beautiful and a respite. Later, it is contrasted with summer in Bjartur's valley as viewed by a well-heeled young man who camps there for pleasure over a week or two. Through the young man's eyes, Bjartur's valley is Paradise. Laxness is capable of seeing it as heaven and hell both at once.
The main character in Independent People is Bjartur, the most staunchly independent person of the whole lot. He sacrifices almost everything for the sake of independence - two wives, several children. Laxness somehow manages to pull off the balancing act even with this character, whom you couldn't exactly call the hero of the novel. Bjartur is a tyrant, who commits some unforgivable acts (such as slaughtering the beloved family cow); but somehow we don't hate him. He has a certain integrity, even if he is lacking in kindness. And he is driven by a dream - of being an independent farmer, owing nothing to anyone - and we like dreamers. We know there's more to Bjartur than sheep-and-worms. Laxness's ending is truly beautiful - Bjartur's dream is scuttled, he is forced to compromise, and is redeemed. In novels, I love the redemption ending - the whole, long novel existing to bring to life the moment of redemption.
The most remarkable thing about man's dreams is that they all come true; this has always been the case, though no one would care to admit it. And a peculiarity of man's behaviour is that he is not in the least surprised when his dreams do come true; it is as if he had always expected nothing else. The goal to be reached and the determination to reach it are brother and sister, and slumber both in the same heart.
A couple of pages later:
Everything that one has ever created achieves reality. And soon the day dawns when one finds oneself at the mercy of the reality that one has created; and mourns the day when one's life was almost void of reality, almost a nullity; idle, inoffensive fancies spun around a knot in a roof.
Independent People has many passages I could have dog-eared (I'm reluctant to dog-ear a borrowed book) for their sheer beauty. The lyricism of the writing - which in this case is the characters' thoughts and feelings and observations - is probably the only reason anyone can bear to read nearly five hundred pages of abject hardship. The lyricism is like the novel's oft-repeated motif of 'the flower among the rocks'.
Here's an exchange between Bjartur's daughter (the flower of his life) and the young man who camps in the valley:
"What do they call you?" he asked, and her heart stood still.
"Asta Sollilja," she blurted out in an anguish-stricken voice.
"Asta what?" he asked, but she didn't dare own up to it again.
"Sollilja," said little Nonni.
"Amazing," he said, gazing at her as if to make sure whether it could be true, while she thought how dreadful it was to be saddled with such an absurdity. But he smiled at her and forgave her and comforted her and there was something so good and so good in his eyes; so mild; it is in this that the soul longs to rest; from eternity to eternity. And she saw it for the first time in his eyes, and perhaps never afterwards, and faced it and understood. And that was that.
"Now I know why the valley is so lovely," said the visitor.
I dog-eared this passage partly because I found it beautiful, but also because there is something sweetly teenaged and romantic about it. As a youngish female writer, I sometimes feel shy of writing passages that have a teenaged, romantic scent about them. As I was editing my recently-finished manuscript with my father, he urged me to excise anything that showed tenderness (he would say sentimentality) towards children (e.g. "wide-eyed"), or, worse still, animals (he wanted me to get rid of all sightings of kangaroos). We struck compromises, and he was probably right. But I was reading Anna Karenina at the time, which is full of sentimental and touching descriptions of children; I'm positive they were sometimes wide-eyed. Children are! Geoff's riposte was irrefutable: "You're not Tolstoy." However, I have a lingering resentment of the fact I'm not a dignified old man who can write the occasional soppy bit and be all the more loved and respected because of it. I just need to win a Nobel Prize (as Laxness did).
I'll end with a poem that appeared in the novel. I don't know whether it is a traditional Icelandic song, or Laxness's own composition:
When the fiddle's song is still,
And the bird in shelter shivers,
When the snow hides every hill,
Blinds the eye to dales and rivers,
Often in the halls of dreams,
Or afar, by distant woodland,
I behold the one who seems
First of all men in our Iceland.
Like a note upon the string
Once he dwelt with me in gladness.
Ever shall my wishes bring
Peace to calm his distant sadness.
Still the string whispers his song;
That may break, a love-gift only;
But my wish shall make him strong,
Never shall he travel lonely.