There is no more important novel to me than INDEPENDENT PEOPLE by Halldor Laxness (1902 – 1998), Icelandic novelist, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. I own several copies of the book. Here is the dust jacket from my hardcover English edition (1946, Alfred A. Knopf, New York):
The novel inspired a large exhibit of multiple paintings, drawings and quilts. These were exhibited at the beautiful Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, ironically just a month after Laxness’s passing.
My synopsis from the 1998 exhibit:
In 1983, through my Scandinavian Literature class at the University of British Columbia (taught by Peter Stenberg, now head of the Department of Germanic Studies), I was introduced to an extraordinary novel which forever embedded itself into my heart. I honestly didn’t know at the time how much it affected me, for my mind was cluttered with other university courses and accompanying distractions, but I did know that the book was very important, and indeed it was the one I have returned to again and again over the last 14 years.
The novel is Independent People by Nobel prize winner Halldor Laxness, beautifully translated from Icelandic by J. A. Thompson, 1946, Borzoi Books, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. The novel was reissued in paperback by Vintage international, January 1997.
It is an epic tale of a farm family in rural Iceland around the time of World War I. The central character is a rough and self-proclaimed independent sheep farmer called Bjartur, who early on establishes his croft in which the epic and isolated events of his family are played out. Bjartur is the central antagonist of the story, but the most striking character is his daughter Asta Sollilja. This lonely pubescent girl is the heart of the novel, embodying beauty, pity, tragedy; she is the face of Iceland. Her relationship with her father is awkward, heavy, yet extremely endearing.
At once inspired by the words of Halldor Laxness and my Scandinavian heritage, I chose to do a visual essay on Asta, an essay that should allow the viewer to understand the character without having read the book first, but to inspire them to read it. The paintings and the quilts in the exhibit are strictly my personal interpretation of Asta, focusing on emotion and relationships with other characters rather than specific themes. The quilts are an important feature of the exhibit, providing a visual and tactile commentary- on women’s hand work, the bed covering as protection, the bed where birth, dreams, rape, death occur.
Central quote to the exhibit: page 351 “He did not know what to say in the face of such sorrow. He sat in silence by his sister’s side in the spring vendure, which was too young; and the hidden strings in his breast began to quiver, and to sound. This was the first time that he had ever looked into the labyrinth of the human soul. He was very far from understanding what he saw. But what was of more value, he felt and suffered with her. In years that were to come he relived this memory in song, in the most beautiful song the world has ever known. For the understanding in the soul’s defencelessness, of the conflict between two poles, is not the source of the greatest song. The source of the greatest song is sympathy. Sympathy with Asta Sollilja on earth.”
I was honored to receive amazing feedback from the show. This comment is one I treasure:
Some of the original pieces from my 1998 exhibit will be on sale at my March 1oth Art Event!