By Miguel de Unamuno
New Milford, Ct: The Toby Press, 2005
ISBN # 1-59264-124-5
386 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2010

Unamuno is driven by his “tragic sense of death.” The issue for him is how is one to tolerate living when one really can’t know if life has meaning or any life after death. Each of his main characters in these three novels is wrestling with the tragic sense in his or her own way. Using a concept from Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, each of the main characters is among the few who separate themselves from the mindlessly obedient masses, and attempt to create and live his or her own life. The character of Don Juan in Two Mothers is a character who is pathetic in his ability to deal with any choices, responsibility or freedom, while the two women, Raquel and Berta are driven to create their own lives.

Tristram in The Marquis of Lumbria is likewise a dullard with no courage at all, but Carolina, his second wife, is the strong character driving to fulfill her own sense of meaning.

Yet these three women are all rather mean and against most of the others around them. That, too, reminds me of the Grand Inquisitor himself, who brings great misery to the world to fulfill his sense of meaning.

Nonetheless, the writing and characters in those first two novels are brilliant. Unamuno writes with understatement and economy, yet we know clearly what is going on.

However, the interesting female character in NOTHING LESS THAN A MAN, is more complex and puzzling. Unamuno even warns us on the very first page:

“An omen of impending tragedy dwelt in the eyes of this beauty.”

She struggles in understanding the world she lives in, simply obsessed with the question about her husband: Does he really love me? He, on his side, acts like a loving and caring husband, but cannot speak of such things. Rather he defines himself with his acts. It is what he DOES, not what he SAYS that defines his person and he has no use for comforting words.

But is this last of the three novels about Julia or about her husband, Alejandro? I think it is about both, yet Alejandro is the more existential hero. One critic called him a Nietzschean hero. Perhaps. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Unamuno, they seem to come from the same mold which I often think of as the first generation Existentialists. They focused so on the individual and the need of the individual to follow his or her passion, that they seemed not able to conceive the “true man” in Alejandro’s case, could care for OTHERS without destroying his own status as a real person, a worthy person.

I come from what I think of as the second generation Existentialists. Further, I come from the privileged nation of the U.S. which during my childhood and adulthood and even now in my senior years, has been the beneficiary of great material ease and great power. Wars have been fought around us, but not on our soil, and so many of my generation have lived in incredible privilege. I am one of those. And in that freedom from fear, want, even pressure of tradition, even a liberation of the need of any gods and not much fear in that realization, I can look at the tragedies of Unamuno’s characters and say: WHY? Why couldn’t they embrace a humanism of communion with others? Why couldn’t one face a meaningless world and say: I will give it a meaning for me that embraces my fellow humans, the animals around us, even the earth itself, and say: let there be LIFE for all. Not because of some god or fear of some eternal punishment or hope for some eternal reward, but simply because I take the responsibility to EMBRACE that world of value.

I have been deeply moved by the writings of Unamuno I have read, all of late, and hope to tackle his more intellectually serious The Tragic Sense of Life in the near future.

However, I would strongly recommend these passionate and well-written “novels” (albeit short novels) in this volume.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett