It’s somewhat shameful, but though I’ve known of Silvina Ocampo for a few years now, mostly I think of her as the spouse of Adolfo Bioy Casares and as the friend of Jorge Luis Borges, though I know she was a talented and independent literary mind in her own right. Why, the only thing I’d read by her was a book she wrote with her husband, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (which I reviewed here). Of course, part of the problem is that in English, little of her life’s work (she died in 1993 at the age of 90 after publishing poetry and short fiction for six decades) has been available. This week, however, we’re getting a comprehensive collection of Ocampo’s short stories from NYRB Classics, Thus Were Their Faces (translated from the Spanish Daniel Balderston, 2015). They are also putting out a lovely edition of her poetry, but more on that later.
Thus Were Their Faces contains stories from each of Ocampo’s seven short story collections, from 1937’s Forgotten Journey to 1988’s Cornelia Before the Mirror. It’s a large book, with (by my count) 42 stories, most as short as a few pages, and just a couple topping 20 pages.
These are fiendish stories, usually about an individual, a man or woman, whose emotional state might seem stable on the outside but that is absolutely in extremis. I was often reminded of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the fury that builds up and then snaps into a calm madness. Many of these characters are, perhaps unbeknownst to us when the story begins, already in that calm madness. And sometimes — strange, this — I felt like I was reading from the perspective of that elusive woman on the other side of the yellow wallpaper. I can think of none that are about more mundane scenes, though several of the characters seem to want us to think their world coincides with what most of us would consider normal.
Let’s take a look at the first story, “Forgotten Journey,” part of Ocampo’s debut back in 1937. While it is perhaps telling that most of the stories here come from the later collections, the strangeness is apparent from the starting line: “She was trying to remember the day she was born.” Or is that so strange? It almost seems charming: a child, furrowing her brow, straining to recall such a momentous moment. Rather than ease you into the strangeness, let me just skip right to the final paragraph (without spoiling the three-pages story):
A moment later, her mother said she was going to open the window, and after opening it, immediately her mother’s face completely transformed: she was a lady in a feather-covered hat who just happened to be visiting the house. The window was almost shut, and when her mother told her that the sun was glorious, she saw the dark sky of night where no bird sang.
When I read Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, I thought that it was a book that was often more interested in tone and atmosphere than plot and sense. That’s certainly the case with these early stories. Ocampo is exercising her skills, testing the limits of her imagination, learning that she had no limits. By the time we get to her 1959 collection, The Fury, she is adroitly mixing the bizarre with genuine pathos.
Take, for example, “The House Made of Sugar,” in which a husband tells about his wife’s strange superstitions (though, he notes, she takes no heed of the usual superstitions, like what to do if you have a broken mirror; surely, this is a husband who thinks his way is normal and any other is stranger); one of her superstitions demands that she know about any prior owners of any home they inhabit. She doesn’t want their influence to infect her life. In order to get around this, the husband takes her to a home that appears new, but that’s only because the prior owners had it renovated. The husband admits to being deceptive in order to get his wife to agree to buying this house, but he pays the price when, after they move in, he must work hard to ensure his wife never finds out about his deception.
But, as the story progresses, his wife doesn’t seem to mind: “I’m someone else, perhaps someone happier than I.” In the end, things turn out for the worst, and our narrator says, “I don’t know who was the victim of whom, in that house made of sugar.” While this story feels somewhat predictable as you read it, it takes some unique turns, but, more importantly, Ocampo injects the tragedy of everyday life into the bizarre, even if we can rarely feel the tragedy since the characters are often a few degrees removed from us by Ocampo’s playful disdain for them.
In her introduction to this volume, Helen Oyeyemi talks about when, in 1979, Ocampo’s body of work was denied Argentina’s National Prize for Literature. The reason the judges cited? Her work was “demasiado crueles,” or, “far too cruel.” Sometimes, an author can show a character’s foibles while still loving, even honoring, that character. I have to agree with those judges insofar as Ocampo’s stories are filled with a playful cruelty, as if Ocampo’s characters are mere characters in a game and Ocampo gets to take delight in torturing them. But “far too cruel”? No, I take delight in her torture as well, and, at the end of the day, this delight does a bit of a reversal on that old title making it feel better to say “where there’s hate, there’s love.”