Ivan Turgenev’s speech on “Hamlet and Don Quixote” looked at man torn between the differing traits of those characters. Perverting his intent, imagine a Hamlet-like character dropped into a Quixote-esque world and you have a sense of Mist. The novel reflects not just the problems of man but also how novels represent him. Unamuno places heavy emphasis on dialogue (which includes soliloquies) to highlight the uncertainty between reality and fiction, between what we hear or see and what is. While this removes some levels of doubt, it introduces many others. With dialogue the narrator is apparently removed, but as the visit of the character Augusto to the author Unamuno shows it is simply a substitution of one arbitrary point of view for another. Literature, in Unamuno’s mind, does more than reflect life, it creates it as well.
But who is the creator and who is the created? Unamuno turns this question in on itself with the meeting between Augusto and the author:
“It cannot be, my poor Augusto,” I said, taking him by the hand and lifting him up. “It cannot be. I have now decreed it—it is written—and irrevocably; you can live no longer. I no longer know what to do with you. God, when he does not know what to do with us, kills us.”
(All translations are by Warner Fite)
The alleged creator of Augusto is but the creation of someone else. Unamuno (the character) confesses that he is restricted by basic rules of art on what he can have his characters do and say. So Unamuno (the character? the author?) is twice constrained, by his creator and by his creation. As several characters mention, life is a play and we all play our roles.
There is much that can be discussed about the novel (or nivola). Fiction vs. reality, images vs. reality, the mist of life, and the tragic sense of life just for starters. I’ll just cherry-pick a few of the notes I made…
Unamuno has one character (Victor) lay out how Mist will be written—dialogue, monologues, a dog to talk to, etc. By saying dialogue is preferable over description and later saying that man lies when he speaks (or with the dog Orfeo’s lines about man falsifies with speech—quoted in a previous post), what is to be trusted? Or can nothing be trusted?
Man’s craving for immortality, as Unamuno saw it, is the basis for “the tragic sense of life” (his work of that name was published in 1912…Mist in 1914). Some thoughts from that work appear throughout Mist. “Yes, the second birth, the real birth, consists in being born through pain to that consciousness of ever-continuing death of which we are dying all through life.” One outcome of man’s craving for immortality was marriage and procreation. Yet the depictions of relationships and marriages in Mist run from the hilarious to the wretched. The twists and turns of many of the relationships add much of the comic nature to the novel. Unfortunately it turns out that love can be a lie, just like speech. However love can help offset the realization and sooth the acceptance of death, too. Although in Augusto’s case, he sees love as clearing his muddled outlook, while the reality is quite the opposite.
The tension between our knowledge of death while desiring immortality can cloud our outlook, which is only one reason for the title of the novel. Two quotes from the novel on the mist of life:
“It is not the great pains, nor the great joys, to which we succumb; and this is because the great pains and the great joys come wrapped in a vast mist of trifling incidents. And life is just this—mist.”
“The mist of life precipitates a gentle tedium in the form of a bitter-sweet liquor.” This tedium “has invented all the games and distractions, the novels, and love.”
Which includes this novel. There is much more to this nivola and I highly recommend exploring it.