Dying for Madame Ocampo
- ‘Sur’: A Study of the Argentine Literary Journal and its Role in the Development of a Culture, 1931-1970 by John King
Cambridge, 232 pp, £27.50, December 1986, ISBN 0 521 26849 4
Can a literary magazine, however important, be said to have played a fundamental role in the development of a national culture for almost half a century? Can one really say that Argentine culture has ‘developed’ over those same years? Is there, indeed, such a thing as a clearly definable Argentine culture, and if so, what does it consist of? These questions are not discussed in John King’s otherwise informative study of the Argentine literary journal Sur, from its inception in 1931 to its slow death in the Seventies and Eighties. Yet an answer to them, however approximate, is crucial to any attempt at placing the publication in the context referred to in the title of King’s study. He does, however, present us with an articulate, lucid and competent analysis of most – but not all – aspects of Spanish America’s best-known – to some, most prestigious, to others, most infamous – literary magazine. What is puzzling is that he himself cannot altogether make up his mind whether he sees the journal as having made a positive or a negative contribution.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 10 No. 9 · 5 May 1988
SIR: I am sad to see that Daniel Waissbein has used his review of John King’s study of the Argentine magazine Sur (LRB, 3 March) for an extended bout of Ocampo-bashing. He is aware that Victoria Ocampo’s many enemies in Argentina ‘have always tended to confuse the personal and the journalistic issues’, but has he himself been able to avoid that confusion? According to Mr Waissbein, not only was Ocampo a ‘virago’, but also there was ‘something peculiarly sham’ about her ‘character and her pursuit of the ready-made’. He concedes that her ‘true vocation, and no doubt one at which she would have excelled, was the stage’. Is he implying that no real talents are needed to excel on the stage, that a mixture of the shrewish and the sham will enable a woman to become a great actress? I have spent several years doing research on certain aspects of Victoria Ocampo and have read many of her published works as well as some of her personal correspondence. I find her a fascinating woman. She is certainly a controversial figure in some respects, but who can deny the solid reality of the woman’s achievements? Her memoirs are not ‘shallow, self-centred, capricious and repetitive’, but evocative and stylish, and she certainly never ‘paraded as a writer and critic’. I don’t find Virginia Woolf’s comments on Victoria Ocampo all that funny. They are insensitive and patronising, revealing more about Woolf’s British upper-class prejudices than anything about Ocampo.
Mr Waissbein has wisely abstained from making any comment on Ocampo’s relationship with Tagore. Having read an article of Mr Waissbein’s on Borges, I suspect he may share Borges’s casually-expressed irreverent opinion that Tagore was a trickster of good faith or a Swedish invention, an opinion which is just about as reliable as Robbe-Grillet’s opinion of Villa Ocampo. Should any of your readers wish to consider an alternative image of Victoria Ocampo, I suggest they look up my book In Your Blossoming Flower-Garden: Rabindranath Tagore and Victoria Ocampo, which is just out and available from Books from India. The role played in the story by Tagore’s English secretary, Leonard Elmhirst should, incidentally, dispel the myth that there was something peculiarly wishy – washy, as Mr Waissbein claims, about her dealings with the English.
It is true that in most societies there are barriers to the adequate recognition of a woman’s talents and achievements. Nevertheless it would be correct to suggest that in many other countries, including Britain and India, a third or a quarter of what Ocampo achieved would have secured an honourable status for a woman. That it is otherwise in Argentina seems to me to be disturbing
Ketaki Kushari Dyson
Vol. 10 No. 12 · 23 June 1988
SIR: I am sorry that Ketaki Dyson (Letters, 5 May) thinks that I have used my review of John King’s study of Sur for an extended bout of Ocampo-bashing. She may, however, find after reading this reply that we are much more in agreement than she thought. She suggests, for example, that although I am aware that Victoria Ocampo’s many enemies in Argentina ‘have tended’, as I put it, ‘to confuse the personal and the journalistic issues’, I have been unable to avoid that confusion myself. But this is not so: my thesis was that despite her many obvious personal shortcomings, her magazine was, on the whole, a good one, better perhaps than King makes it out to be, but also less important than he thinks. The same can be said of Ocampo’s publishing-house. To the extent, and it was a large extent, that Ocampo put her wealth to the service of this cause she deserves our admiration and gratitude. Yet this is no reason for the kind of hagiography she has elicited, not always entirely disinterestedly. My review, which I wrote before Dyson’s book on Tagore and Ocampo, In your Blossoming Flower Garden, had appeared, was, in part, an attempt to redress the imbalance created by the hagiographers, though King isn’t one of them.
Dr Dyson puzzles me: she objects to my calling Ocampo a virago, and to my saying that there was ‘something peculiarly sham’ about ‘her character and her pursuit of the ready-made’: yet in passage after passage of her own book she presents evidence to corroborate this view. Without using the word ‘virago’, she acknowledges the lady’s turbulence, imperiousness, impetuosity, arrogance and selfishness, as pointed out by those who knew her. ‘That Ocampo had a domineering streak in her, that she was a demanding person, in the habit of issuing peremptory commands, and very much used to getting her own way, not tolerating opposition, has been said by so many people who knew her that it cannot but contain a grain of truth’ (In your Blossoming Flower Garden). It also emerges from Dyson’s book that as early as 1924, when she was still little-known as a femme de lettres, Ocampo already expected to be recognised, as Leonard Elmhirst wrote, for her ‘inner qualities of mind and feeling and scholarship’. It must be plain even to Dyson that these were not outstanding. Ocampo’s vanity left space for little else. This is what I meant when I wrote that ‘she paraded as a writer and critic,’ something which, according to Dyson, ‘never happened’. Many were taken in, of course, but not all. Tagore himself commented on Ocampo’s ‘absolute dependence on ready-made European thoughts’: an opinion of which I was not aware when I wrote my review, but which I found quoted approvingly by Dyson and with which, of course, I concur. Dyson reproaches me for having said the same thing as she said.
Dyson also objects to all the other negative judgments that I make in my piece. She does not think, for instance, that Ocampo’s memoirs deserve the epithets that I used, and finds her work ‘evocative and stylish’ instead. I was puzzled by these adjectives until I read Dyson’s own prose. I see now what she means, and in particular why she says that Ocampo’s memoirs do not seem repetitive to her: by comparison with the way Dyson writes, they are not. As for Virginia Woolf’s comments on Ocampo, I understand that Dyson may not find them funny, since they are certainly cruel, but they are essentially true, and uncannily revealing in their concision. It is worth noting that Woolf tells us more about Ocampo in those two lines than the latter managed to say about the former in a whole book: Virginia Woolf en su Diario (1914). But there is a further ironic twist: in her book, Ocampo discusses and excuses Virginia Woolf’s habit of making cruel if illuminating comments on the grounds that ‘it would be difficult of course to write a diary or memoirs without throwing some darts, especially when one is fit pour les lancer d’une main sûre.’ As an example she gives us a passage in which Woolf calls the Colefaxes ‘vulgar and common and boring’. Little did Ocampo know that Woolf had called her in a letter ‘the Sybil [Colefax] of Buenos Aires’.
She says that I ‘wisely abstained from making any comment on Ocampo’s relationship with Tagore’ in my review of King’s book. She further explains that having read an article of mine on Borges, she suspects I may share Borges’s irreverent opinion of Tagore. What would be more appropriate would be my making, or not, a comment on Ocampo’s opinion of Tagore. But the unfortunate fact is that I have made such comments and Dyson must remember them, since I find that in the concluding pages of her book she quotes them. She approves there of the contrast I made between Borges’s caustic comments on the Indian poet and Ocampo’s idolatry. Has Dr Dyson changed her mind on the subject, or is she simply trying to score points, at whatever cost, in order to publicise her own book – which, she tells your readers, presents ‘an alternative image of Victoria Ocampo’?
Dyson’s ultimate card is the feminist one. The reason Ocampo has not received in Argentina the recognition she deserves, and that she would have got in Britain or India, is that she was a woman. But Dyson has not made clear what precisely Ocampo deserves recognition for; whether it has truly not been given; whether my own negative opinion is as representative of Argentine opinion as she implies; whether Argentine machismo is to be blamed for a situation that she finds disturbing; whether I am as machista as she implies; and whether my own machismo, assuming that it exists, is representative of that of Argentine males in general.