Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo. (trans Daniel Balderston). $17.95, 354 pp. NYRB Classics
Silvina Ocampo by Silvina Ocampo (trans Jason Weiss). $14.00, 176 pp. New York Review Books Poets.
A popular critical shorthand describes Clarice Lispector as the Virginia Woolf of South America. A better analogy would be Silvina Ocampo. Benjamin Moser’s Lispector biography Why This World (2009) makes clear that as a poor Jewish immigrant who grew up in an isolated region, married a diplomat, and wrote most of her early fiction abroad, Lispector was a latecomer to her country’s Rio de Janeiro–based literary firmament. By contrast, Ocampo, like Woolf, was a descendant of 19th-century aristocrats, married a well-known man from her own social class, and spent nearly her entire career in the capital city where she was born. As Woolf was able to publish through her husband Leonard’s Hogarth Press, so Ocampo had at her disposal the magazine and publishing house of her sister Victoria’s famous Sur. Like the inhabitants of Bloomsbury, the Buenos Aires clique to which Ocampo belonged—an extension of the European-influenced Florida poetry movement of the 1920s—was cosmopolitan in its reading, apolitical or reactionary in its ideology, and sexually intertwined. In aesthetic terms, the writing of Ocampo, Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Sur’s long-time managing editor, José Bianco, constituted a coherent literary statement. Until recently, this unity has been overlooked: Borges overshadowed the other three writers’ work, shrinking their achievements to acolytes’ imitations of a master. The reassessment of Bioy Casares’s fiction has begun to correct this imbalance; now it is Silvina Ocampo’s turn.
The academic research of Daniel Balderston, the translator of the present selection of Ocampo’s short stories, has helped to elucidate the interpersonal dynamics of Ocampo’s milieu. The sexually repressed Borges, who came from a socially modest background on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, and who shared an apartment with his mother until he was in his late seventies, met the handsome, aristocratic Bioy Casares, who combined the social accomplishments of a European-descended gentleman with the brash, horseback savvy of a gaucho, around 1932 when he was in his early thirties and ABC (as Bioy was sometimes known) was eighteen. It was love at first sight: Borges dined at Bioy’s house most nights for the next fifty years. Serving as a literary mentor to the younger writer, Borges gleaned vicarious self-affirmation from Bioy’s womanizing, his roots in the landed aristocracy, and his skill in exploiting his inherited property to make himself even richer. Through Borges, Bioy met the Ocampo sisters. Silvina, having studied painting in Paris with Giorgio de Chirico and Fernand Léger, was beginning to channel her acute visual sense into fiction and poetry. Two concurrent events in 1940 sealed the quasi-ménage-à-trois of Borges, ABC, and Silvina: the publication of an anthology of fantastic literature which the three of them edited together, and the marriage of Silvina Ocampo to Bioy Casares, with Borges as one of the few wedding guests.
For many years these writers were little known beyond Buenos Aires. Yet, from the early 1960s onward, when Borges became world famous, Silvina Ocampo’s marriage both consolidated and confined her literary reputation. As Bioy Casares was often portrayed as little more than Borges’s literary butler, so Silvina became an appendage to an assistant; she was doubly depreciated as the youngest sibling of the socially better-known Victoria, who never stopped treating her as her “little sister.” The unspoken mystery at the heart of Ocampo’s life is her marriage. She knew, apparently, that she could not have children. Married to an aristocrat eleven years younger than she, who desired an heir, Ocampo tolerated many infidelities and two illegitimate children, one of whom she accepted into her home. In addition to being unfaithful, her husband was the object of daily adoration on the part of Borges, who himself was rendered uneasy by José Bianco, another frequent dinner guest, who was an out-of-the-closet gay man. Silvina’s own intense relationship with the young poet Alejandra Pizarnik, thirty years her junior, who committed suicide in 1972, left behind a passionate correspondence that has tantalized literary scholars. It would have been possible for Silvina to follow the example of Victoria, who left her husband, lived as an independent woman, and had affairs with eminent men. Yet, as the host couple of literary innovation in Buenos Aires, “los Bioy” were a veritable institution, united by their elite social backgrounds (whose patriarchal conventions may have conditioned Silvina to ignore her husband’s philandering) and by their shared literary references and creative obsessions.
In contrast to the predominantly monoglot Brits of Bloomsbury, the Sur inner circle were all effortlessly trilingual in Spanish, English, and French. Their fiction was the extension of their multilingual reading and the translations they published: Borges of Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, and William Faulkner, Silvina of Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville. Perceiving literature as something approaching a mental chess match, the Sur group avoided sullying their pages with politics. The reactionary populism of General Juan Domingo Perón (1946-55) disgusted them because it enthroned the immigrant-descended rabble, sheering power away from old-stock Argentines of Spanish or English lineage (Borges had both, while Bioy was partly of French descent; the Ocampos were descended from Spanish colonial governors of Peru and Argentina). Yet, though Perón got Borges dismissed from his job at the National Library and jailed Victoria Ocampo for a few days, he does not appear in explicit form in their fiction. Some critics read the Borges story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” as an allegory about fascism; otherwise they remained silent. They were silent again, to their much greater detriment, during the Dirty War of 1976-83, when thirty thousand Argentines, including many intellectuals, were “disappeared” by the military regime. This silence, which sealed their alienation from mainstream Latin American intellectual currents, contributed to sinking the reputations of Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo.
In its early years, the internationalization of Latin American fiction that began in the late 1950s was inseparable from allegiance to the Cuban Revolution: a faith from which the Sur group dissented with such vehemence that Victoria Ocampo fired José Bianco as managing editor of her magazine for the crime of travelling to Cuba to serve on a literary jury. The young novelists of the 1960s could not deny their debt to Borges: it was evident in Julio Cortázar’s neo-fantastic short stories, in Gabriel García Márquez’s infinitely flexible conception of storytelling (Mario Vargas Llosa had discovered William Faulkner, his most overt literary influence, by reading Borges’s translation of The Wild Palms). Yet while Borges was untouchable, in spite of his reactionary politics, his collaborators were not; Bioy and Silvina were never embraced by the young readers of the 1960s and 1970s. Silvina suffered the greater rejection because she was a woman.
The revolutionary enthusiasms of the 1960s, with Che Guevara as their idol, bred their own form of guerrilla-worshipping machismo. No figure was more despised, among progressives, than the out-of-touch dama of the upper bourgeoisie who was oblivious to her society’s social problems. By the 1970s, for many, Silvina Ocampo incarnated this figure. Katherine Mansfield criticized Virginia Woolf for suppressing the reality of the First World War from her fiction; Silvina was cast into neglect for remaining immured in her own imaginary universe. In her introduction to this edition of the stories, Helen Oyeyemi quotes the verdict of the jury of Argentina’s National Prize for Literature, which, in its decision to pass over Ocampo for a distinction which she obviously deserved, decreed that her stories were “demasiado crueles.” The phrase reflects how Ocampo had come to be perceived: as a nasty old woman who lacked sympathy for anyone, particularly the poor; as the embittered, cuckolded wife of an upper-class cad; as a hanger-on whose only artistic accomplishment was to have been born rich and married into a privileged clique. Worst of all, in an era dominated by the massive novels of Vargas Llosa, García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes, and by the political poetry of Pablo Neruda and Central American revolutionaries such as Roque Dalton and Ernesto Cardenal, Ocampo wrote short stories; her poems pursued mental labyrinths which, though deeply felt, thrived on abstraction.
Yet, as her stories reveal, it would be a mistake to assume that Ocampo’s approach to her milieu was uncritical. In her Childhood in the Works of Silvina Ocampo and Alejandra Pizarnik (2003), Fiona Mackintosh suggests that, “Silvina Ocampo’s literary world—though basically rooted in her privileged social class and intellectual milieu—evolves and flourishes in a spirit of impish perversity and contrariness towards it.” A restless posture toward the fascination with imaginary worlds, the inherited male conventions of fantastic fiction, animates Ocampo’s short stories from an early stage. She is less programmatic and more whimsical than Borges or Bioy; if she often impersonates male narrators, there is a sense, which is absent in her male counterparts, that the charade of maleness itself is part of the fictional game.
Based on the two-volume Cuentos completos published by Emecé in 2000, Balderston’s NYRB Classics edition, Thus Were Their Faces, selects from each of the seven volumes of stories that Ocampo published in her lifetime. Two-thirds of the stories—twenty-eight out of forty-two—are drawn from two collections published in 1959 and 1961 respectively. The early fiction is somewhat under-represented. Ocampo’s first collection, Viaje olvidado (1937; “Forgotten Journey”), the only book of stories she published prior to marrying Bioy (though she was probably already living with him when she wrote many of the stories), is both more female and more feminist than the work she produced after she had co-edited the anthology of fantastic literature. It includes, for example, “La calle Sarandí” (“Sarandí Street”), in which a little girl narrates, with icy objectivity and a brilliant selection of telling detail, the story of her sexual abuse. Balderston omits this story, including only two very brief pieces from Viaje olvidado. The result is to emphasize the writer that Ocampo became in her middle years: a woman defining herself within a literary enclave run by famous men and her domineering older sister.
The novella-length “The Imposter,” from a 1948 collection, is one example of the product of these tensions. In a voice which echoes 19th-century British narratives of young men relegated to big country houses, the 18-year-old narrator, Luis, relates how he is sent to a decaying hacienda south of Buenos Aires to study for his exams. The hacienda’s only resident, Armando, is a dissolute young man who has retreated to the countryside for unknown purposes. The house is full of bats; the local girl with whom Armando makes dates may be dead. The Gothic trappings build to Luis’s realization that Armando is insane. The voice echoes those of authors prized by Borges, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson, as does the final revelation that Luis’s narrative is a manuscript discovered by an editor. The Borgesian twist that Luis’s manuscript turns out to have been written by Armando suggests that fiction always consumes and diminishes what we take to be reality; it depicts masculinity as an identity that can be imagined, and is therefore equally accessible to writers of all biological genders.
When Ocampo writes women, the screen of her imagination thins, with the result that her female narrators sometimes feel slightly constructed. Two longer stories, “Autobiography of Irene” from early in Ocampo’s career and “Visions,” from the middle years, are narrated by women whose existences are less persuasive than those of Ocampo’s male speakers. By contrast, “The Expiation,” told by a woman who recalls a tortured marriage complicated by a would-be lover, incipient racial prejudice, and a flock of homicidal canaries, conveys a palpable emotional charge. Ocampo’s use of the fantastic, which she inherits, in tandem with Borges and Bioy, from 19th-century forbears, is often most self-assured when her narrator is a man. The fantastic occurrences in her stories are “impish and perverse” insurgencies against the cultivated veneer of her native city. Her social range is broader than she is given credit for: the setting may be upper-class or proletarian, rooted in the core of the city, or, as in the title story of this collection, set on its outer fringes. Her fantasy is both purer and more urban than that of her contemporaries and followers: it is not a consequence of the return of the pampas and the gauchos, repressed by sophisticated Buenos Aires, as in Borges’s “The South”; nor is fantasy a political weapon with which to expose the illusions of the bourgeoisie, as in Cortázar’s early stories. Ocampo accompanied Bioy Casares on long trips to Europe, yet Europe did not become the setting of her stories as it did of many of his. “The Imposter” is intriguing because it represents a rare departure from the city, as does “El Remanso” (“The Country Retreat”), from Viaje olvidado, which does not appear here.
Ocampo’s fantasy can be seen at its most classically perfect in stories such as “The House Made of Sugar,” where a male narrator of modest financial means seeks a house where he and his new bride, Cristina, can settle. Their home turns out to have been occupied previously by a woman named Violeta, who was involved in a scandalous love triangle. When the couple move in, they receive phone calls that threaten vengeance; people mistake Cristina for Violeta. Cristina cannot help but become Violeta; her husband cannot help but suspect her of re-enacting Violeta’s infidelities. The fiction that subsumes and abolishes objective reality is an irresistible force. In an analogous vein, the narrator of “The Fury” immerses himself in the life-story of a woman he meets in a park to a point where, without realizing what he is doing, he murders a child. In “Friends,” an infant male narrator attributes the flood and cholera epidemic that afflicts his suburban village to his best friend’s malevolent powers; their shared belief in these powers casts a spell that causes the friend to kill himself in order to avoid destroying the narrator. Like Borges and Bioy, Ocampo can delight in the strictly genre material of fiendishly clever plots, as in “The Perfect Crime”; yet in her most gripping work the closed worlds of agonizing love affairs or suffocating friendships breed an alternate reality that lays down its laws in defiance of the laws of nature. In the later collections, where Ocampo’s imagination wanes, the stories’ endings seem less deceptively simple than merely trivial. Yet even in her final years, as the theme of death mutes her infant characters’ whimsy, she tries out new forms. “Cornelia Before the Mirror,” the final longer story included here, replaces Ocampo’s customary use of the monologue form with a series of dialogues.
In a symmetry appropriate to her writing, Ocampo also published seven books of poems. Like Balderston, Jason Weiss has honed his English renderings of Ocampo’s work over decades. The selections from each of the seven volumes chart Ocampo’s progression from a typical Argentine poet of the 1930s, mythologizing the pampas and Buenos Aires, to a writer of sonnets and formal metrical structures, which loosen into free verse as Ocampo’s confessional impulse grows stronger. These confessions are not revealing of biographical details but rather of currents of feeling anchored in a language which remains plain spoken while handling rich imagery and erudite allusions. Perhaps the greatest surprise, after reading Ocampo’s stories, is how female the poems are. “Autobiography of Irene,” for example, feels far more persuasive than its prose counterpart. Ocampo’s imagery, nourished by her training in Surrealist art, feels simultaneously surprising and integrated. Yet her voice can also be direct and unadorned, as in “Act of Contrition”: “I have so much repentance in me / so many useless presentiments, / a dog’s blind loyalty, / a heart that can be of iron / unmoved sometimes even by death, / or joy, or good luck.” Her best poems, such as “Darkness,” in which two lovers’ passion is conveyed by an itemization of the noises outside their room, have a kind of deliberate nonchalance that heightens their intensity through hints that never quite materialize into statements, yet leave the reader with the conviction that something important has been learned.
Both of these translations are shopworn in the positive sense that they have been reworked long enough to develop their own English identities. Balderston, who translated some of these stories for an earlier Penguin edition of Ocampo’s fiction, reports that in preparing this edition, “I have revised to pull the English syntax a bit farther from the Spanish.” His work pays off: even treacherous Latinate phrases such as, “La ansiedad es una forma de dicha que beneficia a los amantes” emerge in pleasing, plain English: “Uncertainty is a form of happiness that works in lovers’ favor.” Ocampo sometimes puts Balderston to the test, as in the story “Men Animals Vines,” from a 1970 collection, where the first-person narrator, marooned in the jungle after a plane crash, observes his identity changing from male to female as his body becomes enmeshed in vines and creepers. In the Spanish, the shift in gender is expressed by the switching of adjectival past participles from masculine to feminine forms; as this change cannot be reproduced in English, Balderston opts for: “I, suddenly female, wrap the pen in my green fronds.” The “suddenly female” is the translator’s insertion; it may be a blunt solution to capturing the change in the narrator’s identity, but it signals Balderston’s willingness to try almost anything to wrestle Ocampo’s work into English. Weiss is similarly committed: his thirty years’ work on Ocampo’s poetry has produced a surface that is virtually seamless.
Roberto Bolaño, when accused of misogyny for deriding Isabel Allende and Marcela Serrano, replied: “A woman writer (escritora) is Silvina Ocampo. A woman scribbler (escribidora) is Marcela Serrano. Light years separate them.” These two volumes give English readers the opportunity to raise Silvina Ocampo from her position of neglect as a hanger-on in the Bloomsbury of Buenos Aires and recognize her as South America’s misunderstood Virginia Woolf.
Stephen Henighan’s books include the novel The Streets of Winter, the short story collections North of Tourism and A Grave in the Air, and the critical study Sandino’s Nation: Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez Writing Nicaragua, 1940-2012. He is General Editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, for which he has translated novels by Ondjaki and Mihail Sebastian.
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