Delicious descriptions: Ida Vitale and Byobu on literature and humanity

I couldn’t include in my recent post on Ida Vitale’s Byobu all the ideas that grabbed my attention. It’s impressive how such 85-page book could contain so much, more than I can even include here. However, I do want to share (document) a few more ideas here, for my own benefit at least, before I shelve the book away.

Literature and reading crop up frequently in the book. A favourite reference occurs in “Sensitive toad”, in which Byobu has a surprising experience with a toad that would be hard to believe, except that he has a witness. However, we are told that

Of course a witness isn’t needed for him to write it: there’s no need for the truth when creating literature, good or bad.

We are then told the story, but this point had me thinking about what Vitale meant. For me, there is a need for “truth” in literature, but not necessarily for “facts”. What is written here – presuming the translator has conveyed Vitale’s intention – is “the” truth which could mean “facts”? I’m not sure exactly what she is saying but I think she is challenging us to think about literature and what it means for us? Certainly, from the first chapter, “A story”, the idea of stories threads through the book – the stories we are told, the stories we tell.

In “Anguish”, the idea that literature can alleviate one’s pain is raised:

Supposing that other people’s unexpected words might subdue it [his anguish], he walks toward the public library, in search of those bound inside its books. He’s welcomed by the concerns of the world; each book holds a different form of anxiety, malaise, sickness, or grief that asks: isn’t my situation worse? Each one – a soul fighting for its salvation, a hostage rescued, provisionally, by the hand that chooses it – calls out with its delightful devices, tempting and distinct. And Byobu gives in, rarely joining another’s joy, and in the end finds himself liberated from his own asphyxia, less serious than some he has glimpsed. This was not an act of magic: he has learned to minimise himself.

Again there’s a sort of paradox here. There’s the idea of feeling better because others are worse off. Is this OK because these “others” are characters in books? There’s also the idea of minimising oneself. Is this a positive thing?

In “Oral frustrations”, the idea of oral versus written stories is explored. Byobu wants to be able to tell stories to an unnamed person who pronounces people are boring because they don’t tell stories. The kicker is that the stories must be well-told and Byobu “lacks even the rudiments of the art of oral storytelling”. He is reminded of a wife whose husband would remove himself from conversation abandoning her “to her words turned monologue”. The wife would insert an irrelevant, “unexpected twist” into her story to recapture his attention. “One of these days,” we are told

Byobu will devote himself to inventing who knows what variety of frightening tales, littered with outrage and explosions, which will act as spring traps to catch that [aforementioned] restive protomalcontent by his auditory foot.

I have no idea what the translator was presented with, but this writing is gloriously funny, and yet so real too.

Meanwhile, a concurrent thread deals with humanity – with the idea of being human, and what it means. It is partly because of this that I read Byobu, the character, as being a sort of Everyman. It’s clear to me, as I think I mentioned in my review, that Vitale is concerned about where the world is heading. Seemingly throwaway lines like “imagining himself in other times, when humanity was human” suggest this – though, really, have there ever been such times?

In “Byobu and the acceleration of history”, Byobu considers the work of

the scientists and specialists who work day and night to better the health – how could anyone say otherwise – of the human race, of which, despite all his recurring doubts, he knows he belongs.

And so the book continues its elliptical way, throwing out thoughts from the mind of a habitually indecisive character who is muddling through the chaos, though a world in which “horrendous, coveted knowledge survives [like] ways to ascend in society …”. No answers are offered, except perhaps one – the idea of letting the imagination, magic and mystery back into our lives. By being itself, rather mysterious, Byobu does just this – I think!

Ida Vitale, Byobu, Charco Press, 2021.

4 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions: Ida Vitale and Byobu on literature and humanity

  1. “And Byobu gives in, rarely joining another’s joy, and in the end finds himself liberated from his own asphyxia, less serious than some he has glimpsed.” That sentence is, to me, a good indication of A Translated Work. I do wish for your sake that you could somehow read it in the original Spanish, ST: I have no doubt there would be even more for you to derive and enjoy.

    • I do too M-R, as the Unmediated Original is always best. And yet I’m not 100% sure you’re right about its being a good indication of A Translated Work. My sense is that the original is very much like this. She’s more poet than prosodist.

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