Sorry for the huge gap between reviews – I’ve just arrived back at uni, so there’s a whole load of stuff that’s being going on and which has impeded my ability to sit down quietly and read. However, I finally finished this book last night, after about three weeks (and after it sitting on my shelf since before Christmas).
Bjartur has just been freed from his time as a servant, and has been given some land so that he may farm sheep. This is no easy task, especially in the harsh Icelandic winters, and the lonely Icelandic summers. When his wife dies after giving birth to what he knows is not really his daughter, Asta Sollilja, he calls on the help of two women to help out around the house. Again and again, though, his ‘independence’ gets in the way of his relationships, and he will never truly be loved.
Most peopel tend to see epic novels as a bit of a chore to read – they have notoriously difficult language, there are hundreds of characters to keep track of, and nothing ever really happens. And while this book did take a while to get through, and it certainly does have an epic feel to it, there is no sense of difficulty in reading it. It is highly readable, and the plot is enough to keep you hanging on, wanting to know what happens next. Perhaps this is because while it is an epic, it is an epic on a very small scale – we are following the life of one Icelandic crofter, and his small family and farm in the middle of nowhere. Again and again, this concept of being alone and being isolated is beautifully described by Laxness – and this extends to emotional distance as well as geographical.
Bjartur is a particularly cold and unfeeling man, more concerned with his independence than anything else – for him, his sheep are more important than even his own family, and he admits as much throughout the book. Bjartur is certainly an independent man in the financial sense, but this ideology of doing everything for oneself impedes his ability to function as a human being. His children are isolated from the rest of the world, and are physically ill because of it, and his two wives die of loneliness. Even at the end of his life, he maybe begins to realise this, but still banishes his housekeeper. He simply cannot perform the basics tasks of humanity, and you really feel for his family. Even when people die, he cannot muster up any kind of emotion. As a main character, you feel absolutely nothing for him, which is actually an excellently cunning ploy by Laxness to allow us to focus our sympathies on his family – who really do suffer throught the entire novel. Life as a crofter is tough, and Laxness has a gift for showing us this human struggle for survival.
While the human condition is certainly the primary focus of this novel, Laxness also deals with many things that are uniquely Icelandic. Convenient, since I know nothing about the country. The novels spans the decades before the first World War, to just after it, and provides a pretty detailed (and interesting) history of Iceland and its political movements of the time. It’s interesting to see the struggle between communism and capitalism, and the eventual success of socialism (ironic, considering Bjartur’s dislike of pretty much everyone else), as well as the rise of one Prime Minister, who is disliked by Bjartur. Granted, he shouldn’t feel special, because Bjartur is pretty much the most misanthropic character I’ve ever read.
I wasn’t convinced that this book would change my life, as Annie Proulx so boldly claims on the cover. And while I still don’t think it changed my life, the book is pretty awesome. I love that Laxness gets into the working class mentality that any kind of help is onstantly bad, and must be repaid at all costs. Pride and independence are closely linked in this novel, and the human condition cannot survive if you are proud. Human relationships are a necessary and vital part of being human, and those that cannot have them will not fare well. Highly recommended if you have the time.