Dying for Madame Ocampo

Daniel Waissbein

  • ‘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.

Inevitably, King is very concerned with the figure that created, funded and despotically ran Sur from beginning to end, the colourful Ramona Victoria Ocampo de Estrada, DBE, Palmes Académiques etc. This virago, who came from a family of landed aristocrats and had great personal wealth, married – in theory for life, in a country were there was until a few months ago no divorce, but in fact for the duration of a Parisian honeymoon – another scion of the Argentine upper classes, whose name, Estrada, she was very quick to drop, just as she never seems to have used the rural, plebeian, comic-sounding ‘Ramona’ with which her thoughtless parents encumbered her at birth. King has her married to a ‘young man called James Monaco’ and this mistake is symptomatic of a certain vagueness in his approach to the subject, in that he never manages to elucidate all the myths which the lady’s posturings so insistently encouraged. Yet such an attack is indispensable if we are to clarify what, in Buenos Aires, where there are more snobs per square mile than in most other places, has become a very confused issue. King, though he cuts through most of the myths, ultimately fails to clarify them completely.

Others, who succumbed more directly to her manifold attractions, tried some such course of action, and if we are to believe Ocampo’s memoirs, seldom got very far. Her tempestuous affair with Hermann Graf Keyserling had an epic dimension to it, and the poor Count, whose expensive appetite for oysters and champagne (paid for by Victoria) was as strong as his appetite for her, required the ministrations of the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung finally to extricate himself. Jung, incidentally, as King tells us, interpreted Victoria’s behaviour as that of ‘an anima figure possessed by earth demons’. Her protracted relationship with Ortega y Gasset, who called her ‘La Gioconda de la Pampa’, progressed in a very Latin kind of way; while her brief encounter with Edward, Prince of Wales had that peculiar wishy-washiness that characterised all her dealings with the English (including her courtship of Virginia Woolf and her friendship with Graham Greene, who dedicated The Honorary Consul to her). But the Prince stayed in her Buenos Aires flat only for one evening, and he was still, no doubt, aching after a fall from his horse as he was progressing in state from Parliament to Government House. Virginia Woolf’s opinion of Victoria, in a letter to Vita Sackville-West of 1939, is as revealing as it is funny: ‘A woman, Victoria Okampo who is the Sybil [Colefax] of Buenos Aires, writes to say she wants to publish something by you in her Quarterly Sur. She is in Paris ... She is immensely rich, amorous; has been the mistress of Cocteau, Mussolini – Hitler for anything I know: came my way through Aldous Huxley; gave me a case of butterflies; and descends from time to time on me, with eyes like the roe of codfish phosphorescent: what’s underneath I don’t know.’ On a later occasion she refers to Ocampo as having ‘filched and pilfered and gate-crashed’ and calls her ‘treacherous vermin’. A love affair with Drieu la Rochelle, who collaborated with the Nazis and later committed suicide, also came to grief.

Victoria retained all her life a penchant for French, or Frenchified, writers, musicians, politicians and intellectuals: Camus, Malraux, Caillois, Ansermet, Stravinsky, de Gaulle, and many more. For a while, after the war, she even published Sartre in her magazine, until she discovered – or someone alerted her to – what Sartre was really up to. Her tactics seem always to have been the same, and pretty much foolproof: she showered the prestigious object of her attention with expensive presents until he (or she) succumbed. King has found a revealing quotation in a letter to Ocampo from the author of ‘Le Cimetière Marin’: Chose trés admirable, il arrive que ces objets essentiels me vont comme des gants! Cela tient du miracle! Valéry was thanking her for a pair of slippers.

The destiny of Victoria’s only child – as Sur can best be described – follows very closely the economic vicissitudes of Argentina, and the magazine’s period of glory corresponds to the last twenty years of Argentine economic apogee, the Thirties and Forties, when Argentines still had the fifth highest per capita income in the world, and Victoria’s personal fortune really counted in global terms. As long as its owner was able to entertain and make presents on a grand scale, almost all the great foreign writers she approached were prepared to contribute to her magazine and often came and stayed with her in the magnificent family house on the banks of the River Plate, their presence lending her the prestige she so eagerly sought, for herself and for her journal.

Things began to sour in the mid-Fifties and Sixties when the economic situation became more discouraging of her endeavours than the Peronists (who briefly imprisoned her and kept her in a cell in the company of prostitutes) had ever managed, or attempted, to be. At the same time, access to high culture became less of a minority prerogative in Argentina – which didn’t help her either. The final straw must have come when Alain Robbe-Grillet, in Buenos Aires in 1962 to attend a Pen Club meeting and ‘taken on the “de rigueur” visit to Villa Ocampo’, was said to have observed that the place reminded him of a brothel. There is something strikingly apt in the idea of Ocampo as a ‘Madame’, and not just because of her overpowering demeanour. King thinks that the analogy ‘illustrates anecdotally a serious problem of legitimacy’. The problem has to do not only with Sur and the values it upheld: there was something peculiarly sham about Ocampo’s character and her pursuit of the ready-made. She paraded as a writer and critic despite a lack of ideas of her own. Her book on T.E. Lawrence, intended more as eulogy than analysis, leaves one baffled as to the reasons for her admiration, so devoid of any real interest is the picture she paints of the writer and his work. Her broodings on Dante are of the same order. Her many volumes of memoirs are shallow, self-centred, capricious and repetitive. Ocampo’s true vocation, and no doubt one at which she would have excelled, was the stage. Her parents frustrated her acting career, and Victoria the writer grew up a poor substitute.

It does not necessarily follow that her magazine was equally spurious. Ocampo’s enemies in Argentina – and she had many – have always tended to confuse the personal and the journalistic issues. The Europeans and North Americans, as well as the locals, who contributed to Sur were generally good writers, whose pieces were often of real interest, even though she tended to exclude left-wing or Marxist writers, so that a large current of opinion therefore went unrepresented. She had no sympathy for the Cuban Revolution in its early stages, when it generated so much hope and enthusiasm in Latin America, and her journal distinguished itself by its silence on this subject. One would on the whole be justified in saying that Sur was a publication whose owner was interested in the preservation of the status quo. The same applies, to a large extent, to the not very large group of local contributors, among whom few were more assiduous, and none more dazzling, than Borges. As a writer of short stories, essays, books and film reviews, Borges was a constant presence in the pages of Sur, despite the waxing and waning of his friendship with Victoria, and his contributions gave the journal an interest that it would otherwise have lacked.

John King at times adopts a flippant tone when referring to Borges: the reason seems to be that he is unable to forgive Borges for being the kind of writer he was. King repeatedly makes the point in this study that Sur never bothered about definitions of good literature: that Ocampo herself and her small circle of regular contributors, Borges included, sheepishly accepted received ideas. There was, he thinks, a coterie spirit in Sur: Ocampo may have been Madame Victoria for Robbe-Grillet, but for John King she was Madame Verdurin..

It isn’t clear, however, that King himself isn’t speaking to a coterie, though a different and very much larger one. He certainly drops sufficient hints as to where his sympathies lie: at least one writer, in his book, is described as ‘rabidly anti-communist’ – but no one is ever ‘rabidly anti-capitalist’. Of course, many people think that a social conscience and a direct reflection of social realities, with the unavoidable portrayal of conflicts that this entails, is the required recipe for a work of literary merit in 20th-century Latin America, and that it is the duty of a literary review to present such works. While this strikes me as a reasonable demand for a publication that aims to be representative of what is being produced, and such works were being produced in large numbers, this was clearly not Sur’s aim. All the same, there is no excuse for the absence of local writers like Horacio Quiroga from the pages of the magazine.

King makes large claims for Sur’s importance. ‘Sur’s view on literature and life,’ he writes, ‘became the most powerful force within Argentine letters during the forty years of its regular publication.’ As I see it, Sur followed, reflected and reinforced existing trends, though it is debatable precisely how much of the latter it did. Argentine society was already very cosmopolitan in its cultural interests in the early Thirties when Ocampo’s paper started publication. A large part of what Sur brought to the River Plate had either got there already or would have done so afterwards, by several different channels, including other journals, had Ocampo’s not existed. Nevertheless, the magazine’s role in this respect was very important in the first twenty-five years of its existence, if only because of the amount and quality of the foreign material it printed. What is a pity is that Sur was scarcely distributed in the other Spanish American republics, where intellectuals were starved of foreign material, and where its presence would have made all the difference to the prevailing cultural provincialism. Equally regrettable was Sur’s lack of interest in publishing the work of writers who lived in the other countries of the sub-continent. Even so, I suspect that its impact may have been greater, among the few who read it, in more traditionally Hispanic and Catholic societies, such as Colombia or Mexico, than in the Argentine. Octavio Paz, one of the few exceptions in that his name appeared regularly among the magazine’s contributors, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, have spoken appreciatively of the journal’s importance for themselves and their friends.

As regards Sur’s role in the Argentine, I am puzzled by what is undoubtedly the most glaring omission in King’s book: his analysis of the porteño cultural set-up ignores, except for a few passing mentions, the impact of the Sunday literary supplements of the two main Argentine newspapers, La Nacion especially, but also La Prensa, both of which played a similar role to that of Sur, but on a larger scale. These two supplements regularly publish essays and short stories or extracts from novels, as well as poems and numerous book reviews. Both started decades before Sur; both reach a much larger public (about half a million copies are distributed, as opposed to a few hundred in the case of Sur); both have always been at least as conservative and traditional as Ocampo’s journal, and often more so; both published the same local writers that Ocampo published (and many of the foreign ones). King hardly mentions them, and by giving the impression that Ocampo’s review operated in a vacuum distorts the picture. In fact, it is quite probable that the literature section of La Nacion, as much as if not more than Ortega’s Revista de Occidente, served as a model for Sur. With this in mind, King’s claims about the cultural importance of Sur in widening the horizons of its Argentine readers are bound to appear exaggerated.

Equally exaggerated, in my view, is the claim that the magazine influenced the production of literary texts in Argentina. It’s true that there were always some articles or poems or stories written specifically for publication in its pages, but since Sur’s values were those of the establishment, the paper cannot be said to have inspired a breakaway or revolutionary avant-garde; nor, I think, can it be said to have significantly delayed any developments of this kind by consolidating and reinforcing certain ways of writing on certain subjects, since there were other journals which did precisely that. What it did do was to give prestige to its writers and by paying them quite generously it allowed them a more comfortable life than they would otherwise have had. The short stories that Borges later collected in Ficciones and El Aleph would be just what they are had they appeared in other journals. Despite what King believes, his work had no important Argentinian antecedents. Nor did it have any direct influence on younger writers. In any case, its influence would have been similar had it appeared in La Nacion instead: indeed, much of it did appear in La Nacion.

King’s book has many merits, but would have done better to offer more direct and detailed reference than King provides to other literary and non-literary periodicals published in Buenos Aires. This would have enabled him to gauge more accurately the cultural context in which Ocampo operated, while also reducing her achievement to somewhat less grandiose porportions.