Monday, December 13, 2010

Frigyes Karinthy, Grave and Gay

“When was I right, when I said yes, or when I said no? I only know it as an irresolute man knows counting his buttons: ‘Yes, no, yes, no,’ who says yes or no – with decision when he comes to the last button, but who knows in his heart that he only said it because it was the last, and not because he believes that it told the truth.” 
              - Frigyes Karinthy, "Days," from Grave and Gay.

Here is an intriguing curiosity I picked up in that particularly lovely and lucky manner of making new literary discoveries: finding it on a shelf in the library near to something else I’d been seeking. Frigyes Karinthy was already on my radar screen; his best known work, A Journey ‘Round My Skull, a patient's eye view of Karinthy’s own brain tumor and the operation to remove it, has been on my list of books to read for some time. But I knew little about him or about any other works he might have written. A Journey ‘Round My Skull is technically not even fiction, so I welcomed the surprise of finding Grave and Gay, a collection of translated short fiction pieces - a surprise then magnified by subsequently learning that Karinthy wrote some 40 novels and 2,000 poems. (What is it about these prolific Hungarian authors? The introduction to my copy of Gyula Krúdy’s The Adventures of Sindbad states that Krúdy wrote some 50 novels and over 3,000 short stories - so take that!).

Grave and Gay consists of a few dozen short selections arranged thematically and translated by a handful of different translators (published in 1973 by the Hungarian publishing house Corvina). Based on this brief collection, and if forced to play the game of making comparisons to other writers, I might describe Karinthy as an amalgam between Kafka, Borges, and Thurber. The terrific short biography provided in the afterword to this volume also links him to Stephen Leacock, a comparison I found particularly apt in that the stories share Leacock’s sense of absurdist, situational humor. Karinthy, however, is far more blackly comic and psychological. These stories are mostly simple conceits – a man who mistakes a lunatic for a psychiatrist; a condemned prisoner grateful to the guard for waking him up from an awful nightmare on the morning of his execution; a hell in which the greedy are punished by being forced to use up all the commodities they’d hoarded during the war. At the same time, Karinthy’s writing crackles along the edge of sanity, drifts into irrealities and dreams, and sends off charming sparks of imagination: in one story, a character explains the red of firemen’s uniforms as a biological adaptation to allow them to blend in with the color of the flames. Women, alas, do not fare so well in Karinthy’s world; there’s a misogynistic element to some of the stories I found deflating, including one in which the narrator attempts to rub the layers of make-up off the face of his lover and keeps rubbing until her head is gone, at which point he realizes he can now take advantage of her body (only to find that the layers of clothing she wears are like onion peelings with, at the center, nothing). Karinthy is at his best in the pieces that don’t try to navigate the differences between men and women. The brief story “Skirmish” is as compact and powerful an anti-war piece as anything by the War Poets, but with a degree of outrage at the fundamental cowardice behind war – soldiers sent to die for others unwilling to fight for themselves – that makes Wilfred Owen’s sarcasm at an epigram like “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” seem almost benign. The centerpiece of Grave and Gay is the book’s most lengthy story, “Two Ships,” a fantastical, Borges-like inquiry into the necessity of imagination, in which Christopher Columbus and the alchemist Sinesius debate the flatness of the earth as they sail together on Columbus’ first voyage out across the Atlantic into the unknown. This story alone – a departure from the sketch-like quality of many of the other selections - merits the price of admission. Karinthy is a writer well worth exploring. 


  1. Karinthy's name definitely rings a bell with me, but I can't recall where I've heard of him before. Anyway, his stories sound intriguing - I like the idea of exploring the borders between reality and the imaginary world. The story describing the punishment of the greedy in hell reminds me of one of the pieces in Silvina Ocampo's collection, Thus Were Their Faces (which I'm just dipping into at the moment). In the Ocampo piece, Heaven and Hell are full of things from the earthly world. When someone dies, they are asked to choose the things they had preferred during their life, some of which will be in Heaven while others will be in Hell. It sounds simple, but things aren't quite as straightforward as they appear at first sight. I hope to write about the collection at some point, not sure when!

    1. Jacqui - how gratifying to receive a comment five years after posting! You've probably heard of Karinthy's most famous translated work, A Journey Round My Skull, his marvelous but harrowing first-person description of brain surgery. I wish, though, his stories were better know. He's a splendid story teller, and apparently wrote hundreds (if not thousands) of short pieces. "Two Ships" is a story that should by all rights be widely anthologized.

      I love the conceit in that Ocampo story; her stories are definitely on my to-be-read list. I look forward to seeing your post(s) about her.

    2. Oddly enough I don't think it was the brain surgery one. I have a feeling it was short stories!

      Ocampo's stories are great - they're full of devilish mischief and strange, dreamlike imagery. I think you would like them very much. It might be late August/early September by the time my post goes up as I'm only part way through the collection at the mo.