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Brain Salad Surgery, Hungarian Style: Frigyes Karinthy’s “A Journey Round my Skull”

Frigyes Karinthy, A Journey Round my SkullA minor classic of Hungarian literature, Frigyes Karinthy’s Utazás a koponyám körül, or A Journey Round my Skull (1939), ranks fairly high in my personal hit parade of twentieth century literary curiosa. Neither a macabre allegory nor a tongue-in-cheek remake of De Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre, as the title may initially suggest, Karinthy’s last prose work of some consequence, published in weekly installments months before the author’s death, is a witty and impassionate chronicle of Karinthy’s struggle with a brain tumor and the pioneering cranial surgery that managed to rid him of the unwelcome guest. A unique combination of deadpan humor, tragedy and medical lore, it makes for a refreshing if not exactly cheerful literary experience. In a time when cancer memoirs enjoy a certain success, and for a reason, it is inspiring to rediscover a literary progenitor that was neither “poignant” nor “heart-rending”, nor any of the impressive things publishers like to scream at us from back covers, but rather good-natured, level-headed and strangely amusing.

Possibly the most brilliant humorist of his generation and a contemporary of Dezső Kosztolányi, Karinthy was a protagonist of the Hungarian literary scene when a variety of symptoms, ranging from dizzy spells to hallucinations, convinced him that something was amiss with his head. For some reason, including obsession with the fate of a friend, he was stubbornly certain of his diagnosis well before his doctors were: half of the book is devoted to a playful but unfortunately accurate examination of his case for brain tumor. By the time Vienna’s leading neurologists, prompted by Karinthy’s wife, also a neurologist, agree that an occipital tumor may indeed have developed, the reader is painfully aware that this is most definitely the case. A chapter after another, Karinthy toys with his fixed idea, teases his friends with the prospect of his death, and observes the deterioration of his health with a keen interest that is neither the morbid reveling in sickness of fin-de-siècle novelists nor self-pitying introspection. A man of the 1930s and a consummated satirist, he brings to the chronicle of his ailment an ironic and self-composed detachment that has few examples in “patient literature”. This pokerfaced stoicism may be an ex-post construction (after all, you have to be alive to write a memoir), but it rings true, and strikes one as convincing and original.

By far the most beloved and frequently quoted passage of the book is the real-time description of Karinthy’s open head surgery, performed with no anesthesia to minimize the shock of a particularly invasive procedure (anesthetized patients almost never came to at the end of the operation). This chapter is a favorite of historians of medicine and literary-minded doctors: Harvey Cushing’s techniques were not unheard of in the mid-thirties, but still fairly new in Europe, and no other survivor of this rather hazardous and brutal medical act has penned a first person testimony that comes any close to Karinthy’s accuracy and detail. The patient was conscious and awake at all time as Dr. Olivecrona, a Swede, peeled the skin from his skull, cut through the bone with a circular saw, removed osseous fragments with tweezers and incised the occipital lobe to expose a reddish mass the size of an egg. The “thing”. Karinthy didn’t see any of this, of course, but perceived every stage of the operation in the form of curious and peculiar sensations, each and every one documented and described “from the inside” in the book. The convalescence was long and fraught with episodes of delirium and cognitive unbalance, but Karinthy is not afraid to provide a candid and rather unforgiving picture of himself as a stoned and paranoid inmate of the clinic.

A medical protocol and a human document, A Journey Round my Skull is a work of Horatian balance and wit: Karinthy manages to explore the ordeal of infirmity from a physical, psychological, and social point of view without losing his poise and genuine curiosity for man’s circumstances. He and his tumor are the protagonists of the book, of course, but this is not a self-centered memoir. Even the most extreme feelings are recorded and examined with composure, matter-of-factness and a hint of amusement. We are welcome to enter the author’s individual world and empathize with his predicament, we are made privy to his anxieties and perceptions as the story unfolds, but nowhere we feel manipulated and told how to feel. Unlike most surgical patients, as it were, Karinthy is not parading his scars. «Something very peculiar has happened to me, you won’t believe it»: this is the book’s fundamental tone. A conversational gesture, as becomes one of the last coffee-house literary men of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose career was forged in Budapest’s cafés. Karinthy’s dignity in the face of misfortune is in his attitude, in the form of his writing, not in a purely moral and abstract reaction to the mortification of illness. Central European literature between the wars, with its penchant for “Sachlichkeit” and urbane intelligence, has a lesson in store for our age of hyperbole and feeling-mongering.

More or less regularly reprinted, if not widely circulated, in most European countries and the United States, Karinthy’s testimony can be enjoyed in English with a preface by Oliver Sacks or in the particularly sophisticated French translation. Readers with an interest for the unusual and gentlemen who like their literature spiked with a touch of medical history are sure to enjoy this amiable and shocking little piece of work.

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