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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 10 - 20th Century Prose  


Modernism and the Self-Conscious Novel

Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet, dramatist and novelist, left a body of work that explores the difficult matters of representing conscience and consciousness. As a novelist he invented a new form, which he called nivola, a playful phonic amalgam of niebla, the Spanish word for "mist," and novela, or "novel."

Unamuno's experiment with novelistic form and structure clearly is embodied in the following selection from Mist (1914), his innovative nivola. Note that Unamuno's novel-in-the-making, where everything happens, according to the author, without a pre-arranged plan, predates Pirandello's more well-known "Comedy in the Making," which serves as a subtitle to Six Characters in Search of an Author.

As a modernist, Unamuno was interested in both consciousness and perception, and, moreover, in the perception of consciousness; he made no effort to create the sort of "well-made" work so popular in the nineteenth century. He avowed that novels should be like life, unpredictable and spontaneously self-creating. Characters ought to be free to make their own decisions. Prefiguring the theories of the French existentialists, Unamuno allowed his characters to be rebellious and fight for their lives, even if they might be only fictional. Fiction for Unamuno was no less real than life, and therefore not easily dismissable.

Augusto Perez, the "hero" of Unamuno's multi-layered biography, is one such protagonist, whom we see rebelling against his creator. He dares to break the fictional frame and confront, even instruct, his creator, who dreamed him, and now is to be dreamt by his creation.

From Chapter XXXI Of Mist

"Very well, but what now?" Augusto interrupted me, bringing me back to reality.

"And so you've taken it into your head to kill! Am I to die at the hands of one of my creatures? I'll not put up with this another minute. And to punish you for your insolence and your wild, extravagant, ruinous, anarchist doctrines, which you have brought around here, I've decided to pass a death sentence on you. As soon as you reach home you're going to die. You shall die, I hereby pronounce it, you shall die!"

"But, good God...," Augusto shouted, in an imploring tone of voice, quaking and white with fear.

"No sense invoking God. You shall die!"

"But I want to live, Don Miguel, I want to live, live, live...."

"Weren't you thinking of killing yourself?"

"But, if that's the way you feel, I swear I won't kill myself. I will not take this life that God or you have given me. I swear it to you....Now that you want to kill me, I want to live, live, live...."

"Some life!" I exclaimed.

"Yes, whatever it is. I want to live, even if I'm made butt of more mockery...I want to"

"It's no longer possible. It cannot be."

"I want to live, I tell you, to live and to be myself, myself...."

"But what if that self can only be what I decide it to be?"

"I want to be myself, myself! I want to live!" and his voice became tearful.

"It cannot cannot be...."

He fell to his knees, imploring and shouting:
"Don Miguel, for God's sake, I want to live, to be myself."

"It cannot be, my poor Augusto," I told him, as I took one of his hands and brought him to his feet, "it cannot be! It's already written. It's in the books. Your fate is sealed and you cannot live any longer. Anyway, I don't know what else there is for you to do. For instance, God, when He no longer knows what to do with us, kills us. And I can't forget that it crossed your mind to kill me...."

"But Don Miguel, if I..."

"It doesn't matter. I know what I'm about. And I'm really worried that if I don't kill you quickly, you will eventually kill me."

"But didn't we agree...?"

"It cannot be, Augusto, it simply cannot be. Your time has come. The words are already written and I cannot retract them. You're going to die. And I can't imagine what your life is worth to you now...."

"But...for God's sake..."

"There is no 'but' or 'God' about it. Leave now!"

"So you won't let me by myself?" he said to me. "So you won't let me by myself, emerge from the mist, live, live, live at last, see myself, touch, listen, feel, hurt, be myself! So you won't have it? You want me die a fictional being! I am to die as a creature of fiction? Very well, my lord creator, Don Miguel de Unamuno, you will die too! You, too! And you'll return to the nothingness from which you came! God will cease to dream you! You will die, yes, you will die, even though you don't want to. You will die, and so will all those who read my story, everyone, every single one, without a single exception! They are all fictional beings, too, creatures of fiction like myself! They will all die, each and every one! It is I, Augusto Perez, who tells you this. I, Augusto Perez, a creature of fiction like yourselves, who are as 'nivolistic' as you. Because you, my creator, my dear Don Miguel, are nothing more than just another 'nivolistic' creature, and the same holds true for your readers, just as it does for Augusto Perez, your victim...."

"Victim?" I cried.

"Yes, victim! To create me only to let me die! Well, you're going to die, too! He who creates creates himself, and he who creates himself, dies. You'll die, Don Miguel, you will die, and so will all those who imagine me, they too will die. Let us begin to die, then!"

This supreme effort in his passionate striving for life -- or yearning for immortality -- left poor Augusto totally exhausted.

I urged him to the door. He walked out with his head lowered, and he began to touch himself in wonder, as if he were already wary of his own existence. I wiped away a furtive tear.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How does Augusto Perez view his creator, Unamuno?
  2. In what ways are real life and fictional life similar?
  3. By witnessing a conversation between author and character, how is the reality of the novel affected? How are you as a reader affected?
  4. In what sense does the character have a potential advantage over his creator?
  5. What makes this selection different from a typical realist or naturalist narrative of the nineteenth century?
  6. What "message" is Unamuno transmitting about literature in this selection?