I arrived in Montevideo on the first full day of winter in the southern hemisphere. The dark, muddy winter light was a shock after the bright, metallic air of New York on the eve of summer. Montevideo is not a particularly beautiful city. Too much of the old art-deco architecture was torn down in the 1960s and 1970s in favor of boxy modern buildings whose aluminum window frames are now showing their age. The two styles stand side by side on most blocks downtown, touching but not speaking. The whole city looks like it could use a good power wash. My hosts, seeing my avid interest in their city, pointed out, with a mixture of interest and shame, the classificadores, trash collectors who roam the streets on shabby carts drawn by flea-bitten horses or donkeys. They carry giant burlap-reinforced plastic bags and climb into the public trashcans in search of any garbage that can be sorted and sold at the local dump.
For all the uneven charms of the city itself, the Rambla is sublime. Miles of road hug the edge of the River Plate, with a wide walking path and four lanes of traffic. On a morning jog, as I looked out at the nearly empty ocean, one ship in the far distance, I thought about a new friend’s remark that due south of Montevideo, the next landmass is Antarctica. In a moment of vertiginous fear, I had a flash of understanding for why the mariner shot the albatross. When it feels like you might just tumble right off the planet unnoticed, the impulse to violent self-assertion is strong.
It was my first trip to Latin America and I was there to speak at Montevideana VII, a semi-annual conference on English literature. This year’s topic was “Voyaging in, Voyaging out: Virginia Woolf y América Latina.” Woolf’s connection to South America is wholly imaginative and I wondered what people thought of her setting her first novel, The Voyage Out (1912), on a continent she had never visited. However, Princeton’s Maria DiBattista’s wonderful opening plenary set the tone by both insisting on Woolf’s longstanding interest in travel stories from the region and by asking us to leave novelists the space to imagine a place where the imagination can reign, rather than insisting that Woolf’s South America be bound to realism.
I was invited to speak on Woolf’s essays, but my hope was not only to learn more about Woolf’s relationship to Victoria Ocampo, Jorge Luis Borges, and the Sur group, but also to learn what Woolf means to Uruguayan and South American writers today. I came back with more riches than I had a right to expect.
In 1934, the Argentine feminist and intellectual Victoria Ocampo, editor of Sur, Argentina’s leading journal of the time, was in London with her friends the Huxleys. There, she met and struck up a friendship with her literary hero, Virginia Woolf. It was, of course, an unequal friendship, as friendships with heroes always are, but, when Ocampo was inducted into the Argentine Society of Letters, the first woman to earn that honor, she thanked her great-grandmother, Gabriella Mistral, and Virginia Woolf. That friendship and Ocampo’s admiration for Woolf introduced Woolf to Argentina and Latin America: Ocampo’s friend Jorge Luis Borges went on to translate both Orlando and A Room of One’s Own and in the fifties Sur published portions of Woolf’s diaries in Spanish.
What I learned in my brief visit deepened but didn’t answer my question about the Borges-Woolf connection. One paper claimed that Borges’ denials and dismissals of Woolf’s importance most closely resembled similar statements about Dante and Faulkner, two central influences on Borges, thus placing Woolf in the very select group of writers whose influence is so great that Borges cannot afford to acknowledge it. The very next talk argued just the opposite: that we flatter our own fondness for Woolf if we exaggerate her importance. In the end, the speaker argued, Woolf gave Borges a word, vasto: a perfectly good but rare Spanish word, Borges rediscovered it thanks to Woolf’s frequent use of vast, and now, throughout Borges, in Argentina, and across Latin America, vasto is much more common than it once was. One more strange connection emerged as certain: it would be hard to overestimate either Woolf’s or Borges’s fondness for The Purple Land (1885), an anti-imperialist gaucho tale set in nineteenth-century Uruguay by the Argentine-born Anglo-American writer William Henry Hudson.
Whether Woolf’s influence was as vast as the River Plate or as tiny as one of the butterflies sent her by Victoria Ocampo, it was deeply moving to spend three days in the packed 125-seat lecture hall of the National Museum of Visual Arts listening to papers on Woolf and Latin America.
The museum itself is small, with just three galleries, no bigger than the museums of many small liberal-arts colleges in the US. The paintings reflected the powerful influence of Paris: you could trace the history of impressionism through the Uruguayan paintings in the style of Manet, Monet, and Cézanne. The exception was the work of Petrona Viera, whose charming “Mi hermana estudiando” graced the conference poster. Viera’s other paintings on display had the same intimacy and vibrant charm. The daughter of a president of Uruguay, Viera was disabled and homebound from a bout with meningitis. Her parents brought the best art teachers to her and she painted what she could see from the family home. The resulting paintings capture the magical and fragile world of a bourgeois girlhood and made a perfect foil for discussions of Woolf.
The US embassy donated the services of two interpreters, a technician, and all the equipment necessary for simultaneous translation. The burly technician took me under his wing, with regular hearty thumbs up from across the room and a bear hug at conference’s end. The petite, tireless interpreters fought their way through the dizzying process of translating long quotations of Woolf back into English. Only once did they break character and giggle, and that was in the final panel, when the novelist Roberto Echavarren described the importance of Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts (1941) to his Yo Era Una Brasa, a tale of a black lesbian who starts a theater company in the provinces. “I gave her a masculine vagina,” he explained. “It’s an idea I got from an English porno.” It was so unexpected that I got the giggles, too.
I learned about the actor and writer Antonio Larreta, whose book El sombrero chino I purchased in hopes of one day learning enough Spanish to read his two-act play Virginia, and the two stories—one, the imaginary diary of the last three days before Woolf’s suicide addressed to her nephew, Julian Bell who died in the Spanish Civil War, and the other a fantasy of lesbian seduction.
The writer Verónica D’Auria spoke about the Woolfian resonances in the poetic prose of Silvia Guerra and Sabela de Tezano, both of whom were at the conference. Next came Claudia Pérez’s brilliant paper on a necklace of androgynous kisses in the work of Honoria Somers and Alicia Migdal. Migdal’s paper the following day was as good as Pérez promised she would be, elegantly skirting the question of Woolf and lamenting, instead, that she had not chosen the plastic arts and followed the great sculptor Louise Bourgeois.
Migdal spoke on the same panel as Roberto Echavarren of the masculine vagina, the very last panel of the three-day event. The very last speaker of all was the poet Washington Benavides who championed the importance of popular song as resistance during the Uruguayan dictatorship of the 1970s. He gave an elegant essay in three parts emerging from his admiration for Woolf and her diary. He asked us to think first about how we might reconcile the fact of her suicide with all the joy she found in life, invited us to imagine ourselves in a salon with Woolf, and finally to consider Woolf as a writer who, like T. S. Eliot, explores our attraction to the abyss.
When the conference ended, I spent my free day two hours upriver in the tourist town of Colonia in the company of two Uruguayan professors and another American guest. We strolled the charming cobblestone streets, poked in galleries, and, in a music store, bought some Uruguayan music by Alfredo Zitarossa. I began listening as soon as I got home. Full of all the melancholy soul of Jacques Brel with gorgeous lyrics and Afro-Uruguayan candombe rhythms, it was more than I had hoped for. And, to my immense delight I learned that a few of his songs are based on the poetry of Washington Benavides.
Alicia Migdal, Antonio Larreta, Honoria Somers, Washington Benavides, Petrona Viera, Alfredo Zitarossa: These are the names and works that fill my dreams now as I think of the riches that I have returned with from my voyage to the River Plate.