Published December 31, 2015
Six decades ago this year, Halldór Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.” Having just read ‘Independent People’—Laxness’ most celebrated work; largely the reason for the honour—it’s easy to see why. The tale is an elegantly woven turn-of-the-century epic about a small-holding shepherd, Guðbjartur Guðbjartsson (Bjartur) and his family. Laxness invites readers to become intimate with the clan of the ironically-named Summerhouses; a ramshackle turf cottage, built as Bjartur’s ancestors would have. The author eloquently teases out the family members’ divergent hopes, fears, shames, and struggles in simple prose. It’s the sort of stuff that gets horned up teens standing on desks shrieking “O Captain My Captain.”
But ‘Independent People’, in a minor drama of its own, seems to have been misunderstood in a few key historical records of note, particularly, but not exclusively, in the United States, where your humble servant resides. Part of the problem is that Bjartur is an avowed rugged individualist; a Jeffersonian Capitalist, as Americans might call him. He is also (therefore) an immense piece of shit throughout most of the story. Yet this crucial recurring theme appears to have effectively been omitted in some prominent commentary on the book, which lavishes a disturbing amount of praise on the troubled figure.
Upon a superficial analysis of history, and the timing of Laxness’ honour, the mischaracterizations are better understood by an examination of Laxness’ own radical inclinations and McCarthyite repression in the US; Cold War politics, in broader terms. This isn’t to suggest a conspiracy behind the formulation of these synopses; rather, the political climate seems to have influenced, in a lasting way, how certain elites justified their love of a staunchly leftist story—by declaring that its piece-of-shit protagonist deserves an inappropriate amount of sympathy.
In a presentation speech given in 1955 to honour Iceland’s bard for his highest distinction, Swedish Academy member Elias Wessén referred prominently to ‘Independent People’. He called it “one of [Laxness’] best books,” and brought up a central theme: the family’s relationship with the bastard daughter of Bjartur’s dead first wife; a girl found by her father upon his return from a fruitless, dangerous search for a lamb (it had been killed by his famished spouse). Bjartur discovered the child clinging to life, nursed by his mangy dog; the newborn’s mother dead on the floor. She survived.
“’Compassion is the source of the highest poetry. Compassion with Ásta Sólilja on earth”, [Laxness] says. Art must be supported by sympathy and love for humanity; otherwise it is worth very little. And a social passion underlies everything Halldór Laxness has written,” Wessén remarked.
Indeed, Laxness’s depiction of Bjartur’s love for “Our Sóla” is moving, when it was there. Throughout the tale, however, “compassion with Ásta Sólilja on earth” was lacking at critical moments. Most notably, after a lean winter, when Bjartur left Summerhouses to find work, and sent a one-legged, severely alcoholic man to teach his children; the man ended up deflowering Bjartur’s 15-year-old Sun Lilly (“Sólilja,” in English). After Ásta Sólilja started showing she was pregnant (and was sent home from Confirmation, to boot) Bjartur impugned the legitimacy of her own birth and tossed her out of his home “for the shame you have brought upon my land, the land that I have bought.”
She somehow managed to survive, again; raising her child, Björt, in squalor. The Lord of Summerhouses, not long after, became wealthy, as many of his fellow countrymen did at the time, when the First World War saw prices for Icelandic lamb rise like mustard gas from blood-sodden mud. “Compassion for Ásta Sólilja on earth,” indeed.
Bjartur, to his credit, does redeem himself somewhat, at the end of the story, but only after suffering intense humiliation.
Toward the boom years’ end, after driving his family off, in one way or another (more on this later), Bjartur thought it was finally a good time to expand his Independent Home. But without his workforce (his family), he couldn’t sustain his investment. Bjartur ended up losing Summerhouses and the autarky to which he stubbornly clung as his emaciating clan increasingly lost confidence in him.
It was just before Bjartur quit Summerhouses forever that he and Sóla found each other again. The former was broke and humiliated. The latter was both of those things, and ravaged by illness; en route to suffering a fate not dissimilar to that of her mother. For the second time in her life, Bjartur saved Sóla from the clutches of death, carrying her on his back to their new home. Compassion with Ásta Sólilja on earth—it existed, in the end, after all.
But again, these developments, aren’t at all explained by Wessén’s take on Laxness and ‘Independent People’. Right after his aforementioned “’Compassion” commentary, Wessén immediately remarked that Laxness’ “personal championship of contemporary social and political questions is always very strong, sometimes so strong that it threatens to hamper the artistic side of his work.”
Yet Bjartur’s eventual redemption—his ability to swallow his pride and reconcile with Sóla—might have never transpired but for a happenstance encounter with communists, whom Bjartur aided in thievery. “Yes, lass, last night I ate stolen bread and left my son among men who are going to use pick-handles on the authorities, so I thought I might just as well look you up this morning,” he remarked. Before his encounter with the radicals, Bjartur had even rebuffed his son Gvendur’s suggestion that the pair pay a visit to Sóla.
Perhaps it took some kind of class consciousness for Bjartur to realize that he dispossessed Sóla, just as the always-conspiring overlords in the story ended up taking his land. Either way, Laxness’ injection of his own leanings into his writing seem to not “threaten the artistic side of his work” but do the exact opposite–at least, in the case of ‘Independent People’. Compassion with Ásta Sólilja doesn’t prevail without Bjartur’s only brush with agitating socialists.
It doesn’t come as a surprise, however, that Wessén would, quite literally, lose the plot, when it comes to the interplay of Laxness’ worldview and his work. In his speech, Wessén also said that Bjartur “remains the same in sickness and misfortune, in poverty and starvation, in raging snowstorms and face to face with the frightening monsters of the moors, and pathetic to the last in his helplessness and his touching love for his foster daughter, Ásta Sólilja.” Other people who have read the book might point out that Bjartur did not, in fact, “remain the same” faced with an attractive pregnant teenage stepdaughter, self inflicted alienation, abject poverty, and, finally, international communism.
Fear of Laxness and the Red Menace
As mentioned, it seems worthwhile—given the subject matter of ‘Independent People’ and the geopolitical climate of that time—to hypothesize that Western establishment sensitivities may have influenced Wessén’s synopsis; purposefully or not. They may have, after all, prevented Laxness from winning when he probably should have.
In 1946, the popularity of ‘Independent People’ sky-rocketed in the US. Published in 1933, it was promoted after the end of Second World War by a book club here, and Americans devoured it. Laxness flogged copies by the hundreds of thousands. That August, he was, according to the New York Times Book Review, mentioned as a possible Nobel Laureate.
And as this publication excellently reported in 2007 (with the help of Stateside Laxness scholar and Freedom of Information Act request-filer, Chay Lemoine), the story’s success was received poorly by officials in Washington; increasingly concerned with the Red Menace.
Attempting, regrettably, to see things from an authoritarian capitalist’s perspective, this is understandable for three rather obvious reasons.
For one, in case it bears repeating, Bjartur was a walking metaphor for bedrock right-wing thought and also a piece of fucking shit (“’At one time folk would have said there was something the matter with you if you had considered other people’s interests before your own,’ remarked Bjartur.”).
Secondly, the American Dream appears throughout ‘Independent People’, mostly with respect to Bjartur’s children, and it isn’t always glowingly described, to put it politely. For example, Ásta Sólilja went to the US after her banishment, returning to to Iceland upon deciding that her European birthright, rural deprivation, was preferable.
Finally, Laxness himself was a staunch leftist—and an easy target for Washington too, considering his nationality (not American) and ties to Moscow. In 1937, for example, though Laxness could have gone to Spain to fight fascism or document the left-wing struggle there (as many of his contemporaries did), he went to the Soviet Union for a second time and produced an embarrassingly uncritical account of it: ‘The Russian Adventure’ (“many admirers of his work consider ‘The Russian Adventure’ the most shameful publication of his career,” University of Iceland professor Jón Ólafsson, noted, in an article entitled “The Propagandist Revisits Himself: Laxness about Laxness in the Soviet Union”). In 1952, Laxness even won the Stalin Prize for literature: a fact, The New York Times said two years later, that may have seen Spanish Civil War witness Ernest Hemingway take the 1954 Nobel. Only in 1963, did Laxness distance himself from The Russian Adventure and his prior assessment of totalitarian communism.
Thus, it’s not surprising—even if completely unjustified—that Laxness’ masterpiece was received poorly by the US government, and the many elite Westerners who fear falling out of its favour. Washington was obsessed with crushing all kinds of communist dissent in the name of privileged liberty. Neither de jure segregation in the South nor de facto segregation in the rest of the country stopped Americans from declaring themselves leaders of the free world after 1945. Why would they refrain from stifling ideas seen by many Americans as an alien perversion—particularly when they were being peddled by foreign intellectuals?
“Top secret memos to and from [FBI director J. Edgar] Hoover regarding the income derived from the sale of Laxness’ book in the United States show that Halldór Laxness was a person of interest,” Lemoine wrote eight years ago. “There was great concern that the money gained from the sale of Independent People would fall into communist hands.”
So it was not without merit, when announcing his 1955 Nobel Prize, that The New York Times reported the award as a consequence of “the relaxation of East-West Tension”—a development brought about by the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, and his successor Nikita Khrushchev’s Destalinization (Destalinizatsiya.)
Whether or not the political climate did influence praise and recognition for Laxness—or whether it even might have—we will likely never know. In 2008, Barack Obama, then on the campaign trail, asked the FBI, on behalf of Lemoine—his then-constituent—to declassify some files on Laxness it was withholding from the researcher.
“Obama’s representative thanked me for my letter about my troubles with the FBI and informed me that, unfortunately, the institution’s decision regarding my case is final,” Lemoine told Fréttablaðið at the time.
The Second Red Scare, as it’s known, did end eventually up limiting Americans’ access to Laxness. In 1961, the laureate published in English his 1948 work ‘The Atom Station’—a story highly critical of the US military base at Keflavík, and of the American and British occupations during the Second World War. After the Icelandic Prime Minster personally lobbied the American government, the matter found its way to Hoover, and Laxness was finally blacklisted, having evaded the distinction during the worst years of the McCarthy era. His work disappeared from libraries and book stores across the United States as a result. ‘Independent People’ and the rest of his bibliography went out of mainstream publication here for decades.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Laxness finally made it back into print in the US, in the late nineties. But his most lauded work was again mischaracterized in a rather brutal way; by the man who lobbied hardest to restore its place on American bookshelves, of all people.
Author Brad Leithauser may deserve credit for his personal role in bringing ‘Independent People’ back to Americans (it’s highly unlikely, though, that no one else would have). He certainly receives it, by getting the honour of penning the foreword to the now widely-available Vintage International edition of the novel. As a result, new generations of Laxness readers are being introduced to ‘Independent People’ with hopeless literary analysis and social critique.
To understand why Leithauser’s foreword is, indeed, so hopeless, we must go back to when Summerhouses is gifted a cow, courtesy of the Women’s Institute. Búkolla, the “Thrice Blessed Creature” (who shares a name with a folkloric, heroic cow from a popular Icelandic folktale) has an immediate and overwhelmingly positive impact on Bjartur’s malnourished family.
And Bjartur hates the fucking thing. He considers the charitable gift an insult, and spites the life out of her. That the Bailiff—Bjartur’s nemesis, and a regular visitor to his home—comments that his children looking healthier from drinking Búkolla’s milk stokes his contempt “I never knew that that blasted cow had to be served before the others,” he says, when his wife Finna adoringly feeds the rival provider. Bjartur even gives the Bailiff money for the bovine gift—no small sum to the family. “And there ended an act of charity that might otherwise have been so beautiful,” Laxness writes.
Bjartur’s hatred for Búkolla first truly manifests itself in a rather gruesome way, when he kills her calf; a creature both its mother and the rest of the human family adored (“That was a dark Sunday,” the narrator remarks). Shortly thereafter, it intensifies, as poor weather decimates the farm, and he rebuffs Finna’s desperate pleas to borrow hay for cow feed (money he might have had, had he not insisted on paying for the cow):
“[Finna] threw her arms around her husband’s neck as he stood by the hatchway in a knife in each hand. ‘It’s the same as killing me, Guðbjartur,’ she moaned, ‘I can’t bear to see the children starving any longer,’ and shook from head to foot with her weeping. One eternal flower with trembling tears. But with the jerk of the shoulders he threw her off, and she watched him with her frantic eyes as he disappeared down the stairs.” Shortly thereafter, Finna died.
Helgi, the couple’s eldest son then proceeds to completely lose it. He reveals, to his youngest brother Nonni, that he uttered desperate, crude prayers—to huldufólk in the rocks —to save their sick mother, and expressed a desire to foment rebellion in the wake of her death. Afterward, some of Bjartur’s sheep are violently slain in three separate incidents that increase in both severity and depravity. A few days before Christmas, the Bailiff comes to the house to investigate. Helgi finally cracks and sets out into the snow, never to be seen alive again. The sheep attacks cease afterward.
Bjartur’s callous hand in this affair is seen most hauntingly, when Laxness describes the father’s spring discovery of his boy’s decaying body: “The man touched it once or twice with his stick, told the dog to shut up, and mumbled: ‘As one sows, so does one reap… each of us bears his destination in his own heart.’” Bjartur then went home and did not tell the others about their dead brother and grandson. He sent Nonni to live in America shortly after.
Which brings us back to Brad Leithauser’ take on the story; more specifically, its shortcomings. He describes Helgi as “Dark,” as if the child was fated from birth to engage in a sort of guerrilla warfare with his father. Nonni, Leithauser says, was saved from this darkness, not because he was too young to comprehend the matricidal manslaughter his father had effectively committed, but because his “softness will, paradoxically, protect him.” As for others who suffered under Bjartur’s yoke, Finna is not even mentioned by name (“Nonni’s mother,” Leithauser describes her). Nor was the deeply allegoric Búkolla. It’s as if Bjartur’s manic conservatism had no victims because that’s just how things were.
“It’s almost impossible not to be rooting for [Bjartur],” Leithauser concludes. That is, unless, you think it’s bad to drive your wife to death and a pre-teen son to a Jack Nicholson-in-‘The Shining’-style end.
Fortunately for the reader, the reviewer quietly admitted that he, perhaps, isn’t the best analyst; least of all, when it comes to judging age-appropriate behaviour, social hierarchies, and Laxness’ intent:
[Laxness] was then in his mid-eighties and growing confused and forgetful. When I spoke of my admiration for Bjartur, a look perplexity gave way to one of alarm. “Oh, but he’s so stupid!” he objected.
“Oh, but he’s so wonderfully stupid,” I replied, and the old man peered at me and pondered darkly, a moment; then his features cleared, and he abruptly laughed with pleasure.”
Pretty fucking hilarious…
Both Wessén and Leithauser’s deficient analyses share at least one thing in common: a complete disregard for any kind of class consciousness. Laxness made it clear throughout the book that Bjartur’s family members were subordinate to him; their daily travails and well-being hinged upon his whims. He made his kids work sixteen-hour days, at times, and gave his sickly wife more difficult tasks and less-than-suitable winter clothing. That Bjartur, in all his abusive and pig-headed glory, was eccentric or simple, at worst, to Wessén and Leithauser says more about the pair than it does about either Laxness or his work. Leithauser even describes the “wonderfully stupid” Bjartur as a “generalissimo”—as if he was straining himself to be a leftist’s caricature of clueless, degenerate literati.
Indeed, it seems Western Intelligentsia writ large, at least before 2008, actively shunned any strand of thought even tangential to Marxism; deemed a crude materialistic philosophy incapable of explaining any of life’s complexities (like why letting the financial sector effectively govern society behind closed doors is actually good). Bjartur’s children were not alienated from their labour; they were merely temporarily dispossessed Independent People.
The folly is repeated in the New York Times Book Review of the Independent People reprint championed by Leithauser. Noting his radical socialist outlook, Annie Dillard mocked Laxness’ early draft notes that actually do end up describing what the author illustrates in parts of his narrative (“’Show how the large-scale farmer exploits the small farmer, both politically and economically.’ It sounds like the worst book a writer ever contemplated.”) Dillard brings it up to ask if “the writer know[s] what he is doing, or not?”
“[W]e deny his claim to his own interpretation,” she wrote. “Maybe the deep dye of Mr. Laxness’s own literary vision blinds him to its profound merits.”
Among the “profound merits,” according to Dillard, are “general hilarity” and Bjartur’s “hapless children” who “almost steal the show.”
“One boy creeps out at night to tell the rocks his mother is ill; he hopes to rouse the elves. He tells 30 different rocks, because he does not know under which one elves live,” she writes. “The mother dies anyway.” That sounds pretty fucking hilarious.
Little people, and a Police State
“Independent People” will not be the last; nor was it the first literary work by a leftist to be appropriated by an American/Western establishment eager to use it to shepherd its own message.
When Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” in 1906, for example, he set out to make a case for the labour movement by painting a picture of dreadful slums, horrifying working conditions, and general sleaze pervasive in Chicago—in and around the meat-packing industry. Four months after the book’s publication, the country responded, not by recognizing the right of workers to collectively bargain (that came in 1935): the United States Congress passed the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act. “I aimed for the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach,” Sinclair later famously said (Laxness and Sinclair were friends when the latter was in LA, it should be noted).
What makes it rather troubling—in the case of Brad Leithauser’s foreword, particularly—is that the Laxness whitewashing has occurred in the US long after state clampdowns on leftist thought officially receded.
“[L]ittle people have become frightened and we find ourselves living in the atmosphere of a police state,” Eleanor Roosevelt said at the dawn of the Second Red Scare, in 1947, “where people close doors before they state what they think or look over their shoulders apprehensively before they express an opinion.”
That Leithauser and Wessén were able to get in front of the world and grossly mischaracterize a Nobel Laureate’s most prominent and unapologetically political work without being ridiculed suggests this scenario described by the former First Lady has had some lasting effects. They’re still felt both here in the United States and around the world.