Between Infinity and a Sneeze

On hendiadys, Hernández, and heat in Latin American prose.

The stars we see when we sneeze

Infatuation has been described so many times, you’d think triteness was its middle name. And yet Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández digs fresh channels down which to guide the imagination. The Quote is from the short story The New House, from his book Lands of Memory.

Quote: … she even allowed herself to lower her eyelids. I told my poet friend that when she had her eyes like that her stance was somewhere between infinity and a sneeze.

Felisberto Hernández (1902–1964) was a self-taught pianist who earned his living playing in cafés and cinemas and wealthy private homes, until he finally dedicated himself to writing full-time in his later years. His blend of dream, reality, memory, and magic was a potent influence on many of the Latin American greats, including Márquez and Cortázar.

To my mind, Hernández’s stories have a distinct, viscous consistency—imagine if air were like water, hard to walk through, easy to float in—lacking in the Latin American magical realism that came after him. Maybe lacking is the wrong word: distilled is better.

But, like other Latin American authors, Hernández’s writing radiates heat. Not Californian heat, not African or Asian heat, not even Mediterranean heat. It’s specific and maybe, in some convoluted way, connected to his vision of how magic permeates the ordinary.

The magic beyond the ordinary

The closest to Hernández in the blending of the worldly with the otherworldly comes his contemporary, Bruno Schulz (1892–1942), a Polish-Jewish writer. The viscosity is there, as is a dank European chill.

But let’s leave my literary proprio- and thermoreceptors aside; they bear only limited scrutiny before starting to take false readings.

To get this post back on track, here is another quote from the same short story, about the same woman.

She talked continually and this was fine with me since it concealed the fact that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I was trying to detach her from her words, like someone extracting a sweet from infinite layers of cardboard, paper, string, frills and other nuisances.

What makes the (first) Quote quiver?

The scale that contains both a sneeze and infinity.

Which scale is that? It could be partially temporal: a sneeze is relatively short compared to infinity. It could be partially metaphysical: a sneeze involves a muscle clench, a violent bout of air ash-eeshing out, and importantly, the closing of our eyes, which are the curtains to reality—so a sneeze is a bit like a disconnection from this world and a connection to another (infinite one). Or it’s not. Either way, the scale exists as the Quote made sense.


What is at the core of the Quote?

Hendiadys, partially.

Hendiadys, pronounced /hɛnˈdʌɪədɪs/ and from the Greek one by means of two, is a figure of speech in which two nouns are used instead of a noun and its qualifier. That’s when instead of saying the morning sunlight cheered me up, you say the morning and the sunlight cheered me up. Our case may have been a hendiadys if what Hernández meant was: her stance was that of an infinite sneeze. That too is a pretty and imaginative illustration that fits splendidly.

In general, as is showcased by my banal morning sunlight example, it may be hard to divine whether a hendiadys is intended or not. In particular, magical realism bends the boundaries of language in ways that classical rhetoric has perhaps not envisioned.

Lastly, note that there is a special aura about the words infinity and eternity. They’re like fake glitter you can sprinkle about to sound well-informed and deeply-considered. Only occasionally they become fairy dust and a bridge to places that you—the author—can only see from afar, but your readers may get to live in someday.

Reading Recommendations

  1. Lands of Memory, Felisberto Hernández.
  2. Piano StoriesFelisberto Hernández.
  3.  The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, Bruno Schulz.
  4. Charged With Eternity: Quirks and PerksQQ. A short post on Latin American authors, in particular, Roberto Bolaño’s quote.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

9 thoughts on “Between Infinity and a Sneeze”

  1. There is something prescient in your statement at the end. “…fake glitter you can sprinkle about to sound well-informed and deeply-considered.” You see I feel, when I comment on your ‘quote’ posts, that I say something without actually understanding what the post is really about. But, as I’ve said before, I think, each quote in each post makes me study and strive to reach higher. And then I say to myself, “No John, be yourself. Stive but don’t try to copy.” But I will keep trying.
    Now about the quote in the middle – “She talked continually and this was fine with me since it concealed the fact that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I was trying to detach her from her words, like someone extracting a sweet from infinite layers of cardboard, paper, string, frills and other nuisances.” Is it just me, or does this sound like a very male thing to say? I don’t understand women and I wonder if a woman would say the same sort of thing as that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s kind of you to say … I wonder whether “without actually understanding what the post is really about” is perhaps partly something I can work on i.e. do most of my readers feel lost, but only you dare to speak up?

      I count it as quite an achievement if my posts inspire anyone to strive … Thank you!

      As for copying other people’s work: it’s a conflicting business. Originality is what I strive for, yet through the forest of copied, imitated, emulated fragments I must first traipse. I’m learning to enjoy the process of imbibing the creative output of others and letting it sway me for a while. When the intoxication fades, what remains are influences.

      The second quote is a bit on the male side, I agree. Although it’s also old-fashioned—I’m not sure how many modern, urban male voices would say that (any thoughts on that?) However, it’s likely a matter of nurture, rather than nature. For example, here’s an interesting BBC clip about how adults play with young children (including which toys they offer them) depending on the gender. Teach girls enough times that boys are like candy, and voilà, twenty years later a candy simile from a female voice may ensue!


      1. That is a very interesting clip from BBC. When we were children we had very few toys. So we made use of what we had but I do know my three children had more – too many – and I think we were a little gender specific. But as for your statement “I’m not sure how many modern, urban male voices would say that ” I’m not a modern urban male ( nor urbane ) and as an old male I remember that I have sat and just let her talk as long as she wanted to just so I could watch the face and the smile and the eyes. And I saw a photo of her two years ago and she doesn’t look like she has changed at all. And the last time was 25 years ago. That quote was actually shot like an arrow from that quiver of yours.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s a sweet comment … I’ve left it so long, thinking how best to respond, but there’s nothing more to say. Some memories remain sugar no matter how much time passes, and they make it all worthwhile.


Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: