Pride, Disastrous Pride, (or a brief review of a very long novel, INDEPENDENT PEOPLE by Haldor Laxness)

Late last night, far too late, I reached the end of a book and placed it on my nightstand and considered going to sleep, but I could not. I walked to the kitchen instead, nearly midnight, when I am usually in bed by 8:30, exhausted. But not that night. Weeks of slow, ponderous reading – drifting in and out of one book after another, but always returning to the Laxness – had finally culminated in a conclusion as inevitable as the winter in Iceland. A proud man, far too proud, loses everything to the whims of forces far beyond his control. Instead of mourning, he gathers up the only thing that mattered to him, his one, true love, and walked away into the moors to a new lease and a new life.

I have spoiled the ending for you. Sorry, but it’s obvious from the moment the reader stands at the brink of Summerhouses, the small farm holding in the moors of Iceland, that the demon Kolumkilli will have her due and have it again and again. Independent men like the proud shepherd and farmer will never defeat the forces of nature and society and fate.

Bjartur takes his bride, and proudly declares his independence on his land, working for decades to buy it square from the mortgage, refusing all luxuries – even actively destroying some luxury – while the people around him on his land are wrapped into his pride, burned by it, basking in it like sinners in the hands of an angry god. This man who would refuse all aid, all comfort, all love if it comes at the cost of his pride, of course, will fall. The proud always fall.

And what a fall! A gorgeously written walk upon the moors, with lines of prose that reveal the poetry and beauty of a place where the characters can barely read and speak. Foreign nations are myths, not the fae of the moors. Religion is circumscribed into a breed of superior sheep brought to the land by a grumpy minister. Hope is work, and in the violent seasons of change, where great blizzards come to the mud house, and high summer hay mowing comes, all people bend and bow to the beautiful, astonishingly described landscape.

The politics jumps up in the final act with the sort of perfectly-shown finality of a master craftsman. It is never so abrupt, never so taut. It is a cynical thing, and almost hopeless, but where pride breaks, so too does hope spring up.

Particularly of interest in these modern times, of financial shenanigans, and great debts, this novel of a man who would do anything to climb out of debt and then falls victim to the very financiers he had so long attempted to escape, over and over again, destroyed by fate and man in equal turns, perfectly handled with a subtlety and grace that only a master craftsman musters, is a story of our own time of great inequality. Men who do not understand the financial instruments foisted upon them by the elite classes, who claim passionately to be reformers,  only recreate the same problem that has always existed. The poor crofters cannot work enough in one generation to pay off their debts, and lift their family up from poverty. The 30 year mortgage on a house, an education, anything at all that is debt, might as well be the myth of independence that fuels the proud into believing they are not what they are: enslaved to the system and land and fate, without real hope in anything but love and family, even when that family is a cobbled-together thing.

Also, definitely, go to America. Whatever you do, don’t stay in Iceland on a crofthold if you can go to America!

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