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…
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