Someone, perhaps an American poet of the Beat Generation, suggested years ago that writers and artists should be included in the teams of astronauts sent to explore space. If ever there were a book that underscores the value of this idea - of incorporating the artistic temperament in humanity’s great explorations into the unknown - it is Frigyes Karinthy’s A Journey Round My Skull (translated by Vernon Duckworth Barker, New York Review Books 2008) – a writer’s-eye view of the development of a brain tumor and the subsequent surgery to remove it. Melding philosophy, humor, fantasy, dreams, reflections and sharp insight, Karinthy invites us along on the journey through his grave illness and operation. While the description of Karinthy’s surgery (while fully conscious and with only a local anesthetic) is not for those with sensitive stomachs, one could hardly ask for a more genial and courageous guide to lead us through his hell.
Having just completed the selection of Karinthy’s short pieces, Grave and Gay, I was prepared for his signature sense of the absurd and his wry humor, but not for the enormous leap in sensitivity, maturity and quality between those earlier works and A Journey Round My Skull. The latter is rightfully regarded as a classic, and not only of medical literature. Karinthy provides a remarkably multi-faceted approach to describing not only pathology, but the attendant details of diagnosis and treatment – of arrogant doctors, too-cheerful well-wishers, and all the multifarious indignities of infirmity. Yet he also offers tremendous generosity of spirit, a boldly imaginative ability to view his malady from multiple points of view, and a pervasive attitude of forgiveness and gratitude. For Karinthy, his tumor and illness become experiences of life to be treated with detachment, inquisitiveness, and philosophical inquiry – but never with self-pity.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the brief introduction by Oliver Sacks, whose writing is so often such a joy to read. A couple of careless errors in chronology suggest it was somewhat tossed off. There’s also a regretful omission of one of the more notable bits of trivia concerning Karinthy’s illness as related in the wonderful short biography appended to Grave and Gay, that many years prior to his illness Karinthy had written of the death of his first wife: “I feel that when she died some sort of a growth began in my brain or as if a sharp object was jabbed into it. I cannot pull this knife out ever again – for she remains dead.”
Sacks concludes his introduction by noting as a weakness “a certain amount of fanciful contrivance and extravagance – though this is something that Karinthy becomes more and more conscious of as he writes the book, as he is sobered by his experience, and as he tried to weld his novelistic imagination to the factual, even the clinical, realities of his situation.” I’ll simply point out and forgive Sacks’ slip in implying that Karinthy’s narrative was written in a sort of real time that would allow him to become more conscious of his “extravagance” and more “sobered” by his experience – this is clearly a book amply revised and reworked, in all its fanciful detail, after the fact of the operation. However, I think Sacks makes a rather unfortunate reading of Karinthy – one certainly understandable from a clinician’s perspective, where a more direct and clear patient narrative can be of great help in diagnosis and treatment – but one that perhaps reads Karinthy exactly in reverse. As is evident in Grave and Gay, part of Karinthy’s style and strength as a writer is his refusal to deny any experience of consciousness, whether an impulsive response to some quotidian incident, a dream, fantasy, or even those psychological events that slip into delusion and derangement and border on madness (and in contrast to others who’ve taken a view of madness as exploration of consciousness, such as the psychologist R.D. Laing, who express a more romantic and objectifying view of the mentally ill as pilgrims into the hidden regions of consciousness, Karinthy’s view here is a far more defensible subjective one). The “fanciful contrivance and extravagance” of A Journey Round My Skull – and Karinthy’s ability to tell the truth, but at a slant - are precisely what set it apart from any number of far more pedestrian medical memoirs. Karinthy’s willingness to follow the growth of his tumor with a sense of detached curiosity and circumspect humor, and to admit into his narrative the tatters of dreams and feverish hallucinations - elevates A Journey Round My Skull from an ordinary tale of surviving illness into the realm of literature.
One aspect of A Journey Round My Skull I found personally interesting, given my recent reading, was Karinthy’s slightly abstract effort to link his illness to the dissolution of Hungary itself. Towards the end of the book, he ascribes the development of his tumor in part to the demise of Hungary’s glorious period prior to World War I – that same period so magnificently encapsulated in the snowglobe world of Milkós Bánffy’s Transylvania triology. In conversation with his young niece, Karinthy finds in the destructive forces within his own body an analogue in “the real shipwreck…you must have heard, Nini, of that old Hungary before the war. You’ve probably pictured it yourself as best you could. It was like one of those proud ships over there, with all her canvas swelling to the wind…You have heard how the storm broke, and the ship pitched and strained. You were told how she crashed onto the rocks and lay there, breaking up, with her mast leaning over towards the horizon. That ship was ours, Nini, and she was carrying a fine cargo! I don’t know on what Cape of Good Hope lay the harbor for which she was making, but I do know that we were planning to barter our rich cargo for the diamonds of some enchanted land…Well, Nini, that’s all over and done with. The beautiful cargo is no more – the coloured crystals, the flashing jewels, the perfumed attar of roses. Finished the thousand pretty trifles and the gay knick-knacks…This cannot seem other than an arid island to me.”
Rather than spoil the ending, I’ll simply confirm that Karinthy’s character is hardly one to let such a speech end on such a despairing note. As Dante toured hell with a poet as a guide, so we are led through the awfulness and fearsomeness of illness accompanied by a courageous, uniquely creative, and life-affirming visionary. And if the most obvious value of having an artist along in such a dark and chilling exploration is to provide the humanistic aspect of inquiry often lacking in more scientific, quantitative approaches, Karinthy also reminds us that those artists’ tools of imagination, relentless curiosity and courage to penetrate to the truth serve also as vital tools of resilience and resistance.