Dangers, Dreams, and Doubles: The Revelations of Silvina Ocampo

Before 2013, finding a copy of anything written by the Argentinian writer Silvina Ocampo in an English translation wasn’t easy. Although her contemporary Jorge Luis Borges wrote admiringly of her writing, Ocampo’s own contributions to the world of fiction weren’t widely recognized in international circles. That’s a shame: whether overtly weird or focusing more on her characters’ tortured, surreal inner lives, Ocampo’s work inhabits a singular space: dense and haunting, and dangerously unpredictable. In 2013, Melville House released a translation of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate as part of their Neversink series of short books. While the book is a compelling, often surreal read, it may not be the best indication of Ocampo’s work as a whole. First and foremost, it’s a collaboration with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares; second, it’s a kind of detective-novel pastiche, albeit one that bent and twisted the tropes of the genre in an assortment of memorable ways. It’s an impressive demonstration of the abilities of both writers, but it isn’t necessarily the ideal starting point for either. NYRB Classics has taken steps to rectify this, releasing two books (one collection of stories, and one of poems) earlier this year to provide a good survey of Ocampo’s work.

Ocampo book

“Like William Blake, Ocampo’s first voice was that of a visual artist; in her writing she retains the will to unveil the immaterial so that we might at least look at it if not touch it,” wrote Helen Oyeyemi (a writer who knows a thing or two about work that eludes easy classification) in her introduction to Thus Were Their Faces, a collection of Ocampo’s short fiction released by NYRB Classics earlier this year. It was released alongside a volume of her poetry translated by Jason Weiss. (Thus Were Their Faces was translated by Daniel Balderston.) Weiss’s introduction to the poetry collection, part of which appeared in Granta, also provides a good overview of Ocampo’s life. He’s also part of an impressive lineage of translators of Ocampo’s poetry into English: William Carlos Williams translated one of her poems in 1958. Weiss began translating Ocampo’s poetry in the 1970s, and hoped to find a publisher a collection of her poems and a collection of her stories, a task at which he was initially unsuccessful. He noted in his introduction to the current poetry collection that “by the late 1970s three editions of her stories were available in Italian and French.” English-language publishers proved harder to convince of Ocampo’s merits as a writer.

When asked about the selection process for the new collection, Weiss described a broad approach. “I figured if it was going to be a book of her selected poems, I should choose some from each of her books, of course,” he wrote in an email. “The criteria then and since was, first, which poems I most responded to and thought I could do some justice to in translating, and second, which poems seemed like there were particularly important to her, in the context of her work and her own history. So, in terms of my own tastes, that included all the epitaph poems, some of the sonnets that treated personal history, emotions, and even classical themes, and some of the animal & metaphysical poems of later books.”

The poetry in the collection is wide-ranging, from the same surreal and dream-like imagery that populates her fiction to more straightforward and evocative passages. Her early poem “Irremissable Memory” has the dedication “for no one,” and veers from the cosmic–”Within me dwells that infinite impenetrable space”–to the everyday. But its closing lines, in Weiss’s translation, are haunting in their terse uncertainty, holding any potential for joy at a distance.

…Perhaps

in that place I could love you still,

passing through barely glimpsed hallways,

among streets stained by time and without travails,

among pale garlands of uncertain joy.

Ocampo poetry

Along with Blake, Ocampo’s writing shares a number of qualities with surrealist painter and author Leonora Carrington. It’s not coincidental that both worked with both visual art and with words. In the work of both, the underlying logic within a given story is malleable, dreams taking on their own reality, mythological conditions suddenly becoming all too tangible. Her 1968 novella The Topless Tower, in particular, moves along the lines of a subconscious logic, from the tangible to the imaginary and back again. Its opening line, in James Womack’s translation, gets to some of the inherent narrative contradictions early, along with images that are both pastoral and slightly off. “A long time ago, or else not so very long ago, I couldn’t say, summer held out its green leaves, its mirrors of sky-blue water, the fruits in the trees.”

Elsewhere in Ocampo’s fiction, borders between categories shift mercilessly; the delineations that many readers come to rely on are rendered ineffective. In “Icera,” the title character seeks out the life of a doll she observes in a store window: “Icera considered the dolls as rivals; she wouldn’t accept them even as presents; she only wanted to occupy their places.” Doubles and shifts in identity play a significant role in her early story “The Imposter,” in which mental and physical maladies in increasingly delirious ways. And one character in the brief “Carl Herst” appears to dissolve into a collection of aphorisms hanging from a wall. It’s memorably evocative stuff; one can see why critic José Teodoro, writing in the National Post, posited her as a literary forebear to writers like Julio Cortázar and César Aira.

The question of Ocampo’s work not receiving its due isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as the familiar “international author is under-appreciated in the United States” narrative leads us to believe. Though that does seem to be the case here as well. Weiss recalled that “one well-known American translator told me by letter, erroneously, in the late ’70s, that Silvina was [her sister] Victoria’s daughter.” Though there was also resistance to her work closer to home. Oyeyemi’s introduction begins with a trip into literary history: in 1979, her work did not receive the National Prize for Literature in Argentina, on the grounds of perceived cruelty in her work.

There’s also a dig at her in Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary: “Sylvina was a ‘poetess,’ and published a volume every so often.” He describes a dinner with Ocampo and Bioy Casares, using it as emblematic of his daily interactions in Argentina. “This is how the supper at the Casareses’s: nowhere. Like all suppers consumed by me with Argentine literature.” It’s certainly an observation that can be taken with many grains of salt: to read Diary is to grapple with the intimate life of a particularly thorny international literary figure. But it’s also a frustrating experience, reading a withering opinion of one cult writer delivered by the other.

Thankfully, Ocampo’s memorably disorienting fiction has aged well–or perhaps, like some of her landscapes, it exists in its own mesmerizingly timeless place.

Weiss commented, “By now, I think she is considered fairly important and rather unique in Argentine literature. In the past decade or so, her collected poems and collected stories have been reissued in two volumes each, plus all the unpublished work that has appeared posthumously, some half a dozen books.” He added that, in recent years, she has become more widely read, and has been the subject of numerous dissertations. “The US, or the anglophone world in general, just got the news last, as usual,” he said. Thankfully, Ocampo’s memorably disorienting fiction has aged well–or perhaps, like some of her landscapes, it exists in its own mesmerizingly timeless place.

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