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Thread: PH's Book Club: Icelandic Literature - Independent People and Njáls Saga

  1. #1
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    PH's Book Club: Icelandic Literature - Independent People and Njáls Saga

    Spoiler: The Club Rulz
    A few people mentioned interest in a book club in other threads. The usual problem I've had with online book clubs in the past is two-fold. First, it's difficult to agree on what to read. Second, people (INTPs in particular, myself included) are not great at keeping to a schedule. As such, my book club will be a little different. It will be a people's dictatorship in that I will always choose the next book, but I will also accept suggestions for future discussions. Additionally, discussion will not be scheduled for any particular date. Rather, I will start a thread for each book and discussion will simply go as long as there is motivation to continue. I don't have a lot of free time to read (basically just subway time at the moment), so you can expect at least a month or two between discussions depending on the length of the book. (You might ask how this is different from me just starting a thread for every book I happen to read, but I hope that this system will create a kind of soft pressure to engage people. At the beginning of each thread I'll also post the next 1 or 2 books we will be looking at. Just calling it a 'book club' might be enough to motivate us a bit more than normal.) Even if you don't do the reading (or you read it a long time ago), don't be afraid to contribute. I'd like the discussions to be based on the books initially, but where they go from there is totally open. I also realize that because I'm reading "classics" there may be few (or no) participants other than myself. If that happens, this project will become something more like a book blog to help me assimilate whatever I get out of these works. I hope it doesn't end up that way though.

    Despite the fact that we're discussing supposedly highbrow literature, I'd like to keep it as unpretentious as possible (I hope it's not too late!). If you want to do a micro-analysis of a part of the text, go for it, but I think if we focus on layman's questions like "What did I learn from reading this text?" or "Why was it (un)engaging?" or "Is this genuinely a GREAT work of art?" we'll probably be able to have some interesting conversations. I may post a few general questions to go with each text as a way into some of the general themes if it seems like it will be useful.

    The list I'm basing most (maybe all) of my picks from is the Norwegian Book Club's 100 greatest/most important books of all time. It's just one of many lists but I like it because it's less dominated by English literature and though still mostly European, it comes closer to something like a World Heritage list for literature. It was also compiled by acclaimed authors rather than journalists or critics, which makes it a bit different from the usual 'best of' lists. Here's how it was compiled:

    The editors of the Norwegian Book Clubs, with the Norwegian Nobel Institute, polled a panel of 100 authors from 54 countries on what they considered the “best and most central works in world literature.” Among the authors polled were Milan Kundera, Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney, Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, John Irving, Nadine Gordimer, and Carlos Fuentes. The list of 100 works appears alphabetically by author. Although the books were not ranked, the editors revealed that Don Quixote received 50% more votes than any other book.


    Current Books: Independent People by Halldór Laxness and Njáls Saga by Author Unknown

    Next Book: TBD (approx. two months from now)


    (If you have any questions or thoughts about rules, book clubs, future selections, our next book or anything non-Icelandic, please use the other thread in this subforum or PMs just so we can keep this thread mostly about the first discussion.)

    This first session is a bit different in that it covers two books. I wanted to start with something as broad as possible, based on what I've been reading, with the hope that anyone who has already read some Icelandic literature might be willing to contribute immediately without necessarily having read either of the texts. I also wanted to pair Njáls Saga with something else for people who aren't willing to read medieval texts. (But you shouldn't be deterred by that! Njáls Saga is easy to read and often exciting.) The books themselves are only really tied together by their Icelandic-ness but I think that is already enough to draw some interesting parallels and start to understand something about the country.

    I think I'll start the discussion with a few thoughts on geography.

    Iceland can be a pretty rough piece of real estate. Temperatures are not mind-blowingling cold in the winter but the winds can bring bad weather in quickly and a short summer growing season and poor land means agriculture is limited. (One of the most powerful images from Independent People is when Bjartur, nearly dead from exposure, sings, chants and curses his way through a blizzard. Maybe it's because I'm dealing with my own country's shitty weather now, but every time I walk into a north wind, I mentally damn the climate to hell as I struggle towards my apartment's lobby.) When the country was as isolated as it was pre-air transport, this could mean a pretty tough life for the average Icelander. A central question to Independent People is, "Can you survive in this country as an 'independent' individual and what is the cost of 'independence'?" In the early 20th century, as a small farmer, you had meticulously plan your year to be able to survive the winter. One mistake, or even just some bad luck, and maybe your whole family dies. Those are the stakes of the self-made man laid out for us by Laxness. In some sense, you can feel the geography and climate of Iceland determining the lives of the characters in the story. Bjartur often makes bad decisions but it's the land that really brutalizes his family for them.

    Sometimes I wonder just how powerful geography is in our lives. It's hard to see the dividing lines between the land we live in, the society that formed there and the individuals themselves. It makes me wonder if Iceland has a particularly strong mythology of national independence because of its isolation and the need for close social ties to survive. You can really feel these bonds in Njáls Saga (which I haven't finished yet). Every small slight against your kin requires bloody retribution. Networks of support are essential to every action and reaction (legal or illegal). Thinking about both of the texts together, it's almost as if the land created the need for these ties. You couldn't survive in the country without the support of ferocious family bonds. Contradictorily, these kinship ties led to a divided nation mired in a (13th century) civil war. Norway took control of the rubble and from that point on 'Independence' became the national dream for the next 700 years. But, Laxness shows us that the ideology independence applied broadly has costs. The capitalist dream of an independent individual slowly working their way to the top becomes just as enslaving as the indentured servitude that came before it.

    I think Laxness is saying that, whether an ideologically capitalist system can work or not, it doesn't work for Iceland. The geography is unrelenting and the costs are too high for those that don't make it. At the same time, he doesn't allow himself to idealize the past too much either. Does he explicitly offer a way forward? I'm not sure but I guess he directs us towards another kind of the ideal, a united but independent nation.
    Last edited by Penguinhunter; 02-25-2014 at 12:37 AM.

  2. #2
    Minister of Love Roger Mexico's Avatar
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    Regretfully I really don't have time for dedicated reading and would have trouble obtaining copies of new books in a timely fashion.

    However, you've caught my interest with this particular selection. I'll monitor your thread if it remains active.

    (I have some very self-consciously Scandinavian-ancestry relatives, and your observations here somewhat track with my own musings based on third-hand awareness of elements of Scandinavian culture. It seems to be highly tribalistic, but in a way where the family group living in isolation from larger social units is given a vaunted status kind of analogous to how the "rugged individual" is presented in many American cultural tropes.)

    Iceland was settled by Vikings, and I mean that in the correct, precise sense where the word "Viking" is not a synonym for the entire Norse ethnic group but rather a descriptor for a specific social class within Norse society. (Kind of like Spanish conquistadors--people who opted to leave the rather quiet and settled life offered by the mother country to seek violent glory and fortune in what they saw as a great dangerous wilderness far away from it.)

    During what is sometimes called the "Saga Era", corresponding to the high point of Viking imperialism, Iceland was a sort of waystation for trading, raiding, and colonial ventures, and is probably an example of what has been called "pirate utopia"--a prosperous society only 'governed' in a very loose and limited sense of the word, due to having a thriving economy largely based on trading wealth plundered elsewhere.

    That's what I do know. Another thing I can offer is a general observation offered by some commentators that "individualism" is a somewhat foreign idea to Scandinavians, not because they don't respect individual freedom but because their culture generally doesn't see individual freedom as being inherently in conflict with social collectivism. If such a conflict does exist, it's intrinsically a sign of social dysfunction--either the community has become overly intrusive and being disrespectful of an individual's harmless quirks, or the individual in question is being foolish by failing to acknowledge the collective wisdom of the tribe. In a healthy community, individuals see themselves as mutually responsible for one another's well-being, but that well-being includes the freedom to behave differently from others so long as this doesn't conflict with their responsibilities to others.
    Quote Originally Posted by Ptah View Post
    No history, no exposition, no anecdote or argument changes the invariant: we are all human beings, and some humans are idiots.

  3. #3
    <3 gator's Avatar
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    I just got a copy of Independent People! I will read a bit and report back later.

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    Quote Originally Posted by gator View Post
    I just got a copy of Independent People! I will read a bit and report back later.
    Awesome! I've been waiting two years for this!

    Some Icelandic thoughts that I've had in the interim:

    1) Njáls Saga (and probably other Norse Sagas would be too) is a pretty great accompaniment for the show Vikings. It's not a great show but it is pretty enjoyable and I definitely enjoyed it more having read a Saga. Sometimes the pacing gets a bit crazy (like a non-stop action movie) but to be honest, that's really what long sections of the Saga can be like as well. Pages and pages detailing rivalries, battles and bloodshed. . . because that's what's important! Who defended their honour against whom and how specifically did they do it?

    2) There is a new TV show out of Iceland called Trapped. I've watched the first episode so far but I'm pretty much hooked - definitely worth checking out. (After watching the first episode, I also think Kormákur got some inspiration from Independent People. I know he was working on a film adaptation at one point, so maybe some of that creativity leaked into his TV show.)

    I think there was another Icelandic thought but I can't remember right now.

    Now that I'm back spending some time on the forum, I should try to start some more book club threads. If I start six threads and I get one response per thread every two years, that should average out to one discussion every few months, which is probably about all I can manage anyway.

  5. #5
    <3 gator's Avatar
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    It's funny. I just moved in with a person who's half Icelandic and she had it on her bookshelf. And I recognized that it was on your list so I decided to borrow it. It's early days yet. I've read the introduction, which I shouldn't have done because there were spoilers, and I'm to the point where Bjartur is marrying his first wife so it's early days yet. But enjoying it so far.

  6. #6
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    The cool opening credits for Trapped also add to my brief geography discussion. Landscape juxtaposed with close-ups of a corpse, as though Iceland itself killed this man as much as any murderer.

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