I see from my note at the front that I bought Anthony Kerrigan’s translation of Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations (1912) on Jan. 16, 1975. I had recently started working as a clerk in Kay’s Books in Cleveland, and had already stockpiled stacks of books I wanted to buy, stowing them under the counter on the second floor. The occult connections among the books we read often remain obscure. Somehow, I associate my awareness of Unamuno’s books with Beckett and Kierkegaard, whose work I had read fairly thoroughly. I then knew little of Spain’s literature beyond Cervantes, and I came to him by way of Smollett and Sterne. Unamuno is utterly unlike the author of Don Quixote, and I would not have known enough to characterize either writer as “quintessentially Spanish.” Unamuno I recognized as a true man of letters, gifted in the writing of novels and philosophy. I had already read his Shandean novel Mist (1914).
Clive James has prompted me to read The Tragic Sense of Life again. I was looking for something else in Cultural Amnesia (2007) when I noticed the chapter he devotes to Unamuno. James’ method is interesting. Each chapter bears the name of some contributor to culture, whether Miles Davis or Josef Goebbels, but that serves merely as the spark. These are not potted biographies. Some chapters hardly mention their nominal subjects, and proceed to follow whatever hobbyhorse James chooses to ride. The Unamuno chapter begins with a brief outline of Unamuno’s life, emphasizing the spiritual crisis he suffered in 1897 and his troubles with Franco’s regime. The key sentence: “His mental independence, however, was incurable.” That alone makes Unamuno a rare and very attractive sort of writer.
James next digresses on the subject of reviewing books. His career advice recalls Cyril Connolly’s. About the man of letters he writes: “His main asset is to be well read, but if he spends too much time reading secondary books only for the sake of reviewing them, he will be adding to his initial stock of useful erudition. Worse, he will be adding much that is useless.” And this:
“Anyone faced with the deadly task of first reading, then writing about, a book he would not ordinarily have read in the first place, is brutally reminded of what he was really born to do: read books that can be felt, from page to page, to do nothing for his wallet but everything for the spirit.”
James endorse underlinings and annotations. “Unamuno’s pages cry out to be defaced.” True enough. “At his potent best he could put the aphorisms one after the other like the wagons of an American freight train stretching from one prairie railhead to the next.” Here’s an example from Chap. III, “The Hunger for Immortality,” in The Tragic Sense of Life:
“If a man tells you that he writes, paints, sculpts, or sings for his own amusement, and at the same time makes his work public, then he lies: he lies if he puts his signature to his writing, painting, sculpture or song. He is intent, at the very least, on leaving some shadow of his spirit behind, something to outlive him.”