Silvina Ocampo: Writing the Feminine into the Fantastic

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Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges and Victoria Ocampo are all names you’d likely come across before arriving at the writing of the next author in our Beyond Borges series.

Perhaps better known for being the wife of the former, or the younger and less-famous sibling of the latter, Silvina Ocampo was herself a prolific writer who gained independent recognition as the author of several prize-winning poetry collections and compilations of fantastic fiction.

Portrait of Silvina Ocampo

Know Your Ocampos

Born in Buenos Aires in 1903, Silvina was the youngest of six sisters to bear the already influential family name. Not initially literary-inclined, she originally travelled to Paris to work under the direction of artists such as the Italian surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico and the French forerunner to pop art, Fernand Léger.

In the early 30s, her eldest sister Victoria became the founding editor of the long-running, culturally-significant journal ‘Sur’. It was through this review that, in 1933, Silvina was introduced to both Borges and a much younger Bioy Casares. Despite an age difference of nine years, she controversially became Bioy’s lover when he was just 19. Seven years later, they embarked on a marriage that, although not always faithful, saw them joined as occasional collaborators and lifelong companions.

As a poet, short-story author, translator and one-time playwright, Ocampo wrote incessantly and almost always independently throughout her life, publishing as many as seven poetry collections and around the same number of short story compilations.

In 1940 she collaborated with both Bioy and Borges on an anthology of fantastic literature and later an anthology of Argentine poetry. Although she had already published her first collection of short fiction, ‘Viaje olvidado’, in 1937, critics cite her involvement in this first anthology as having had a visible influence on her style.

Her later collections, including ‘Autobiografía de Irene’, ‘La furia y otro cuentos’, ‘Las invitadas’, ‘Los días de la noche’, and the children’s story ‘La naranja maravillosa’, perhaps exhibit a more prototypical Ocampo.

Writing the Feminine into the Fantastic

Inspired by authors such as Lewis Carroll, the majority of Ocampo’s literary output falls into the category of the fantastic, exploring surrealist ideas such as the manipulation of space and time, memory, mirrors and metamorphosis.

Whilst many of her themes crossed over with those explored by other authors or the fantastic, Ocampo’s treatment of what might have essentially been the same ideas, has been noted for its ingenuity and, perhaps most commonly, for its unusual cruelty.

The murders and other violent acts contained in her writing might not have met with descriptions of such ‘cruel innocence’ had the majority of her stories not presented them through the eyes of children.

Whether written for children or adults, her fiction often featured child protagonists in the recurrent setting of childhood homes and plots that appeared fairy-tale, at least in concept, if not in execution.

Many of Ocampo's stories were set in the childhood mansions of her protagonists. (This still, courtesy of 'Cornelia at her Mirror')

In ‘Biografia de Irene’ a marble statue of a winged horse speaks to a girl and promises to carry her into a fairytale land, and in ‘La torre sin fin’ a boy who makes fun of an artist who visits his house to display his paintings of a strange topless tower finds himself suddenly imprisoned there inside the painting, and although everything he paints comes to life it does not always take on the form he imagined.

Argentine author Julio Cortázar, whose own short stories run in a similar vein to Ocampo’s, commented upon the ‘strangeness of the everyday’ in her writing and her ability to infuse every day objects with a fantastic importance. Certainly, the disquieting nature of her short stories probably does stem from the fact that she wrote about such familiar every day circumstances the reader comes to doubt the occurrence of anything extraordinary.

Often written about alongside another Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik, critics have suggested that an understanding of each writer’s attitude to childhood is fundamental to an appreciation of their work.

Claiming that female authors have historically leant towards the fantastic as a form of expression, some critics have also suggested Ocampo’s fantastic literature might have been a manifestation of feminine subversion, citing her treatment of metamorphosis by way of example.

Interestingly, her protagonists can be generally observed as responding differently to both the process of transformation and their new form, dependent on gender. Ocampo’s male characters are often reluctantly transformed to plants, whereas her female protagonists more often than not have an existing relationship with the object of their transformation appearing more welcoming of their transformation to either animal forms or objects that are essentially masculine.

Where her husband had prioritised plot over character, Ocampo favoured style above all else, tackling themes of love and infidelity or sin and forgiveness with an irony, dark humour and  lightness that otherwise might not have existed.

Later Life and Recognition

A poster for the 2010 film 'Cornelia at her Mirror', inspired by OCampo's last book of fantastic fiction

Besides authoring some of the most original and ingenious short fiction Argentina had seen between 1937 and 1988, Ocampo was also highly-regarded as a poet, publishing her first collection of poems, ‘Enumeracio de la patria’, in 1942, and her last, ‘Amarillo celeste’, in 1972. In the middle she was awarded the 1954 Premio Municipal de Literatura for ‘Espacios métricos’ and the 1962 Premio Nacional de Poesia for ‘Lo amargo por dulce’, having won second prize for ‘Los nombres’ nine years earlier in 1953.

In later life she reportedly suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, which seems especially cruel for a writer who had explored the theme of memory in such depth in her work. In her first book ‘Viaje olvidado’ a girl looks to remember the moment of her birth, and in a later story a woman recounts her life story backwards, beginning with the present and eventually dying when she reaches the beginning.

Bioy withheld news of his wife’s own death in 1993 so that a private funeral could be held in accordance with her wishes. Having been associated for more than 50 years with prominent literary and artistic personalities, Ocampo is often described as having lived in the shadow of her sister on the one hand and her husband on the other.

Perhaps content to live as a ‘famous unknown’, some argue that Ocampo was not necessarily subjected to living under these shadows but rather chose to remain there, shying away from the public life that Buenos Aires demanded of its great authors.

Although her sister Victoria probably still stands to be the most talked-about of the Ocampo siblings, Silvina’s impressive literary production at least equals that of her husband Bioy in terms of quantity and possibly even far exceeds him in terms of quality, linguistic ability and influence.

As recognition of Ocampo’s contribution to fantastic literature continues to grow, her influence on other surrealist authors is also becoming more recognisable. Whilst she might always be comparatively unknown, critics acknowledge the value of her writing as a jumping-off point for the works of Borges, Cortázar and other more-recognised masters of the short-story form.

'Cornelia at her mirror', a film based on Ocampo's 1988 book 'Cornelia frente al espejo', premiered at the Rotterdam International film festival recently. View the official website and trailer for the film here

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6 Responses to “Silvina Ocampo: Writing the Feminine into the Fantastic”

  1. Cata says:

    If you read ‘Bestiario’ by Cortázar you can see more than a little influence of Silvina in it. She writes very dark and very heavy but she was one of the first to be so creative.

  2. Josefina says:

    You won’t find many of her books in English though, I think the Topless Tower and one other collection, or two from a long time ago. Someone should make a book of her best stories in English!

  3. Jason Weiss says:

    If anyone is still reading this thread, my longtime project of translating Silvina’s selected poems will at last be published by New York Review Books in 2014. A sampling from that collection can be found on my website here:
    http://www.itinerariesofahummingbird.com/silvina-ocampo.html

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Silvina Ocampo, Victoria’s younger sister, was also a talented writer in her own right. Her works are similar to those of Borges in that they include an element of the fantastic. Today we might call them magical realism. [...]

  2. [...] Silvina Ocampo, Victoria’s younger sister, was also a talented writer in her own right. Her works are similar to those of Borges in that they include an element of the fantastic. Today we might call them magical realism. [...]

  3. […] Silvina Ocampo, Victoria’s younger sister, was also a talented writer in her own right. Her works are similar to those of Borges in that they include an element of the fantastic. Today we might call them magical realism. […]


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