by Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo
THE LITERARY WORK
An experimental novel set in an indefinite place and time; published in Spanish (as Niebla) 1914; in English in 1928.
Idle and wealthy Augusto Pérez falls in love with two women and speculates about the nature of love and the reality of fiction before being killed off by his creator, Miguel de Unamuno, who appears as a character in his own novel.
Cited by many as the greatest intellectual Spain has ever produced, Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) made his mark in philosophy, poetry, fiction, drama, travel writing, autobiography, and journalism. Unamuno was born to a religious Roman Catholic household on September 29, 1864, in Bilbao, capital of the Basque region of Spain. He received his early education in Bilbao and his doctorate in philosophy and letters from the University of Madrid in 1884. Six years later he became chair of Greek language and literature at Spain’s oldest university, the University of Salamanca. After being appointed rector of the university in 1901, he was abruptly dismissed in 1914 for reasons still unclear, and in 1924 he was exiled for opposing the military government of Primo de Rivera. He returned to Salamanca in 1930 to experience the repeat of his former fate. Unamuno was re-elected rector, then removed once again, in 1936, this time for denouncing General Francisco Franco’s Falangists. Placed under house arrest, the by-now popular and controversial Unamuno died of a heart attack a few months later, on New Year’s Eve, 1936. He attained distinction in literature as a major figure in the Generation of 1898 and for launching Spanish writing into the modern era. His outspoken presence in Spanish public life endeared him to Spaniards but not to the leaders he criticized, both in direct statements and in his novels, whose philosophical musings challenged the status quo of an autocratic Spain painfully undergoing a series of political upheavals. Mist, published just before his 1914 dismissal, tackles some of the themes whose frank exploration made Unamuno so popular and controversial, including the question of the Spanish national character, his interest in the conflict between reason and faith, and his passionate concern with immortality, life, and death.
Spanish political instability
While the novel—or nivola, as Unamuno reworks it—scrupulously avoids reference to a specific time or setting, Un-amuno’s own presence in it suggests that it takes place within his lifetime. References to a Spanish national character and the travel by the protagonist to Salamanca point to a setting in Spain.
Unamuno was born into a Spain in turmoil. Since the temporary establishment of a constitution and a parliament early in the century, Spanish Republicans had agitated for reform in the face of one absolutist monarch after another. During a civil war between urban progressives and the rural, deeply Catholic anticonstitutional conservatives known as Carlists, Queen Isabella II (ruled 1833-68) succeeded to the throne. She proved to be an incompetent, divisive ruler, and her reign ended with her subjects’ deposing her in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1868. The struggle for power that ensued, combined with a revolt by the Spanish colony of Cuba, led to political anarchy, quashed only by the army’s restoring absolutist rule in the person of Isabella’s son. Before the accession of Alfonso to the throne, however, the Basque region would experience the 1874 siege of Bilbao as the rural traditionalists with a stronghold throughout the north of Spain fought progressive forces; a child at the time, Unamuno witnessed this cruel siege, whose violence had a profound effect on him.
With the restoration of the monarchy came two decades of political stability, leading to some economic prosperity in the long-depressed nation. A renewed Cuban insurrection resulted in the Spanish-Américan War in 1898. The Spanish loss of that colony as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, combined with agricultural depression and the end of the economic boom, all of which came to a head in 1898, prompted an intellectual and political reaction (see Generation del 98 below). These losses constituted challenges to the Spanish sense of national identity that merged with internal, regional movements for self-determination, the rise of labor movements, and the resurgence of republican sentiment in the early twentieth century. Spain remained neutral in World War I, even experiencing economic benefits. But the regional agitation, labor disturbances, and colonial rebellion continued, citizens grew disenchanted with the parliamentary regime, and a military coup resulted, establishing Primo de Rivera as dictator of Spain in 1923. (While Mist’s original publication in 1914 precedes this coup and Unamuno’s vociferous opposition to Primo de Rivera, a prologue he added to the 1935 or third edition of the novel connects its events to Spain’s political history; although the novel’s characters theorize about whether or not they really exist, they live with each rereading, through all three editions, and through reprintings thereafter, outlasting the oppressive dictatorships crippling twentieth-century Spain.)
Unamuno’s hostility to the Primo de Rivera regime led to his exile, first in the Canary Islands, and then in France. He returned to Spain only in 1930, when Primo de Rivera’s fiscal extravagances and tight control finally wore thin with the public. New elections called for the establishment of a Spanish republic in 1931. That same year, Alfonso, the king who had endorsed Primo de Rivera’s rule, left Spain, prudently acknowledging his unpopularity as manifested in a Republican resurgence, labor movements, and a society whose faith in monarchy had been shaken by its king’s compliance with the dictatorship. The new republic tackled the current problems; it quieted regional insurgencies by inaugurating home rule for the Basque region and autonomy for Catalonia, initiated public works projects, and balanced taxation to make it more equitable. But these vast and difficult reforms, along with the severing of ties between the Church and state and the restructuring of the age-old Church-based educational system, began to strain the ties holding the fragile republic together. By 1936, a narrow electoral victory by the left, strikes, peasant rebellion, and general unrest gave way to a conspiracy to overthrow the government. Civil War ensued, and Francisco Franco emerged as a leader of the Nationalist, or anti-Republican, forces. Unamuno publicly de-
UNIVERSITY OF SALAMANCA
Located about two hours to the northwest of Madrid, the city of Salamanca has a varied and often distinguished history. Its cityscape is marked by architectural ornaments in Roman, Romanesque, Renaissance, and Neoclassical styles, representing the thousands of years of history there. Central to the last millennium of this history is the university located in the center of town. Founded in 1218 under Alfonso IX, it began to resemble a modern university in 1254, when, under Alfonso X, grandson of the founder, three chairs in canon law and one each in grammar, arts, and physics were established. One of the four principal universities in Europe (along with Oxford, Bologna, and Paris), Salamanca was, in the late Middle Ages, a hotbed of intellectual activity, especially in philosophy. This engagement with philosophy continued during the age of Fray Luis de León, a poet and scholar with a long and distinguished tenure at the university interrupted by four years (1572-76) of imprisonment by the Inquisition for unorthodoxy. As Spain itself became marginalized in Europe, losing hold of its global empire and remaining unindustrialized, Salamanca’s university suffered a drop in continental reputation. The university saw many of its buildings destroyed during Napoleon’s retreat from Spain and claimed only 400 students by 1875. But with Unamuno’s appointment to the chair in Greek literature, Salamanca rallied against its by-then backwater status. Unamuno’s high profile in newspapers and his well-publicized dismissal and later exile for his political convictions contributed to the restoration of the university’s prestige. Today, the town of nearly 200,000 boasts a thriving university, whose ancient and beautiful buildings are still being used for classes. Another claim to fame here is the distinctively arcaded Plaza Mayor, one of the best-known sites in Spain, In fact, tourism, along with agricultural trade, comprises the economic base of present-day Salamanca.
nounced Franco’s forces, and for this was removed from his office at the university. In 1939, three years after Unamuno’s death, Franco would secure power in an iron grip with which he would rule for nearly 40 years.
Generation del 98
Spain’s loss of the Spanish American War in 1898 topped off decades of instability, prompting writers and thinkers to embark on a period of national self-examination. While Spain, as one of the nations at the forefront of overseas explorations and colonial expansion, had helped usher Europe into its imperial era, the nation had long since faded from international prominence. This was due in part to economic and political troubles, and in part to the majority’s relation to a Spanish Catholicism that encouraged religious faith rather than intellectual skepticism. The Golden Age of Spanish drama long past, Spain’s largely marginalized arts and letters paralleled its political position on the periphery of world affairs; intellectuals and artists saw a link between the two declines and sought to reinvigorate the national culture.
The Generation of 1898 was never an organized school and its members, while concurring that Spain’s cultural and military decline was catastrophic, often disagreed on the best path for Spain to follow. The call for regeneration came from novelists, poets, essayists, and thinkers of widely different styles and philosophies. Yet they shared a common goal. All of them searched earnestly for the way to forge a modernized Spain, yet one distant from the politics orchestrated by the professional politicians who were removed from the genuine populace.
The term “Generation of 1898” came into use at the movement’s inception, but it was formalized and made permanent by the essayist Azorín, whose collected works, Clásicosy modernos (Classics and Moderns), appeared in 1913, one year before the initial publication of Mist. Other noted members of the group included philosopher and critic José Ortega y Gasset, novelists Angel Ganivet, Pío Baroja, and Ramón María del Valle-Inclan, and poets António Machado and Manuel Machado. The two poets were particular friends of Unamuno. Interested in foreign works as well as domestic roots, members of the Generation reconnected Spanish letters to the rest of European thought. Ortega y Gasset, like Unamuno, was particularly influenced by Continental philosophy. In his skilled hands, along with Unamuno’s and Azorín’s, the essay achieved distinction as a genre in the country. The entire movement was pivotal in galvanizing Spanish intellectuals at the time, and in imparting a sense of purpose to modern Spanish life.
Unamuno and philosophy
While Unamuno thought of himself foremost as a poet, he also produced a number of novels and philosophical treatises. All of his writing held true to his belief that everyday language could express deep thoughts effectively. The absence of a formal structure in his philosophical writings distinguishes Unamuno from many of his contemporaries; he is aware of and embraces paradox in such works as Del sentimiento trágico de la vida en los hombres y en los pueblos (1913; The Tragic Sense of Life). Beginning with the logical musings of Descartes, European thought had taken a direction that relied on reason. But after having seen the cruelty of humans in the Carlist Siege in 1874 and having suffered a spiritual crisis when his son was struck with meningitis in 1897, Unamuno did not believe that reason alone could lead humans to peace or understanding. Rather, like the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, Unamuno rejected the faith in human reason that underpinned most of nineteenth-century philosophy. Emphasizing instead the irrationality of belief and the impossibility of knowing, Unamuno repeatedly discussed the human desire for immortality and the way it conflicted with our knowledge of the certainty of death. The decision to act as though life has meaning is indeed what gives it meaning. In keeping with this, belief must come from personal decisions, not from social norms or expectations, which provide only the illusion of significance. With these concepts at the core of all of his writings, Unamuno is an advocate of individualism in the face of the pressure to conform. His rejection of highly systematic approaches to the human condition and of blind faith place him in the existentialist tradition. Coined in the World War II era, existentialism refers to a family of philosophies that would gain currency in France and elsewhere three decades after Unamuno wrote his novel. They were philosophies of despair, though much in existential writing does not really fit this definition. A human being has no God-given or nature-given essence, taught the existential philosophers. Instead each being defines him or her self by his or her choices and actions. Preoccupied with similar issues of individualism, choices, and death, Unamuno’s own perspective can be viewed as a precursor of this tradition.
Plot overview and prologues
Mist “recounts the lamentable life and mysterious death” of Augusto Pérez (Unamuno, Mist, p. 3). A wealthy, orphaned idler, Augusto falls in love with two women, exchanging stories and speculating throughout about love and fiction with his friend Víctor. When both women leave and deceive him, Augusto seeks solace in philosophy, consulting the well-known writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who also happens to be Augusto’s creator. Confronted with the suggestion that he might not exist, Augusto angrily suggests that he, the character, has created the author, before succumbing to the death Unamuno has planned for him.
Although this plot sounds relatively straightforward until its climactic final confrontation of author and character, Unamuno was reluctant to call it a novel. Rather, he invented the term nivola, which sounds like the Spanish word for novel, novela, but also suggests a new level, or nivel, of writing. Essentially, Unamuno’s nivolas are more dialogue-based than novels, rely less on description, and engage with philosophical issues.
Mist opens with a prologue signed by one Victor Goti, who will also appear as a character in the novel. The fact that Unamuno has authored this prologue himself is never disclosed, though hints do appear throughout it, as Goti explains some of Unamuno’s aesthetic beliefs and defends him against critics. Referring repeatedly to his own lack of free will, Goti nonetheless contends that Augusto succeeds in committing suicide.
Goti’s prologue is humorous in its pedantry as well as its apparent lack of irony. “Don Miguel de Unamuno insists on my writing a prologue to this book of his” (Mist, p. 3), Goti begins, a line that in retrospect becomes quite funny when we realize that as a creation of Unamuno’s mind, Goti is obliged to do whatever Unamuno tells him. Goti praises Unamuno for
While the philosophy of existentialism is best associated with later figures, notably mid-twentieth-century French novelist and philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, Unamuno provides a link between the movement and its nineteenth-century Danish predecessor, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55). Unamuno learned Danish especially so that he could read Kierkegaard’s works, which rejected belief in rationalistic systems of organization. Only through the process of existing could people find truth, taught Kierkegaard; religious faith could only be achieved through serious personal contemplation. In Either/Or and Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard explores the idea that organized religion often fails to provide answers, a feeling Unamuno had in 1897 when he experienced a crisis of faith. Like Kierkegaard, Unamuno believed that belief was an intensely personal experience.
Unamuno’s own explorations of the conflict between faith and reason and the idea that free will and self-determination were a fallacy presaged those of Europe at large. The often senseless massacres of World Wars I and II, alongside an increasingly mechanized daily life and the rise of totalitarianism, led many to question the nature of human existence and the relationship between choice and morality, in the 1940s, existentialism became a major force in European thought; existentialists believe that because all actions are a result of choice, humans have absolute freedom, which leads to a sense of dread at the overwhelming responsibility of living. Unamuno was not as optimistic about free will, but he shares with the existentialists the belief that humans must live as if human life has transcendent meaning although there can be no certainty that it does.
pages before abruptly declaring that contrary to what the novel says, Augusto Pérez committed suicide, and was not killed by the author who created him.
Goti’s prologue is followed immediately by a “post-prologue” that Unamuno himself takes credit for, one that he feels compelled to write in response to Goti’s assertions. In it, Unamuno takes issue with the question of a character’s powers versus those of the author, as well as with Goti’s value judgments about the nature of Au-gusto’s passing. The voice in this post-prologue is of an author trying to retain control of his characters, including Victor Goti.
A third preamble, which occurs only in later editions, is written more in what might be called Unamuno’s “real” voice or persona. In this prologue to the text, Unamuno refers to the real life, biographical events that have occurred since publication of the first edition of Mist, including the coup of Primo de Rivera and the looming dominance of Franco. These events make his earlier treatment of the questions of authorial control and the boundaries between the real and fictional world seem startlingly prescient. Referring to the characters in his fictions, Unamuno writes that “This world of mine … is more real to me than the world of leaders and politicians like Cánovas and Sagasta, and Primo de Rivera, and kings like Alfonso XIII” (Mist, p. 23). Part of the reason that the dream world is more real is that it is eternal, whereas eras and events in history pass. With these thoughts, Unamuno argues that fictional ideas can have very real consequences and that reality is often influenced by the written word, concluding that though the novel, or nivok, tells the story of Augusto’s death, he is eternal, immortal.
These three preambles, whose very presence sets the tone for the novel as well as introducing several of its characters and spelling out its subject matter, cannot be separated from the rest of the novel, which now begins in earnest. The reader is introduced to Augusto Pérez, a wealthy young man whose father has been long dead but whose mother has only recently passed away. Shortly before her death, Augusto’s mother enjoined him to marry. Augusto lives with two longtime servants, Domingo and Luduvina, in a comfortable house in an unnamed Spanish provincial
In creating a new form that he called the “nivola,” Unamuno sought to avoid setting, description, and authorial predetermination, all in order to free characters to become individuals. He goes so far as to allow his character Víctor, in Mist, to take credit for the new approach to creation. The scene in which Víctor explains to Augusto his aesthetic approach exemplifies the very nivola form that he describes:
[Víctor] “Well, you see, one day when I didn’t really know what to do, but felt an urge to do something, a deep yearning, a gnawing of phantasy, it was then that f decided to write a novel. But I determined to write it as life itself, without knowing what will happen next. I sat down, took out paper and started by setting down the first thing that crossed my mind, without thinking what would happen next, without any plan. My fictional characters will create themselves by the way they act and talk, especially in the way they talk. Their personalities will develop gradually. And sometimes their personalities will be not to have any personality at all,”
[Augusto] “Like mine.”
[Víctor] “I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m simply letting myself be carried along.”
[Augusto] “And are you using psychological techniques? Description?”
[Víctor] “Whatever comes out in the dialogue, especially the dialogue…”
[Augusto] “You start thinking you’re leading the characters around with your own hand, when you suddenly discover that you’re being led around by them instead. Often enough, it’s the author who becomes the toy of his own creations … it won’t be a novel.”
[Víctor] “No, that’s true … it will be a nivola.… Then no one can say I’m violating the rules of the novel form.”
(Mist, pp. 128-30)
city. An earnest, thoughtful man, Augusto takes himself very seriously, his dramatic emotions often appearing humorous to the reader.
As the novel opens, Augusto plans to amble about town under his umbrella (there is a light rain, one of the many mists to which the title refers), his mind racing through whimsical philosophical thoughts about God and the imagination. Unable to decide which way to walk, he plans to follow the next dog that passes, but his eye is caught and mesmerized instead by a beautiful woman, whom he tails to her home. Bribing a concierge, Augusto learns that her name is Eugenia Domingo del Arco, that she teaches piano, and that she is single. He returns home to compose a passionate letter to her, then delivers it to her apartment, where he learns that Eugenia has been the recipient of many such letters. Next, he goes to play chess with his friend Víctor, to whom he confesses his love. Curiously, Víctor knows Eugenia, as do Domingo and Luduvina, Augusto’s servants. Their unexplained acquaintance with Eugenia may be the first hint that the reader has that although this seems to be a lighthearted comic novel, what is happening on the level of plot is secondary to Una-muno’s interest in the nature of fiction. Further evidence of Unamuno’s philosophical interests comes in Augusto’s existential conversations with a dog he finds, Orfeo, in which he speculates about the nature of reality and dreams, what it means to be in love, and whether he has a soul.
Winning an invitation into Eugenia’s home by saving her aunt’s canary from a fall, Augusto finds himself a welcome suitor in the eyes of the young woman’s guardians, a busybody aunt and anarchical, Esperanto-speaking uncle. This uncle provides continual comic relief, as when he links non-phonetic spelling to human repression: “And away with the H! H is the height of absurdity, of reaction, of authority, of the Middle Ages, of retrogression! Down with H!” (Mist, p. 71). When Eugenia herself arrives home, however, she is cold and distant. Curious but undeterred by her reaction, Augusto returns home.
Meanwhile, we learn that Eugenia has a lover named Mauricio, of whom her guardians disapprove because he has no job. When Eugenia urges him to find work so that they can marry and she can quit teaching those hateful piano lessons, Mauricio lazily promises to look for work.
In search of a confidante, Augusto seeks out Víctor. En route to their gentleman’s club, he turns his head toward woman after woman, finding himself drawn to and in love with all of them. Suddenly Augusto is confronted by Víctor, who, tired of waiting for him at the club, has discovered the young philosopher wandering in the opposite direction. Víctor explains to Augusto that he is in love with the abstract idea of woman as a way of expressing his concrete love for Eugenia. Augusto’s inner monologue turns over the question of whether he is really in love.
The next day he returns to Eugenia’s home, only to be rebuffed even more firmly than before. Soon his eye is caught by the young washerwoman Rosario, who delivers the laundry. His amorous attentions to her are marred by his admission that he loves another. She is hurt but promises to visit again. Soon after, Eugenia arrives at Augusto’s home, furious because Augusto has bought the mortgage to the home Eugenia has been working to pay off. While Augusto swears he meant the gesture as one of unconditional love, Eugenia takes it as an attempt to buy her, so she rejects his gift of the mortgage payment. This refusal leaves him in “A mist of nonexistence,” from which he emerges to find himself in a church (Mist, p. 98). The encounter in the church is the first of a number in which an anecdote is related with tangential meaning to Augusto’s own life. Here, Don Avito Carrascal (a character who first appears in Unamuno’s novel Love and Pedagogy) tells of the woes of his son, “a fictive personage like himself” (Mist, p. 99). Unsure if he believes in prayer or not, Avito is experiencing a spiritual crisis. His wife is his only comfort; he advises Augusto to marry a woman who loves him.
Needing to clear his head, Augusto heads to his club for a game of chess. Víctor mentions his own early forced marriage to a woman whom both his family and she mistakenly believed he had impregnated. He and his wife at first despaired of ever having children, then rejoiced in the freedom and companionship of their life, and Primo de Rivera were now expecting a child. At this point neither of them wants the child, whose incipient arrival causes another rift between them. Víctor thus advises Augusto to marry only if he wishes to engage in such struggles.
After expressing her outrage to her aunt at what she perceives as Augusto’s effort to buy her by paying the mortgage, Eugenia goes to see Mauricio, who is still unemployed. He confesses to being a born idler and suggests that she marry Augusto to ensure the lovers a steady income. After this remark, Eugenia storms away from him in a rage. Meanwhile, Augusto and Víctor again philosophize at the club. Víctor relates a final relevant story, that of a landlady who marries her mortally ill tenant in the hopes of collecting the widower’s pension, which would have gone to waste had the man remained a bachelor. The tenant marries her because he can no longer afford rent. Ironically, he lives longer than either expects. Rating the story as better than fiction, Víctor confesses that he is writing a novel to distract himself from his wife’s pregnancy. The novel that he describes, which had no clear plot, little description, and a preponderance of dialogue, very much resembles the one we are reading. Víctor calls it a “nivola,” claiming credit for a term that Unamuno himself has invented. Hearing about this enterprise leads Augusto to question whether his own existence is merely as a part of God’s dreams: “And what is my life? A novel? Nivola? Just what is it? Everything that happens to me and everyone around me, is it reality or fiction? Perhaps this is all no more than God dreaming, or somebody else dreaming” (Mist, p. 131). As he does throughout the novel, Augusto speculates that reality is not as clear-cut as our senses tell us. Rather, moments of mist, when things are suddenly hazy, are actually moments of insight.
Upon seeing the young washerwoman Rosario again, Augusto becomes very tender. He kisses her and strokes her hair, then stops suddenly when he feels “mist” closing in over him. Again he begins to question his own existence. A few days later, Eugenia’s aunt arrives to let Augusto know that Eugenia has been crying and refusing food and is now ready to accept his gift, if it does indeed come without condition. He assures the aunt that it does. His love for Eugenia having waned, he is annoyed when she arrives to visit and hints that perhaps she would be open to a renewal of his amorous avowals. In the middle of their meeting, Rosario’s arrival is announced. When he meets with her, the laundress proclaims her loyalty to him.
The next day at the social club, a Don António tells Augusto a story: António’s wife had an affair with another man, and António ends up falling in love with the other man’s wife. Next Augusto hears from Víctor about the status of his marriage: the erstwhile dreaded child is now a welcome addition to his household. These further stories and his mixed feelings about Eugenia and Rosario prompt a confused Augusto to write a study of women. He begins his research with Rosario, first behaving amorously and then sending her away abruptly. Approaching Eugenia next, he is instead controlled by her, and soon the two are engaged.
While Augusto is now a welcome visitor in her home, Eugenia continues to act coolly towards him. Rosario never visits again. One day Eugenia informs Augusto that her old boyfriend Mauricio is bothering her and asking that her fiancé use his influence to secure a job for him somewhere far away. Mauricio appears at Augusto’s house with thanks for the job and the news that he and Rosario will be leaving together. Though he longs for Rosario, Augusto goes ahead with his engagement, until one day he receives a letter from Eugenia informing him that she and Mauricio have gone off together, leaving Rosario behind. Conversations with Víctor, now an elated father, fail to restore Augusto’s mood, and soon he resolves to kill himself. He travels to Salamanca to meet with Unamuno, having read an essay by the author with reference to suicide. As they talk, Unamuno reveals to him that he is a fictional creation incapable of deciding to kill himself. Augusto counters by suggesting that perhaps it is Unamuno himself who is not real. They argue, mutually condemning each other to death. Augusto sadly returns home, eats an enormous meal, and dies, leaving the reader unsure as to whether he or his author has willed the death.
Unamuno is not the first author to appear in his own work, but his argument with Augusto over who controls the character’s destiny predates by over 50 years sustained Western experimentation with the hierarchy of narrative levels in the novel and the concurrent theorizing about the “Death of the author.” Unamuno’s interest in exploring the limitations of the novelistic form, as well as in stretching and poking fun at previous schools of writing, reveal him to be concerned with Augusto’s fate at a very serious level despite the novel’s light tone.
One of Unamuno’s main targets is realism. The previous generation of Spanish writers, epitomized by Benito Pérez Galdós, were part of a larger Western movement towards realism in writing (see Fortunata and Jacinta , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). Naturalists, authors who extended realism to its limits, subscribed to the belief that authors should give an abundance of physical and psychological details. These intricate descriptions were necessary because a human’s surroundings determine his personality and actions. Unamuno’s own philosophical outlook on life made such a view untenable to him, so Mist avoids the broad historical sweep and attention to detail of realist and naturalist fiction; it is instead a novel that, as L. Livingstone has said, “eliminate[s] all externals, particularly settings and character descriptions, in order to focus on individual personalities” (Livingstone in Gale).
From the first events of the novel, Unamuno hints to readers that his nivola will depart from the sorts of descriptive, plot-driven novels that readers usually expect. The multiple prologues mock the traditional use of a prologue by a famous author to boost the reputation of a lesser-known writer: “It is only natural that a young beginner like myself, wishing to make himself known, should ask a veteran man of letters, not for a prologue by way of presentation, but for the opportunity to prologue one of the master’s works,” on the assumption that books are bought for the content of the main body, not the prologue (Mist, p. 3). Moreover, the attribution of the first prologue to a character from the novel begins the process of clouding the distinctions between fiction and reality, as well as calling attention to the fact that we are reading a work of fiction. Finally, the discussion by both Goti and Unamuno in their separate prologues of Au-gusto’s death distances this novel from one in which plot resolution is one of the main goals.
Augusto’s opening decision in the novel, that he will follow the first dog he sees, can be viewed, Gayana Jurkevich has suggested, as “a humorous debunking of the determinism prevalent in the naturalist canon” (Jurkevich, p. 62); that is, while Unamuno himself questions the existence of free will, he finds the naturalist belief in behavior shaped by one’s immediate environment to be simplistic, so he parodies it. The utter lack of description throughout the novel—we never get a description of any of the characters, of any of the settings, or of any clothing, for example—also challenges the idea that fiction relies on such details for its verisimilitude.
The metafictional dimension of the novel calls to the reader’s attention that it is the act of writing that makes a character live; Unamuno’s final prologue reminds us that characters depend on the act of reading as well. Through revisiting an old novel, we make it contemporary: “they live and relive as they are dreamed by each dreamer” (Mist, p. 20). In this way, the immortal characters of a novel are at some level more alive than human beings with a contained life span. Unamuno writes that his fictional world “is more real to me than the world of leaders and politicians” (Mist, p. 23). The ability of a fictional world to survive and withstand a world marked by random acts and oppressive dictators (such as Primo de Rivera) reveals the political angle that can underpin the metafictive project: just as an author has total control over his or her characters, so a dictator can dominate the lives of his subjects. The capacity for self-determination, the very battle Augusto fights with Unamuno and that Unamuno himself fights in a Primo de Rivera-dominated Spain, is a vital concern in the outside world, and sometimes fiction is the only place where ideals live on.
Writing in the rich intellectual context of the Generation of 1898, Unamuno reflects the contemporary concern of breaking with tradition while reinvigorating national pride. Spain has ample reason to be proud of its literary history, boasting many great authors who produced poems, plays, and fiction of high quality. Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote , often cited as the first novel, is a masterpiece of comedy, satire, adventure, and romance; Calderon de la Barca’s Life is a Dream is a dramatic master-work (both also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). The Golden Age of Spanish drama in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the towering presence in the nineteenth century of the aforementioned Pérez Galdos, a master of psychological realism, also offered the Generation of 1898 ample sources for pride. Along with the essayist Azorín, who helped coin the name “Generation of ‘98,” Unamuno led the way in encouraging renewed interest in Spain’s literary classics. Unamuno’s work regularly engages with his predecessors, and most especially with Cervantes; the tone of Mist, ironic and satirical yet serious, resembles that of Cervantes’s mock epic. Like Pérez Galdos, Unamuno acknowledges distinctively Spanish ideas like Don Quixote’s foolish yet noble idealism and aspects of a unique Spanish national character, including religious devotion and a passion for conversation.
While Unamuno’s literary peers in Spain are clearly important sources for his work, the development of literary modernism on the rest of the European continent is also relevant. Outside Spain, the nineteenth century’s literary goal of a near-scientific depiction of reality, which reached its height in realism and naturalism, confronted its limitations in the face of a modern era of confused urban chaos and psychological complexity. This recognition of the limits of empirical logic dovetailed nicely with Unamuno’s own rejection of pure reason during a personal spiritual crisis he underwent in 1897. Like Unamuno, many modernist artists and authors broke with the goal of a mimetic representation of reality, seeking instead to openly challenge existing forms of representation and subject matter. Unamuno’s description of the nivola touches on modernist discontents with existing modes of narration, and his interest in the notion of authorship parallels and even predates a modernist obsession with artistic identity. Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), by Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello, similarly explores the presence of multiple layers of artifice and reality in the production of a play, while protagonist Stephen Dedalus, created by Irish novelist James Joyce, speculates on the role of the author in much the same way that Víctor Goti does in Unamuno’s nivola.
Unamuno’s literary experiment reaches even further into twentieth-century consciousness, anticipating the questioning of dreams and reality in the mid-twentieth-century metafiction of Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges. Moreover, Unamuno’s existential concerns with the meaning of reality and the possibility of free will and choice resemble those of later writers influenced by existentialism, including France’s Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre and Ireland’s expatriate novelist and dramatist Samuel Beckett. Still later movements, such as the French “New Novel” of the 1960s, share Unamuno’s interest in innovation, disrupting boundaries between narrator, author, and character and experimenting with narrative techniques like avoiding description or blurring temporal distinctions. In its concern with the relationship of character to author and its innovative narration, Mist stands alone at the beginning of a twentieth century in which these interests will become central.
While Mist was not necessarily understood by critics (Unamuno intended to “unnerve” them with it) the novel was among the most popular of the author’s works (Mist, p. 18). As he himself notes in his 1935 prologue, Mist had by then been translated into at least ten languages. A 1928 English translation received mixed reviews. While many reviewers recognized the value of the novel’s philosophical conundrums, it was seen as “an ironic exercise in dialectic rather than a novel” (The Nation in Knight, p. 778).
Spain itself did not warm immediately to Unamuno’s challenging and puzzling novel: “The initial reception of Niebla [Mist] suggests that reader expectations in general were not ready for Unamuno’s radical modal violations” (Spires, p. 34). Indeed, early critical reception classified the work as an attack on the novel. Early literary critics focused largely on Unamuno’s other, more conventional works. Only in the 1960s, with the arrival of the French New Novel and the growth of interest in existentialism and metafiction throughout literary criticism, did Mist at last became the focus of sustained critical attention.
The Gale Group. “Miguel de Unamuno.” Contemporary Authors Online. 12/8/99. http://www.flicklives.com (May 2001).
Johnson, Roberta. Crossfire: Philosophy and the Novel in Spain, 1900-1934. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
Jurkevich, Gayana. The Illusive Self: Archetypal Approaches to the Novels of Miguel de Unamuno. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991.
Knight, Marion, et al. The Book Review Digest: Twenty-Fourth Annual Cumulation, Books of 1928. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1929.
Marías, Julían, José Ortegay Gasset: Circumstance and Vocation. Trans. Frances M. López-Morillas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
Shaw, Donald Leslie. The Generation of 1898 in Spain. London: E. Benn, 1975.
Spires, Robert C. Beyond the Metafictional Mode: Directions in the Modern Spanish Novel. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.
Unamuno, Miguel. Mist. In Novela/Nivola. Vol. 6 of The Selected Works of Unamuno. Trans. Anthony Kerrigan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.
mist / mist/ • n. a cloud of tiny water droplets suspended in the atmosphere at or near the earth's surface limiting visibility, but to a lesser extent than fog; strictly, with visibility remaining above 1.5 miles (1 km): the peaks were shrouded in mist | [in sing.] a mist rose out of the river. ∎ [in sing.] a condensed vapor settling in fine droplets on a surface: a breeze cooled the mist of perspiration that had dampened her temples. ∎ [in sing.] a haze or film over the eyes, esp. caused by tears, and resulting in blurred vision: Ruth saw most of the scene through a mist of tears. ∎ used in reference to something that blurs one's perceptions or memory: Sardinia's origins are lost in the mists of time. • v. cover or become covered with mist: [tr.] the windows were misted up with condensation | [intr.] the glass was beginning to mist up. ∎ [intr.] (of a person's eyes) become covered with a film of tears causing blurred vision: her eyes misted at this heroic image. ∎ [tr.] spray (something, esp. a plant) with a fine cloud of water droplets.ORIGIN: Old English, of Germanic origin; from an Indo-European root shared by Greek omikhlē ‘mist, fog.’
Hence misty (-Y1) OE.