Literary debuts are generally terrifying for the debutant. The Argentinian writer Silvina Ocampo, however—publishing her first short-story collection at thirty-four, in 1937, after beginning to doubt her earlier training as a painter—had the kinds of connections that tend to soften the landing. Close friends with Jorge Luis Borges, a few years her senior and already a rising star, Ocampo had also studied painting under Giorgio de Chirico and Fernand Léger and had a well-placed older sister, Victoria Ocampo, who edited Sur, the preeminent literary magazine of South America. The magazine’s book-publishing arm brought out Silvina’s first collection, Viaje Olvidado (Forgotten Journey).
Soon after its publication, the book was reviewed in Sur. But anyone suspecting literary nepotism would be wrong—the piece was in large part a pan. Stranger still, it was written by Victoria. She expressed her uneasiness with the warped likeness of details she recognized from her and her sister’s childhood—“that game of hide-and-seek, that coalition of a reality become unreal and a dream become reality”—and railed against Silvina’s language, full of “irritating mistakes” and “unsuccessful images, which seem attacked by torticollis.” She acknowledged that some of the infelicities came perhaps from a dedication to “spoken language,” but argued that too much fidelity to a kind of unschooled diction becomes a cover for laziness. “Before renouncing skill,” Victoria declared, one must do a strict self-inventory, determining “what percentage of negligence has entered the composition,” since awkward writing “should never be involuntary…. If you want to stick out your tongue, you have to look at it face to face.”
Victoria’s piece in Sur—at that time, one of the few publications bringing news of the South American scene to patrons and subscribers such as the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, Waldo Frank, and Virginia Woolf—may be one of the reasons why Silvina was never much known outside of Argentina and her immediate literary circle. The critic and filmmaker Edgardo Cozarinsky called her “the best kept secret in Argentine letters.” References to her collaborative projects, such as The Book of Fantasy (1988), which she coedited with Borges and her husband, the novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares, frequently leave out her name. Her own books have been late to appear in English translation, if at all. (Still missing are at least five other short-story collections and nine books of poetry, though some of these have been culled into volumes of selected work.)
The girls, along with their four other sisters, were more highly cultivated in French and English than in Spanish. French remained Victoria’s language for writing, though she translated her own completed manuscripts into Spanish before publication. Silvina had a particular love and affinity for English, especially for American poets such as Emily Dickinson, and for British science fiction and detective novels. European and North American audiences and critics, however, wanted exotic national character and the piquancy of folk art from South America, particularly from its women, who were considered even more charmingly unmodern in their emotionality and direct rapport with land and hearth. Outsiders such as Ortega had already decided what an Argentinean woman was: a fantasy creature of “maximum spontaneity and permanent authenticity.” Silvina’s body of work, sometimes furiously nihilistic as it smashes an opening between the walled cities of Surrealism and domestic realism, did not quite represent a salutary New World.
In recent years there has been an effort to translate more of Ocampo’s work into English. Two books appeared in 2019: Forgotten Journey was translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Katie Lateef-Jan, and Ocampo’s final novel, The Promise, was translated by Levine with Jessica Powell. These were preceded, a few years ago, by the selected stories of Thus Were Their Faces, translated by Daniel Balderston; selected poems in Silvina Ocampo, translated by Jason Weiss; and the collaborative novel Where There’s Love, There’s Hate with Bioy Casares, translated by Levine and Powell. Levine is the daring translator of many of Latin America’s most formally inventive writers—Julio Cortázar, Severo Sarduy, Cristina Rivera Garza, and others—and has long argued that translation is best practiced as a form of inventive artistry rather than dutiful technique. In her, Lateef-Jan’s, and Powell’s hands, Ocampo’s diction is clean and forthright, occasionally fusty like a school-prize essay, but reveals its wilder, more profligate heart in its lavish, extended syntax, its lists and peremptory qualifications, and stacking of event upon event.
“Skylight,” the first of the twenty-eight stories in Forgotten Journey, contains several of Ocampo’s narrative signatures: seemingly guileless witnesses whose relative innocence (or basic comprehension of events) we can only guess at; a painterly insistence on inventorying the everyday optical tricks that flood our waking vision but are rarely objects of conscious thought; and a final volte-face that springs the story open again just where it should have shut. The narrator, who we assume is a child, is sent to an aunt’s apartment every weekend. Everything interesting is too high for her: not the elevator car but its “huge snakes” of cables, its wrought iron “that would catch your eye when you were sad”; not the aunt’s apartment (of which we learn nothing) but the foreshortened human figures glimpsed in fragments through its skylight, which oddly looks up into another apartment:
A family of feet surrounded by haloes, like saints, and the shadows of the rest of the bodies to which those feet belonged, shadows flattened like hands seen through bathwater…. Trunks moved across the floor with the noise of a thunderstorm, but the family never seemed to travel. From time to time, voices bounced like balls against the floor or fell quietly onto the rug.
When one night the little girl upstairs refuses to go to bed, her feet appearing and disappearing against the glass as she jumps rope, another pair of feet, clad in boots and ringed by a hoop skirt, crosses in and out of the composition. The noises become more and more frantic until the boots trip. Then “a deep silence—the kind that precedes the cry of a child being beaten.” Through the glass, the narrator sees “a head sprouting bloody curls, tied in bows.” What was that? A real murder or a child’s tall tale, born of boredom or vengefulness against the girl upstairs (amid the screams, we learn her name is Celestina) who gets to live among her toys instead of being farmed out to relatives?
The story ends with these two sentences:
Celestina was singing “The Chimes of Normandy” and running with Leonor behind the trees in the plaza, around the statue of San Martín. She wore a sailor dress and had a horrible fear of dying while crossing the street.
We have been thrust into a position of impersonal omniscience, with an awful suggestion of time that waits outside the story’s boundaries. Is Celestina alive, enjoying some reprieve in a cycle of abuse? Or is that final image placed there to show us how little we can guess about the life of any family? Ocampo’s most admirable and maddening quality is her refusal to explicate.
She is a remarkably visual writer. The situations she composes—innocence corrupted; class status revealed or revoked; the external effects on the body of various foods, states of weather, varieties of poison and medicine—make for phenomenal tableaux. By drawing as carefully as possible only what is there without any causal inferences, Ocampo strings together discrete images of real life that together produce an effect entirely unreal and disorienting.
In “The Acrobats,” another story in Forgotten Journey, a deaf laundress who is good at ironing can make creases open “like big white flowers” but struggles with the resistant “wax” of her sons’ mouths, so much harder to unlock as she struggles to lip-read their chatter. The story ends in the most macabre fashion: the laundress’s circus-mad sons, goading themselves into ever more fantastical leaps, jump to their accidental deaths; she, seeing but not hearing a fragment of their performance and the neighborhood’s subsequent chaos, believes she has glimpsed merely another of their “marvelous acts.”
In “The Backwater,” a family of servants arrives at their new workplace in a grubby, loaned wagon just as the father feels “on his arm the soaking wet skirts of his daughter, who had just peed”; the family of landowners, oblivious to the accident, “flutter” the little girl’s name around the house the way one might coo loving condescension at a “curly-haired dog.” The story takes its next cues from sentimental fiction—the servant girls are first raised as playmates of the landowners’ children but are gradually shown their true position, whereupon they await their Cinderella moment, mooning around the estate in wretched hand-me-down dresses. The readymade, slightly antiquated quality of both stories’ scenarios heightens the tang of modern irony and rapid deflation that flavors both.
In the story “Diorama,” a newly minted doctor is still startled to see an MD affixed to his name: now, as if overnight, he is fettered to
a waiting room smelling of bandages, with bronze statues, thousands of old magazines, black cushions embroidered with golden leaves and butterflies, and vases with giant tufts of flowers. He dreamed of a bright, modern office, but fate intervened: they sent him everything left in his mother’s house as if to some dumpster.
As the story unfolds and the doctor decides to play along with the expanding lunacy of one patient’s wishes—that he treat an imaginary patient—each escalation seems quite natural, since the doctor is, after all, the kind of person willing to let his new office become a dumpster of Victoriana. What else might he not say no to?
Elsewhere in Forgotten Journey we see Ocampo’s first attempt at capturing the experience of illness, a subject that would become more and more prominent in her later work. The day after an operation, in “The Wide and Sunny Terrace,” a woman feels that the slightest motion of her body would send the furniture and paintings teetering as if in an earthquake; she tries to focus on an action but “her body seemed to have drifted away while her eyes dissolved like sugar cubes”:
She moved her long swimmer’s arms gently, her hands searching for a book on the table. She would have been able to swim, because swimming is just lying down, moving over dense mattresses of water, and the sun would have cured her…. It was useless; her hands couldn’t grab the book.
All her life, Ocampo remained reticent about her artistic intentions. As time went on she came to hate being photographed, as though her face itself were too legible for her liking. She took to wearing dramatic, tinted glasses, equal parts glamour and erasure. Of attempts to capture her directly, we have the late Argentinean writer Noemí Ulla’s book-length interview, Encuentros con Silvina Ocampo (which is unhelpful due to her subject’s guardedness), a few opaque shorter interviews, and a slow trickle of biographical scholarship as Ocampists turn over her and her sisters’ papers, now housed at Princeton. Ocampo “deliberately allowed confusion to circulate around her,” in the words of one of the leading Ocampo scholars, Patricia Klingenberg. She even took to signing books written by another Argentinean, Silvina Bullrich—a best seller who scoffed at “writer’s writers” and the tastes of the “elite” in favor of depicting the clothing and vacations of the well-to-do in near-pornographic detail—when artless fans confused the two.
Still, the records of Ocampo’s mentors and intimates offer some clues to her artistic principles. Around the time she studied with de Chirico in Paris, he had become deeply interested in the works of Nietzsche, developing an idiosyncratic understanding of the philosopher’s references to Stimmung (loosely, mood, tone, or tuning) as an overwhelming aesthetic imperative: to convey the “strange and profound poetry, mysterious and infinitely solitary” latent in a situation. De Chirico and Ocampo were both interested in a representational art, but not of the known world—rather the “secret world.” It is useful, in considering Ocampo, to remember that the generation of artists that preceded her worked in multiple media—that de Chirico’s sometime adviser André Breton was both a writer and a visual artist, and that her other painting teacher, Léger, had dabbled in film before she met him.
Her fellow feeling toward the other arts and their practitioners is deftly used in “The Statue Salesman,” one of the stories in Forgotten Journey. The salesman is a man afraid of a seven-year-old boy whose graffiti on statues “was evicting him, stealing his tranquility, murdering him by undermining him.” The man’s preposterous belief that the small boy is “impervious and independent as only major criminals can be” is laughable, but his suffocation (literal and figurative) as a result of the boy’s pranks seems to represent the final strangulation of anyone’s deepest hopes. As the man expires, he hears “all the statues he had sold and hadn’t sold throughout his life marching in single file,” like Banquo’s descendants.
Like de Chirico’s, Ocampo’s work often has the antique quality of a half-lost fragment of myth, its moral missing or not fully translatable. Her prolific output (more than two hundred stories, as well as countless poems, drawings, and collaborations) only contributes to this sense of a complete and foreign country underlying ours—perhaps more honest than our own in its refusal to impose causality or logic where they do not really exist.
Ocampo seems to have accomplished this enormous output and imaginative freedom in part by approaching her work sideways, as though she could trick herself into production. She wrote on ticket stubs and napkins, the cheapness and impermanence perhaps antidotes to self-consciousness. She arrived at her marriage in the same way, at least according to her husband’s later account: introduced by their mothers, Silvina invited Bioy Cesares to see her painting studio on the sixth floor of the house. During the long walk up, he realized he was infatuated. By the time they reached the sixth floor, he was certain, and embraced her without a word, an act he said “she accepted with total naturalness.” For a time they were happy in an open marriage—his affair with her niece Silvia Angelica, and insistence that the younger woman live with them, may have troubled this—though Silvina’s habitual obliquity came again to her aid when, childless at the age of fifty-one, she discreetly adopted Casares’s daughter by another woman, decamping to more-permissive France to evade the scrutiny of the Argentinean elite (though eventually she returned to Buenos Aires).
In the mid-1980s, working on a comprehensive translation of Emily Dickinson, Ocampo began to show symptoms of dementia. Apart from poetry, she devoted her final years to the completion and revision of her only solo novel, The Promise, a project she had begun in the mid-1960s and pursued intermittently for the next few decades. (Her earlier spoof-novel, cowritten with Bioy Casares, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, deserves its own category, perhaps alongside the spoofs à deux of Ashbery/Schuyler and Burroughs/Kerouac.) In what would turn out to be a kind of prophecy, Ocampo had described the novel (in the 1970s, when she had briefly thought it was nearing completion) as one narrator’s Scheherazadian attempt to keep talking “so as not to die, but one can tell she is dying.” The manuscript of The Promise was found in her study upon her death in 1993, typed with a few handwritten corrections. It is unclear whether she thought of the book as finished, though the presence of a title page suggests it was at least a full draft.
At the start of The Promise, the basic plot would appear to be that a woman has fallen off a transatlantic liner unnoticed. If she can only keep recounting her memories to herself, perhaps she will keep up her strength and morale until she is rescued. She convinces herself that the omens of survival point in her favor, since “those who are drowning are happy, as everyone knows, but I [am] not.” Racking her brain for subjects of contemplation while she floats and swims, she lists the shopkeepers, flirts, and scamps of her childhood neighborhood, the beauty secrets of the penniless (“on her, weariness is a pigment that makes her eyes larger”) and their blood sports (“her drunken stepfather tied a rope around her waist and swung her from the first-floor balcony until a crowd of villagers gathered, none of them daring to say a thing for fear that the man would drop her”).
Through her retellings, we meet a woman named Irene and her near-feral child Gabriela (at times, a pronoun- and vowel-changing Gabriel). Irene is doggedly pursuing a medical degree despite being destitute, in order to woo a caddish fellow student, Leandro (magnetic to everyone, including our narrator). Leandro loves Verónica, whom he met by impulsively attending her sister’s funeral in order to engage in some light necrophilia.
As The Promise goes on, however, even stranger intrusions and non sequiturs begin to make the reader suspect that the narrator—with her guilelessness that at first suggested an ingenue—is actually much older than one supposed, and that the place she is lost may not be the sea. Her initial account of her own life becomes usurped by its supporting cast, who crowd out the planned account of herself. Their lives grow more vivid than the narrator’s own, enacting the casual vampirism of youth upon age, as younger people grow in vigor at the expense of the blanched, dissolving presence of the soon-to-die.
Out of the blue, as if briefly shaking her awake, a woman named “Celia or Clelia” is silently arranging the narrator’s hair; the hairdresser’s distaste makes the narrator suspect that she herself is old:
One day I had a sty in one eye, another day a boil on the nape of my neck, another day a cold sore on my lip, until my hair started falling out…. My baldness progressed, my boils multiplied, and don’t even get me started on the sties.
As the narrator struggles to leave her chair, she realizes that “Celia or Clelia” is physically stronger and more agile, and that she’ll have to endure these monstrous attentions for as long as it pleases the hairdresser to inflict them.
Passages from the opening pages of The Promise take on new meaning, no longer simply describing a self-effacing personality but revealing the isolation of the very old, frail, and dependent: “I don’t have a life of my own; I have only feelings. My experiences were never important—not during the course of my life nor even on the threshold of death. Instead, the lives of others have become mine.” In short, though all the old stamps of Ocampo are there (a ghoulish mariticide, a dinner-party satire that skewers bourgeois self-regard like a scene from late Buñuel), she has arranged these components to suggest something about decomposition: together they form a theory of memory and its opposite—“the organ of the brain breaking down in substance and function,” the self “slowly disappearing,” as the essayist and nurse Sallie Tisdale has written of dementia. The result is a bold phantasmagoria, marked by Ocampo’s insight that in extremis, delirium can be the highest form of truth.
Ocampo’s following has grown in the nearly thirty years since her death. The recent reexamination of figures such as the British-Mexican artist and writer Leonora Carrington, who was similarly elusive (though it was perhaps Carrington’s early and misplaced reification as muse and beauty that allowed her to hide in plain sight for so long), points to a rich lode of the last century’s art awaiting further excavation. It is hard to imagine the Argentinean film director Lucrecia Martel, for example—one of the most exciting directors now working—without Ocampo as forebear. (Martel made a short documentary on Ocampo, Las Dependencias , before the feature-length fictional films that brought her recognition.) Martel, whose great subject is the ritual-loving witchiness of children left untended (or of adults rendered childlike by deprivation and ennui), seems at times to revive Ocampo’s domestic surrealism with just a few props updated: cell phones, malls, and squalid pool parties.
In a letter to her sister Victoria, Ocampo once referred to her belief in her own clairvoyance, her capaz de intuir in “seeing” her sister at will no matter the distance between them. She seems to have meant this literally, and elsewhere family and friends corroborate her belief in her uncanny powers. But her claim of clairvoyance is also the expression of one who insists that what’s “present” to us, spatially and temporally, is arbitrary, a mere limitation of our sense organs. As she wrote in one of her letters, quoting Pedro Calderón’s seventeenth-century play Life Is a Dream, “I was sad, I was crazed/I was dead: I remained myself.” Hers was a surrealism of memory’s simultaneousness, the most natural thing in the world.