I have a few steadfast guidelines when I travel, especially abroad. I try to never eat in American chains, and instead seek out local specialties. I try to walk as much as possible in order to better “feel” where I am. I try to enjoy every moment, and not let my budget keep me from experiences I may never otherwise have. And I try to visit at least one book store and buy something reflective of the location. On my recent trip to Iceland, then, I was excited to hear the bus driver/guide of our Golden Circle tour state that when people ask him about the best souvenir to buy, he suggests “books”, since so many Icelanders are avid readers. I even saw the figure float around that 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime!
Armed with this validation, I visited a book store on my last morning in Reykjavik and purchased the novel Independent People, by Nobel Prize in Literature winner Halldór Laxness (Random House. 1946.) The driver’s other suggestion was The Sagas of Icelanders, but that looked a bit overwhelming even for my decidedly nerdy tastes (plus I was pretty sure it wouldn’t fit in my carry-on and would put my suitcase over its weight allowance). Independent People is considered by many sources to be the book that secured Laxness his Nobel Prize, and it is definitely a masterful work that takes the reader into an existence far removed from the 21st century United States. In the introduction, Brad Leithauser compares the novel to Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad), a book that forever changed the way I read and think about literature and the world. I can’t say that I found Independent People to be that defining of an experience for me, but it did immerse me in a time and a culture that I found fascinating.
Set in the early 1900’s – World War I has a prominent role in the developments of the last half of the novel – the main character is Bjartur, a peasant who is determined to own his own land and never be in debt to anyone. I didn’t find him to be a particularly sympathetic protagonist. His primary preoccupation is his flock of sheep, and he shows more concern for his ewes and lambs than he ever does for his wives and children. One of the most reprehensible passages in literature for me, in fact, is when his oldest son disappears during a blizzard. When Bjartur chances across what is left of his son’s body in the spring, this is his reaction:
Ah well, he would have to do something for the body, seeing that he had found it, and that as quickly as possible, for the ewes had taken to their heels and were out of the gully by now. He was wearing a pair of thick, heavy gloves that were practically new, and he took the glove from his right hand and threw it to the corpse, for it is considered discourteous to leave a corpse that one has found without first doing it some small service…
“Hallbera,” he said that evening, throwing her a glove, “knit me a glove to match that odd one.” (Hallbera is the mother of Bjartur’s dead second wife, and grandmother to the dead son.)
“Hullo, where’s the other?” asked the old woman, for she had never known the crofter to lose a glove.
“Oh, we won’t bother our heads about that, old girl.”
In fairness to Bjartur, he leads a life of poverty that I can scarcely imagine. His diet consists primarily of “fish refuse”, coffee, and porridge. His croft is a turf hovel where he and his family live in a loft above his animals. And in the end, this singular devotion to his sheep and to his “independent” status backfires, leading him to build a house he can’t really afford and doesn’t enjoy, only to have political and financial manipulations by his wealthy neighbor result in losing everything and having to start all over again in a croft he builds on his mother-in-law’s homestead. In the final pages he does achieve a sort of redemption, forgiving the daughter he threw out when she became pregnant and carrying her to this new home even as she is dying.
Laxness was a pacifist and an advocate for the lower classes (in America his books were blacklisted for a time because of “Communist sympathies”), and his novel does an excellent job of showing the economic divisions and injustices inherent in a culture still essentially mired in the Middle Ages. Having seen a typical homestead recreated in the National Museum in Reykjavik, and having contemplated the beautiful but COLD and forbidding Icelandic landscape, I found that the book really helped me to experience in some small way a very different life and reality. On our last night in Reykjavik, we took a boat trip to look for Northern Lights. We did briefly see some, but then it started to snow, essentially guaranteeing we would not see any more. Waiting to see if the clouds would pass, the somewhat frustrated tour guide took to reciting Icelandic poetry. Poetry is also a strong element in Independent People, and Bjartur’s love of that art may be his only redeeming feature. In the end, the sprinkling of beautiful verse into a harsh and unforgiving story and landscape struck me as a fitting souvenir of my visit.
Before leaving for Iceland, I read another book set in a foreign country, but it could not have been more different! I have a probably unfair prejudice against romance novels that is a vestige of my book-selling years, which means that I most likely wouldn’t have even considered Paris In Love: A Memoir (Random House, 2012) if I had known before chancing across it that the author, Eloisa James, is a best-selling Regency romance writer. Fortunately, I didn’t know that, and “Eloisa James” is actually the pen name of Mary Bly, a professor of English Literature at Fordham University and an excellent writer.
Reeling from the death of her mother and her own cancer diagnosis, the American Bly/James and her Italian husband liquidate all their assets and take a year’s sabbatical in Paris. The memoir consists primarily of short observations drawn from her Facebook posts, with the occasional lengthier essay. I liked this format a lot. It felt like I was experiencing Paris with her on a daily basis. And in her “escape” from her previously frantic life, I found a reflection of what I’ve experienced as I’ve stepped out of the hurricane that is modern education into retirement:
…days were organized not around to-do lists and …deadlines but around walks in the park and visits to the fishmonger. Deadlines came and went without a catastrophic blow to my publishing career; I relaxed into a life free of both students and committee work, laziness ceased to be a frightening word.
I never did learn how to live in the moment, but I did learn that moments could be wasted and the world would continue to spin on its axis.
It was a glorious lesson.
This is a book of small insights and pleasures, with a delightful dose of humor. (“Hair apparently ranks just below the happiness of my children and possibly above my husband’s happiness.”) You can almost see the exquisite window displays and taste the chocolates. And her observation that “French women do too get fat. In fact, they come in all sizes, from very slender to very stout” was a revelation to me. The trick, one that I came to intuit only recently, is this: “…French women do not turn to Hollywood for instruction on how to dress. Instead, they discover what flatters their particular figure, and they stick with it.”
As the author learns to slow down and savor the experience that is Paris, she reflects what I have often observed when I have lived and traveled abroad, and what I am savoring in my retirement: life may be about more than just our latest “accomplishments” or our bank balance. In their wildly disparate ways, the fictional Bjartur of Iceland and the very real Eloisa James/Mary Bly underscore that what may be most important are not the American obsession with financial gain, but the daily enjoyment of friends, of family, of a flower on a spring day.