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 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, 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.
- Lands of Memory, Felisberto Hernández.
- Piano Stories, Felisberto Hernández.
- The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, Bruno Schulz.
- Charged With Eternity: Quirks and Perks, QQ. A short post on Latin American authors, in particular, Roberto Bolaño’s quote.