The Invention of the Nivola: Unamuno's Niebla

Niebla is a novel, or nivola, written by Miguel de Unamuno, a Spanish writer that forms part of the 98th generation, a group of writers and poets that assembled due to their common moral and political themes after Spain lost the Spanish-American War in 1898. A war in which the country lost Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines. Unamuno wrote during the period of Spanish literary modernism and Niebla was published in 1914. This work was a change from the main topics of the Basque author, as his previous works centered on God and immortality with his main themes relying on the relationship between reason and faith.

This shift from the authors' norm doesn’t mean that these topics do not appear in Niebla, they are simply limited to the background. Unamuno continuously tried to separate his writings from the novels of his time, works that followed the realist narratives. The author writes about three major literary theories in this novel, and they all have to do with the ideas of what makes a good book. These were: metafiction, what makes a good nivola (a term the writer invents as a way of separating his work from the conventional novels), and who or what are the characters in a novel. These theories are written as being interrelated.

Photograph of Miguel de Unamuno by Thérèse Bonney (1929).

Throughout Niebla, Unamuno continuously intersects our world (the primary world) with the fictional one he created (the secondary world). He does this by making his characters break the fourth wall. This is evident from the very beginning as the prologue is written by Víctor Goti, the best friend of the main character of this nivola. A first-time reader won’t know that the prologue is written by a character of the book until they reach the post-prologue, which is written by Unamuno and where he threatens to make Goti disappear: “And my friend and prologist Goti must be very careful when debating my decisions, for if he annoys me too much, I will end up doing to him what I did to his friend Pérez, and that is letting him die” (Unamuno, 2012, p. 84).

Even before the novel starts, a character from it crosses the threshold that separates reality and fiction to interact with the reader. The most important event in the nivola is when Augusto, the main character, goes to see Unamuno: “But before carrying on with his purpose […] it occurred to him to come and consult it with me, author of all this tale” (Unamuno, 2012, p. 259). The writer appearing in some shape or form within their novel is not unique, Cervantes already did it in Don Quixote. What is newfangled is that the interaction occurs while the author is writing the novel. It looks as if this meeting between creator and creation has some sort of effect on the outcome of the novel. Maria R. Rippon, a professor of Spanish at Furman University, states that Miguel de Unamuno enhances reality by adding fiction to it and showing “the process of story-telling and the creation of fiction” (María R. Rippon, 2018, p.97).

Just like Maria R. Rippon stated, the process of writing is of great importance in this novel. Unamuno has many of his characters, especially Víctor Goti, state what is good literature and how to write it. The different literary techniques come from Unamuno, who at one point in the novel, makes an incision to agree with what his characters say: “I, author of this nivola […] smiled enigmatically as I saw my nivolesque characters advocating on my favor and justifying my procedure” (Unamuno, 2012, p. 233). The few literary techniques the author illustrates are: the invention of the nivola, to break with the genre of the novel, and as a way to defend himself if anyone accuses him of not following "the rules"; pushing for dialogues over monologues and descriptions; and highlighting the role of the reader, situating them at the same level as the writer when providing depth to a character.

Why was Unamuno so against realist novels that he needed to invent a new form? For the Basque writer, it came down to a simple point: reality is not about describing how a character moves throughout the world. For him, reality occurred in the mind. A real character is one that reflects and discusses; the key to reality is metaphysical; it is the inner world of each person that builds the outside world. Ardila, professor of Spanish and Latin-American Studies at the University of Malta, states, when comparing Unamuno’s work, that irrationality is the best way to describe human suffering, and it is this irrational reality that surpasses the positivist reality in realist novels (Ardila, 2010, p. 358). Unamuno’s novels are a better form of reality because they reflect his inner world, they are a vehicle for him to show it:

I have a need to discuss, without discussion and contradiction I cannot live, and when there is no one outside who might discuss or contradict me I invent within me someone that might. My monologues are dialogues (Unamuno, 2012, p. 262)

On this last point, Gonzalo Navajas, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, states that Unamuno's ideas on the text-reader relationship were a foregoing of present ideas, as he does not see the reader as a mere receptor, but as a fundamental piece of the construction (Gonzalo Navajas, 1988, p. 512). One could make the argument that Niebla works as a fictional literary essay that Unamuno writes to explain his theories on narrative qualities.

Photograph by Rodrigo Jiménez (2021). The mist is a dramatic device in the novel, and as ambiguous as the definition of nivola.

The characters of Niebla and their creation are an essential part of the nivola. The creation of characters is of great importance since it is connected with the author's themes of God and immortality, as the binomial relationship between writer-character is just a reflection of that of human-God (Alzraki, 1967, p. 248). From here, an important question arises: are my characters at my service, or am I at the service of my characters? At the end of the book, one can see this idea, in chapter XXXI, when Augusto goes to visit Unamuno in search of advice and learns that he is a fictional character. First, the author is confident in his control, but soon he starts to lose his grasp:

In that case, friend Mr. Miguel, I ask you, in which way does he exist, as a dreamer that dreams himself or dreamed by himself? And look, what’s more, by admitting this discussion with me, you are recognizing my independent existence from you. (Unamuno, 2012, p. 262)

This idea, in Unamuno’s work, is known as autonomous characters. In his essay about the relations between autonomous characters, reader, and author in Unamuno's works, Fernando de Toro (1981) states that the autonomy of characters is established in three ways: firstly, fiction imposes itself on the author, secondly, once the character has gained independence he stops relying on the author and instead depends on the reader, and, finally, when the character is created the author can not change them (p. 360). The idea Unamuno established is that his characters are alive and as real as the readers of the novel since now they live within them.

Painting by Rob Colvin (nda.). The autonomous character cuts himself free from the author. They do not need him.

Miguel de Unamuno's books are full of philosophical ideas, with an emphasis on existentialism, theology, and politics. The Basque writer does not want readers to kill time with his books, he wants to make them sit down and think. When a reader finishes his books, they must have gone through a process of questioning reality. This existentialism is why he wanted to differentiate his nivolas from the realist novels of his time. Art must always try to move the reader's heart or conscience. In Niebla, one does not only enjoy an exciting reading, but they can also learn how a great writer like Unamuno wrote his novels with his ideas on metafiction, literary techniques, and character creation.

Bibliographical references

Alazraki, J. (1967). Motivación e invención en “Niebla” de Unamuno. Romanic Review, 58(4), 241–253.ón-e-invención-en-niebla-de-unamuno/docview/1290903339/se-2?accountid=14600

Ardila, J. A. G. (2010). Unamuno y Cervantes: narradores y narración en Niebla. MLN, 125(2), 348–368.

de Toro, F. (1981). Personaje Autónomo, Lector y Autor en Miguel de Unamuno. Hispania, 64(3), 360–366.

de Unamuno, Miguel. Niebla (Spanish Edition). 1st ed., Castalia Ediciones, 2012.

Navajas, G. (1988). El yo, el lector-otro y la duplicidad en Unamuno. Hispania, 71(3), 512–522.

Rippon, M. R. (2018). "Ni Novela Ni Nivola": The Purpose of Metafiction in Unamuno's Niebla and Merino's Los Invisibles. Hispanófila, 182, 95–109.

Visual sources

Bonney, T. (1929). Miguel de Unamuno [Photograph]. Bibliothèques Patrimoniales.

Colvin, R. (n.d.). Man Cutting Puppet Strings [Illustration]. Illustration Source.

Friedrich, C. (1817). Wanderer above the sea of fog [Painting]. Hamburger Kunsthalle Museum.

Jiménez, R. (2021). Valladolid ha amanecido este jueves con un manto de niebla [Photograph]. El Norte de Castilla.

Author Photo

Alejandro Cabrera Martínez

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