She was unique, different, seductive, like no one else in the world. That’s what people who knew her say. They try to evoke her, hands in the air, eyes lit up by memory, and when they start to reference the anecdote that would define Silvina Ocampo’s singular brilliance, they shake their heads and smile shyly. “Whenever I try to tell a story about her it always seems silly. She comes off as crazy, or stupid. And she was absolutely neither of those things.” They can’t call her up or bring back that disquieting fascination that so bewitched them. Silvina took her mystery with her.
Those who remember her have only snippets that don’t form a complete image. Silvina walking along the roadside, alone, when she spent the summer in the countryside. Silvina apologizing because she didn’t have sugar for the coffee, because the cockroaches had eaten it. Silvina observing a parade of ants: “If they were capable of thought, they would commit suicide.” Silvina refusing to have her picture taken, wearing her perpetual white-framed sunglasses and her men’s clothing. They remember her legs—beautiful—and her impossible voice, broken and hesitant; they remember her talking on the phone for hours, lying on the sofa. They whisper that she was psychic; she predicted storms, passions, misfortunes.
For many years, Silvina Ocampo, eccentric aristocrat, wife of Adolfo Bioy Casares, intimate friend of Jorge Luis Borges, was the only woman recognized as a writer in Argentina. Of course there were others, contemporaries and predecessors, but it was her name that was taken for granted and considered to be enough. Her social position and her relationships contributed to this unanimous recognition.
Born in 1903, she was the youngest daughter of the Ocampo family, which was among the richest in Argentina, owners of great tracts of land used for livestock and agriculture; the Ocampos were exporters and traders of products that came from working the land. As a child, Silvina learned English, French, and Italian before she learned Spanish; for her class it was the least important language, in spite of the fact that it was the one spoken in the country where they lived. She never went to school or university, or to any educational institution at all: the Ocampos educated their daughters with governesses, at home. The family traveled often to Europe—they had their own apartment in Paris, and they would bring a cow or two over with them on the ship, so the girls could have fresh milk to drink.
That was her childhood, in a country that wouldn’t have universal suffrage until 1912, a nation controlled by an elite that managed power through fraud, repression, and disorder—an elite to which her family belonged. That world of privilege implied an army of domestic employees and nannies, especially at their extravagant mansion in San Isidro, a lovely suburb to the north of Buenos Aires: the house, with its ocher walls and grey slate roofs, part French chateau and part Italian villa, was located on an estate of over ten hectares that ended at the river, with sumptuous gardens and all kinds of domestic animals. In that house, Silvina was free. Her parents were not strict with her. Preoccupied with raising their older daughters—especially the firstborn, Victoria—they neglected their youngest, and she experienced that distraction as pure escape.
“I felt like the family’s etcetera,” she admitted years later. That position had many advantages. First, they let her play and spend time with the domestic help: she enjoyed afternoons among the employees who sewed, ironed, and cooked, and who lived on the top floor of the house. The workers taught her to use knives and to sew: Silvina was fascinated by the mannequins, and she thought that when she grew up she would design clothes. She also left the house and interacted with the poor people who lived near the river, the people who slept in the street, the train workers. “I made friends with everyone, I greeted them with a kiss on the cheek,” she said in an interview. “My family thought those friendships were very bad for me. They were afraid something would be stolen from me, or that I’d catch some illness. Once, someone told me: ‘You can’t have dealings with those people. You’ll never get them to respect you.’ And I answered:’‘I don’t want them to respect me. I want them to love me.'”For many years, Silvina Ocampo, eccentric aristocrat, wife of Adolfo Bioy Casares, intimate friend of Jorge Luis Borges, was the only woman recognized as a writer in Argentina.
In 1975, the literary critic Blas Matamoro published an essay on Silvina Ocampo in his book Oligarquía y literatura (Oligarchy and Literature) titled “The Terrible Child.” In the text, he notes: “The conflict of terrible children goes through hatred of the family and then stops there: the children of the upper crust do not have a fundamental opposition to the entire social order, but their condition as marginalized within the family creates a partial opposition with one of the fundamental institutions of that order. Terrible children assume Evil, not Revolution.” Never over the course of her entire life did Silvina Ocampo’s fascination with the poor and working class turn into any kind of political awareness or concrete social action. It was an attraction to the radically different: a fascination with the other.
Her rebellion against family and class was not shrill, but it was very clear. She moved to Paris when she was quite young because she wanted to be an artist: she studied with Giorgio De Chirico, but she thought that he was lacking in talent, and she returned to Argentina. Soon she met Adolfo Bioy Casares, a rich young landowner who was ferociously attractive, was also a writer, and was eleven years her junior. They lived together in his country house in Pardo, a pleasant town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. In the society of the time this cohabitation without marriage was a scandal, but she didn’t care.
Silvina Ocampo did not participate in social life. She wasn’t interested in salons or charity dinners, or in fashion, or travel, not even in cultural events. She lived with her boyfriend and their dogs, and she received visits from Bioy’s best friend, Jorge Luis Borges. The three of them wrote and read: those were years of formation and seclusion, absolutely foreign to what was expected of a woman from her class. Bioy and Silvina got married in 1940: there were no parties or special guests, only witnesses—including Borges—at the civil registrar. Silvina communicated news of the wedding to her family by telegram. That same year, Bioy Casares published The Invention of Morel, a novel that Borges judged to be “perfect.”
Meanwhile, in the city and her family’s center, life went on. Victoria, her oldest sister, was the nation’s most renowned feminist. Separated from her first husband, determined not to be a mother because she put her career first, she had become the essential name of Ibero-American culture. In 1931 she founded Sur, the publishing house and magazine that would come to be the most important in the Spanish-speaking world, as well as the launching pad for Borges. Victoria was an early global intellectual who hired Le Corbusier to build her house in Buenos Aires and brought Bauhaus furniture over on ships to modernize the house in San Isidro.
Sur published Jung, Virginia Woolf, Nabokov, Sartre, Camus, Gabriela Mistral. Victoria’s house welcomed visits from Stravinski, Indira Gandhi, and Rabindranath Tagore. Graham Greene dedicated his novel The Honorary Consul to Victoria. She was also a writer, and a very good one: her genres were non-fiction, diary, and autobiography. Maybe that’s why she reacted with such surprise when she read Viaje Olvidado (Forgotten Journey), the first book from the pen of Silvina, her elusive younger sister. Victoria published it at her press, but when it was time for her to review it, she didn’t hide her puzzlement: “For the first time I found myself in the presence of a singular and significant phenomenon: a person who was disguised as herself,” she wrote.
Victoria Ocampo was referring to the subjects and forms of the stories in Viaje Olvidado, which Silvina published when she was 34 years old. One of the distinguishing marks of her fiction was already clear: her obsession with childhood and memory. And Silvina’s children are not pictures of innocence: they are small, amoral demons. Cruel children, murderous children, murdered children, suicidal children, abused children, pyromaniacal children, perverse children, children who don’t want to grow up, children who are born old, little witch girls. The stories of Viaje olvidado are about Silvina’s own childhood, which appears deformed and recreated by memory. And by reinventing her memories, Silvina Ocampo allows herself to reinvent her own identity: this distorted image is an intentional simulacrum; she understands that there is nothing less credible than memory, that there are no certainties and the past has been lost, like dreams upon waking. The book also contains other constants of her fiction: the war between adults and children, home—as last refuge, and also, when it becomes enemy territory, the most dangerous of all places—and the cruelty that people tended to point out to her with a merciless insistence that always surprised her, because she thought it was all fun and exaggeration.“For the first time I found myself in the presence of a singular and significant phenomenon: a person who was disguised as herself,” Silvina Ocampo’s sister wrote of Silvina’s work.
Viaje olvidado has some stories of light surrealism and others that are extreme, ferocious, absolutely mad. In “El retrato mal hecho” (“The Badly-drawn Portrait”) there is an infanticide: the maid kills her employer’s son, and the employer reacts with gratitude for the crime because “she detested the children, she had detested her children one by one, as they came into the world.” Almost all the language in the story is the prattle, at once banal and precise, of female fashion magazines. Another smash is “La Calle Sarandí” (“Sarandí Street”), perhaps the book’s best story, and the most terrifying: it’s the story of a rape told in first person by the girl who was the victim, and her memory is destroyed, full of holes, razed by the trauma.
The words used in Silvina’s stories are somewhat unpredictable; there’s a certain forced rhythm, fast at times, other times lingering over detail, as if the author were fumbling her way along. This has to do with the intermittence of memory, but also with another kind of recovery: that of language. Silvina had to teach herself to write in Spanish, and in this book she used an odd grammar, like a beginner’s, which gives the stories a strangeness that improves them.
It took Silvina Ocampo ten years to publish again, and when she did, her stories had lost the savageness of Viaje olvidado and approached the formal perfection of Borges’ stories. Borges was then a life companion and intimate friend with whom she shared daily dinners, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, and vacations at the summer house. Only with La Furia, her third book of stories, published in 1959, did she definitively delineate her universe: the characters, especially women, bedeviled by affectation and cruelty, crazed by jealousy and vanity; an oral rioplatense register that she employed even before Julio Cortázar: her characters speak in the local, colloquial fashion; children, always with the wisdom of corrupted innocence; and metamorphosis, not only from human to animal, but also between genders: a narrator can start out male and switch to female without warning, in androgynous and disconcerting texts where identity is put in check.
Her life, meanwhile, remained mysterious. The rumors flew: Did Bioy Casares’ constant and notorious infidelities mean the couple was open? Did she have lovers too, especially female ones? Why didn’t they have children? (Silvina eventually adopted Marta, the daughter of one of Bioy’s lovers.) Why was it so hard for her to leave the enormous apartment in Recoleta? Although she was practically cloistered during her final years, she never stopped receiving her friends, or publishing: her books of short stories continued to be extravagant and unusual, true rarities that no one dared discredit, but that few understood. Her poetry was more conventional, and perhaps for that reason was more recognized and rewarded.
Bioy Casares said: “Silvina wrote like no one, in the sense that she is similar to no one and doesn’t seem to have been influenced by any other writer. Her work seems like it influenced itself.” Borges apparently admired Silvina, but some friends in common, like the critic and translator Teddy Paz Leston, believe he wasn’t so convinced of his friend’s talent. “Borges liked her poems, but he was scandalized by some of her stories. Silvina’s freedom as a writer was unbearable to him. Borges admired writers to the extent that he saw them as disciples, and Silvina was not his disciple.”Today, Ocampo is a fetish of the academy, and her androgyny and radicalness are no longer strange: the world is ready for her, for her blend of insane Angela Carter with the absolute originality of Clarice Lispector.
During her active years, Silvina Ocampo was a famous but little-read writer. Fame came to her through her relationships: wife of, best friend of, sister of, the rich heiress. Her literature was too peculiar: an ambiguous and excessive fiction that was indecipherable for the larger reading public of her time. She wasn’t after success: maybe writing in relative obscurity gave her a freedom that would otherwise have been impossible. Today, Silvina Ocampo is a fetish of the academy, and her androgyny and radicalness are no longer strange: the world is ready for her, for her blend of insane Angela Carter with the absolute originality of Clarice Lispector. Her literature, finally, has found its readers.
Between 1988 and 1989, in a race against her waning lucidity and with symptoms of Alzheimer’s, she finished one of her only two novels, La promesa (The Promise), published posthumously in 2010. As Ernesto Montequin, executor of her estate and spearhead of the Spanish edition, explains: “She corrected and finished the texted during those years, but she worked on it, taking long breaks, over almost 25. Without knowing it, or rather with a dark intuition, as if she knew what her fate would be, she told the protagonist’s story, and as she did she narrated her own decline.” The plot of La promesa is simple: a woman who is a passenger on a ship falls into the sea. She is a good swimmer, and in order to avoid sinking and keep desperation at bay, she constructs a gallery of memories, in which she names, describes, and draws portraits of people she met over the course of her life. The character’s voice and the author’s coincide in that register. As in Viaje Olvidado, her first book, the exclusive subject is memory, the impossibility of apprehending it: memory as fiction.
Silvina Ocampo died on December 14, 1993, at 90 years old, in her bed. The wake was held at her house. Few people went to the burial, at the sumptuous Recoleta cemetery. That afternoon, a storm broke out. When the coffin was in the chapel receiving final prayers, some cats came in. One of them stationed itself beneath the coffin, as custodian and company.
Translated by Megan McDowell
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The upcoming issue of Freeman’s, a collection of writings on California, featuring work by Tommy Orange, Rabih Alameddine, Rachel Kushner, Mai Der Vang, Reyna Grande, and more, is available now.