Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Frigyes Karinthy’s brain tumor memoir A Journey Round My Skull - “Who is he, anyhow?”

John Gunther’s memoir Death Be Not Proud (1949), the account of his teenage son’s illness and death from a brain tumor, was one of the small number of actual books assigned by my high school, long long ago, but not so long that a memoir from 1949 did not seem just a bit antique.  Not that I remember it well.  It was earnest, instructive, sad. 

Frigyes Karinthy’s brain tumor memoir A Journey Round My Skull (1937) is a different kind of critter.  Karinthy, in his late forties when he becomes ill, was a comic writer, famous enough in Hungary that his operation was covered in Budapest newspapers.  He has a sense of humor about his illness, a great help in writing a book about it, and presumably in living through it.  And he writes the book himself, so it has a happy ending, for a while, at least.

A true Austro-Hungarian, however the borders have changed, Karinthy spends the first three pages sitting in a café, goofing off, doing the crossword.

And at that very moment the trains started…  Three times I raised my head, and it was only when the fourth train stated that I realized I was suffering from an hallucination.  (“The Invisible Train,” 12-13, tr. Vernon Duckworth Barker)

The interesting thing, from a literary and philosophical perspective, about a brain disease is the change in sensory perception.  We have enough trouble understanding what is around us when our senses work the way we are used to, much less when the brain starts playing tricks.  The subjective / objective split becomes intense.

The climax of the book is Karinthy’s operation, when he is under (only!) local anesthetic, adding another layer of weirdness, and recovery.  Time shifts and is compressed, recurring dreams replace reality, particularly the one described in the titles of Chapter 24, “Half a Dog Running to Telleborg,” in which Karinthy is sure he is half of a dog that has been cut in half by one of the invisible trains first heard in Chapter 1.

This part of the book gets pretty weird.

The following pages came before my eyes like a sequence from a film.  Try as I may, I cannot say for certain whether I has this experience during the operation itself or during my feverish dreams of the next few days.  My excursion in Time (which I shall describe shortly) may have begun at that moment, and is perhaps causing me to place in this chapter a series of pictures which should belong to the next…  In that film, the following sequence appears next, and it is therefore here that I shall include it.  (241)

It is a little apologia for Modernist fiction.  It is the older writers who were wrong, just putting one event after another.

The disease memoir is a well-formed genre now, and the film that most of A Journey Round My Skull resembles, not the weirdness of the operation but the earlier part, the series of symptoms, doctors, and diagnoses, is the last third of Nanni Moretti’s Caro Diario (1993), the brilliant “Doctors” sequence, in which Moretti bravely recreates his own maddening journey through the Italian medical system.

In the middle of the operation, Karinthy interrupts himself with chapter titled “Addis Ababa.”  He checks in on people back in Budapest, his son (“who was now free to do as he liked, was probably enjoying himself,” 227), his friends, strangers reading about him in the newspaper:

At the morgue in the Szvetenay-ucca the corpses were lying peacefully in their zinc cases.  The only sound came from the dripping of ice as it melted under them.  Some of them wore an expression of indifference, and some one of surprise.  ON every face, there was an expression of some kind that had no meaning, as it had no cause.  An attendant had sat down on the doorstep to eat a hunch of bacon.  His companion was reading to him from a newspaper.  When he came to the title of my operation report the attendant cut himself another slice of bacon.

“Who is he, anyhow?” he asked, in a bored tone.  (236-7)

Meanwhile, the Italians conquer Ethiopia.  Disease memoirs are a form of wisdom literature.


  1. Interesting! I hadn't realized he was a comic writer. I had ignored this as a thing I might want to read. Maybe I was wrong.

  2. Right, it's full of detail about the professional life of the comic playwright - he is mostly writing plays at this point - who happens to get sick.

    I don't want to say it's a big barrel of laughs, but it is not grim and not earnest.

  3. a hunch of bacon

    I was unfamiliar with this sense, OED's hunch 3 "A thick or clumsy piece, a lump, a hunk"; the last citation is from 1849 (G. P. R. James Woodman II. viii. 146 A hunch of ewe-milk cheese), so I'm guessing it was obsolete by the time the book was translated.

  4. I had to triple-check my typing with that phrase. Did not look right. The translation is from 1939; I know nothing else about it.

  5. This reminds me a little bit of Ota Pavel's How I Came to Know Fish, a collection of articles from the 1950s and 1960s about, yes, fishing in Czechoslovakia. The tone of Pavel's writing, I guess, is what I find in common with these snippets of Karinthy. Pavel did not have a brain tumor, but he did go mad in the mid-60s and never quite recovered. There's a bit of madness even in his writing about fish (most of the pieces first appeared in the Czech version of Field and Stream).

    Anyway, the Karinthy looks interesting. Thanks for writing about it.

    Have you read any of Bulgakov's shorter novels (The Fatal Eggs or Heart of a Dog)? They're from about the same time period that you're reading around in, I think. You'd probably enjoy Heart of a Dog especially. Karinthy's writing here reminds me of that vein of Bulgakov.

  6. Fishing, interesting. I am not surprised that there is a sensibility shared with some other writers of the region and time.

    I have not read any Bulgakov at all, including the famous one. He sounds like my kinda writer. I am sure you are right.

  7. I read his school stories as a schoolboy. Growing up, I generally disliked children's lit for its condescension but Karinthy wasn't like that. I remember a little play by him about a guy down on his luck showing up at his old school ("gymnasium") to complain they taught him nothing and demand back the tuition fee. The teachers subject him to an exam, give him excellent grades and kick him out. The exam goes like this: "Q. How long did the Thirty Years' War last? - A. Seven meters. - Teacher. Considering that time is essentially the same as space, I take seven meters to be equal to seven years, and considering the time spent eating, drinking, carousing and strategizing, it would be fair to say the essential duration of the Thirty Years' War was seven years indeed... a brilliant answer worthy of a first-class historian."

  8. I am so glad you remembered that Karinthy play. I would love to read it.