My long history with Silvina Ocampo began more than thirty-five years ago, during my last term as an undergraduate at Berkeley in a class on translating poetry. In the library stacks, looking for something to translate, I found her sonnet ‘Palinuro insomne’ (Sleepless Palinurus) in an anthology of Spanish-language verse. I was enchanted by its open vowel sounds and its rhythms like the rolling sea: las olas y las algas y las alas.
I sought out Ocampo’s books and translated more of her poems. As if it were all that simple, I sent my translations to literary journals, and a few were even accepted. One editor broke it to me that I had to get permission from the author, so I wrote to her. Thus began an exchange of nine letters between us over the next four years.
Silvina Ocampo was born in Buenos Aires on 28 July 1903, the youngest of six sisters in a wealthy family. She was educated by private tutors and learned to read in French and English before Spanish. Throughout her writing life, ideas and phrases sometimes came to her in those other languages, to be transmuted into the language she lived in.
Though she often wrote for her own amusement as a child, Ocampo didn’t come to literature directly. Her first love was music, but her first pursuit as an artist was painting. Like many Argentines and other Latin Americans of that era, she went to Paris to further her studies, arriving in 1931, after her father died; she stayed for nearly two years. There, she attended the atelier of Giorgio de Chirico, and later of Fernand Léger and of André Lhote. Until the mid-1930s she worked assiduously at her art, then grew dissatisfied and turned away from painting.
During Ocampo’s time abroad, her eldest sister, Victoria, founded the influential literary journal Sur (South) and its homonymous publishing house, which operated for six decades and counted among its earliest and most frequent collaborators Jorge Luis Borges. In Paris, meanwhile, Ocampo became close friends with his sister, Norah Borges, who later illustrated several of her books. Through Victoria, Borges met the young writer Adolfo Bioy Casares – and on returning to Buenos Aires, so did Ocampo. Though she was eleven years older than him, they soon became lovers and moved in together. After she showed him some poems she’d written, he encouraged her to persevere with literature. By 1937, Sur published her first book of stories, Viaje olvidado (Forgotten Journey), and would subsequently publish her first books of poetry in the following decade. In 1940, she and Bioy Casares married; Borges was his best man and became their regular dinner guest for the next five decades.
In her lifetime, Ocampo published seven books each of poetry and stories, in addition to five books of children’s stories, chapbooks, translations (Donne, Baudelaire, Verlaine), and various collaborative projects, including the landmark Antología de la literatura fantástica (1940; The Book of Fantasy, 1988), edited by Borges, Bioy Casares, and Ocampo, and the playful mystery novel she wrote with her husband, Los que aman, odian (1946; Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, 2013).
Ocampo’s early poetry explored, in part, the landscape and history of her native Buenos Aires, a concern shared by other Argentine writers at the time. Often her poems treated intensely personal subjects, involving the nature of memory, family relations, and a shifting sense of place and self. Along these lines, the perpetual imbalances of love proved an inexhaustible realm of poetic inquiry for her. Writing mostly in fixed metrical forms, including many sonnets, she also took up themes and figures from the classical literature of various traditions to offer new perspectives. In her later books of the 1960s and 1970s, free verse predominated with a greater inclination toward metaphysical reflections. While childhood proved a common ground for much of her fiction, with its perverse and intuitive logic, in her poetry a sort of sentient kinship with plants and animals rose to the fore – her last book of new poems published in her lifetime was titled Árboles de Buenos Aires (Trees of Buenos Aires, 1979).
Yet despite praise from eminent writers (Borges, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, José Bianco, Italo Calvino) and even though her poetry received national prizes, her work remained little known by the reading public. In the 1960s, a new generation of writers began to take an interest in her, and Ocampo became close to the poet Alejandra Pizarnik as well as the novelist Manuel Puig. Many years later, another young friend from that time, the writer and filmmaker Edgardo Cozarinsky, recalled that ‘for decades, Silvina Ocampo was the best kept secret of Argentine letters.’ If her work was long overshadowed by the illustrious company she kept, she seemed to prefer it that way, being a rather shy and private person. Besides, her poetry and fiction did not easily align with the styles of her peers. She was very much her own creature, in her own time. As Cozarinsky observed in the newspaper La Nación in 2003: ‘It’s possible that the people closest to Silvina Ocampo resigned themselves to her exceptional nature, with that mix of reverence and distance inspired by visionaries or children.’ This echoes what Borges said long before: ‘There is in Silvina a virtue usually attributed to the Ancients or the people of the Orient and not to our contemporaries: that is clairvoyance.’ He also made the distinction that it was her condition as a poet that exalted her prose.
Ocampo was delighted to see her work in English, a language whose literary tradition she dearly admired. William Carlos Williams had translated her poem ‘The Infinite Horses’ in 1958 for New World Writing, but since then nothing else had appeared in English (by the late 1970s three editions of her stories were available in Italian and French). Excited by my discovery, I set out to translate a selection of her poems as well as a selection of stories.
As more of my translations appeared in magazines, I tried to find a publisher for both books. Fortunately, I never did. Ocampo was unknown in the United States, so editors were difficult to convince; even in Argentina, according to the critic and novelist Noemí Ulla, hardly anyone was writing about her in academia. But the bigger problem was my translations: I was still too much of a novice. My versions of her prose tended to get stuck between languages, the syntax sounding unwieldy; and while the poetry fared a bit better, my translations often felt stiff.
In her letters, meanwhile, she told me how she read my translations to her friends, who were all impressed. She kept offering suggestions for editors and publishers I might approach. Soon enough, she was addressing me by the familiar tu instead of the formal usted, saying we were becoming friends through the poems and that she would go back to usted when we didn’t agree. In another letter, she sympathized about my move far away from my college girlfriend while suggesting that instead of calculating the distance in miles, I should calculate it in tears. That letter, dated October 1978, opened with the curious tale of her only visit north:
I was in the United States for three weeks a century ago and I didn’t like it at all, but that’s not surprising because I think if I arrived in heaven for the first time I wouldn’t like it either. I travelled on an American boat and we were forced to have fun on board whether we wanted to or not. Eating so much ice cream day and night, I ended up getting sick by the time I arrived in New York and I went to a doctor who made me get X-rays of all my organs and endless tests, so that I spent the time waiting until the doctor told me to go eat a fried egg in order to take the X-ray of my bladder and follow the course of the disgusting liquid I had to swallow so that they could see how long it took for me to digest the ill-fated egg. After discovering that I had nothing too serious, except for being a person, they sent me to a pharmacy for some prescriptions that bore no labels or directions, which is the only thing that helps or hurts me in any medicine.
Eventually, it could not be helped, those manuscripts were relegated to my shelf where they remained for two decades. Then one day, a few months before the centenary of Ocampo’s birth as it turned out, I received an email from a young Scottish professor, Fiona Mackintosh, who had written her dissertation on Ocampo and Pizarnik and was familiar with some of my translations published long before. She asked if I had any more as she wanted to use them for an upcoming course. Her encouragement, along with the growing interest in Ocampo’s work, inspired me to retrieve the poetry translations from my basement. I revised the entire manuscript and tried once more to find a publisher. After much effort I ended up abandoning it again: another decade had to pass, with more revisions still, before the manuscript finally found a home.
Oh, nothing, nothing is mine,
not the tone of my voice, nor my absent hands,
nor my distant arms!
I have received it all. Oh, nothing, nothing is mine.
I am like the reflections of a gloomy lake
or the echo of voices at the bottom of a blue
well when it has rained.
I have received it all:
like water or glass that turns into anything,
into smoke, into a spiral,
into a building, a fish, a stone, a rose.
I am different from me, so different,
like some people when they are in society.
I am all the places I have loved in my life.
I am the woman I hated most,
and the perfume that wounded me one night
with decrees of an uncertain destiny.
I am the shadows that entered a car,
the luminosity of a port,
the secret embraces hidden in the eyes.
I am the knife of jealousy,
and the aches red with wounds.
Of the long eager glances I am the sparkle.
I am the voice I heard behind the blinds,
the light, the air above the cypress trees.
I am all the words that I adored on the lips,
in the books that I admired.
I am the greyhound that fled in the distance,
the solitary branch among the branches.
I am the happiness of a day,
the whisper of the flames.
I am the poverty of naked feet,
with children going silently away.
I am what they did not tell me and I knew.
Oh, I wanted everything to be mine!
I am everything I have already lost.
But everything’s elusive like the wind and the river,
like the golden summer flowers
that die in your hands.
I am everything, but nothing, nothing is mine,
not the pain, nor the joy, nor the terror,
not even the words of my song.
Taken from Silvina Ocampo, published by NYRB Poets in the US on 27 January and in the UK on 21 May.
Thus Were Their Faces, an original collection of Silvina Ocampo’s stories will also be available from the New York Review of Books from 21 May 2015 in the UK and 27 Jan 2015 in the US.
Photograph courtesy of narrativabreve.com