Sam Knight carries a very heavy backpack—a mountainous ideological load—so he’s perhaps to be excused somewhat if in his recent musings on Halldor Laxness’s ‘Independent People’ he makes mistakes. But he makes plenty, large and small.
A small point first. Knight attacks me viciously for having referred to the book’s hero, Bjartur of Summerhouses, as a “generalissimo” in my introduction to the book’s Vintage edition: “Leithauser even describes … Bjartur as a ‘generalissimo’—as if he was straining himself to be a leftist’s caricature of clueless, degenerate literati.” Clueless, degenerate literati… Perhaps I ought to be publicly hanged, but if so Laxness’s ghost ought to be strung up on the gallows beside mine, since the word is of course Laxness’s own.
Much bigger: Knight commits an absolutely howling error when he states that the book’s heroine went to America in exile. She never left Iceland. The entire ending of the book depends on her never having fulfilled any of her dreams.
But on to even larger issues. Knight’s article makes a great deal of the fact that Laxness was under surveillance by American intelligence authorities, seeking to explain by it Laxness’s long eclipse in the US. (This doesn’t explain Laxness’s long eclipse in England but—never mind.) This is a common view, I find, among Icelanders and those loyal to Iceland. But it fails to understand (perhaps because modern Iceland has been, at bottom, a saner place than twentieth-century America) the absolutely crazy, paranoid prevalence in America of artistic surveillance under the enduring spiritual oversight of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover. Everyone needed to be under surveillance! Show me the Jewish labor leader, the Black jazz musician, the Hispanic community organizer who wasn’t under surveillance… The fact is that in my quest to get ‘Independent People’ back in print I took the book to many publishers, in both England and America, before the good folks at Vintage finally signed it up. The publishers who refused me were in no way impeded by fears of “blowback” for publishing a radical author. Rather, they were worried (uh-oh, sounds like the workings of capitalism!) that a grim book about Icelandic sheep farmers perhaps wouldn’t sell well.
But still larger issues. Knight refers to the book’s “simple prose.” Clearly the book was simple to him: something about a human monster, Bjartur, murdering the means of production. But the novel is in fact an immensely artful and complicated blending of voices: old Christian hymns, folktales, stream-of-consciousness musings at the edge of death, eerie prophecies, rímur that goes back to Old Norse, buried leitmotifs, abrupt moments where the book leaps temporally and geographically out of its orbit, etc. I’ve read the novel more than ten times and have frequently taught it to students. The best of them have invariably pointed out the book’s surprising humor. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, which serves as a necessary counterbalance to the story’s ongoing, erosive depiction of tragedy. Nowhere in Knight’s muscular whipping at the book is there the slightest hint that he found anything humorous in it.
Knight takes me to task for saying that, although Bjartur is in many ways a monster, it is “almost impossible” not to root for him. I was referring to a state of psychological complexity toward which Knight’s mind is apparently unsusceptible. (His take seems to be: Bjartur is cruel, and so I have no sympathy for him.) Unfortunately for Knight, literature is full of irresistible monsters, and I can’t imagine how he could possibly understand or appreciate ‘Lolita’, ‘One Hundred Years Of Solitude’, ‘Madame Bovary’—or ‘King Lear’ or ‘Othello’ for that matter!
Make no mistake: ‘Independent People’ is one of the greatest novels ever written. That Knight would refer to Bjartur as a “piece of shit,” an “immense piece of shit,” and a “piece of fucking shit” says something about his own J. Edgar Hooverish paranoia. These are the aggressive, hostile remarks of a critic who nervously senses that he’s in the presence of great art and, feeling unworthy of it, seeks resentfully and relentlessly to tear it down.
Do Not Praise That POS Bjartur: Independent People, Reviewed
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.
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