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A Journey Round My Skull by Frigyes Karinthy
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A Journey Round My Skull (1937)

by Frigyes Karinthy

Other authors: Oliver Sacks (Introduction)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2721168,489 (3.93)33
The distinguished Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy was sitting in a Budapest café, wondering whether to write a long-planned monograph on modern man or a new play, when he was disturbed by the roaring--so loud as to drown out all other noises--of a passing train. Soon it was gone, only to be succeeded by another. And another. Strange, Karinthy thought, it had been years since Budapest had streetcars. Only then did he realize he was suffering from an auditory hallucination of extraordinary intensity. What in fact Karinthy was suffering from was a brain tumor, not cancerous but hardly benign, though it was only much later--after spells of giddiness, fainting fits, friends remarking that his handwriting had altered, and books going blank before his eyes--that he consulted a doctor and embarked on a series of examinations that would lead to brain surgery. Karinthy's description of his descent into illness and his observations of his symptoms, thoughts, and feelings, as well as of his friends' and doctors' varied responses to his predicament, are exact and engrossing and entirely free of self-pity. A Journey Round My Skull is not only an extraordinary piece of medical testimony, but a powerful work of literature--one that dances brilliantly on the edge of extinction.… (more)
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» See also 33 mentions

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Some of the last melancholy pages of Simon Winder’s Danubia read as a lament for the dissolution of Hungarian intellectual life in the conflagration that consumed the Hapsburg Dynasty, and before I read Karinthy’s story I imagined it in that milieu. Taken on its own terms, though, A Journey Around My Skull is a report of one man's disorientation and resignation and resilience, with moments of poetic self-awareness and wry humor and poignant insight and absurd silliness.

In 1930s Hungary, all eras and ages exist at the same time. After alerting his friends to his strange symptoms, Karinthy imagines them in the corner of a café, like a scrum of gyulas, the ancient Magyar counselors who met before a decisive battle to consult auguries and omens and advise the chieftain on the prudent course of action. A beggar with a hurdy gurdy passes by the window; a mechanic at the armaments factory devises a new surgical blade mounted on a swivel. Another friend reminds Karinthy that 20 years before he had written a play about an engineer who invents an aeroplane to fly without a pilot. Before the test flight, as he is wrestling with his fear, he is visited by his alter ego, a doctor from the north who proposes to remove by a delicate operation the part of the brain responsible for the fear of death, located at the back of the skull in the cerebellum. Laid up in his sick room later, Karinthy comforts himself by recalling how Silvio Pellico, jailed for 10 years by the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, stoically resigned himself to his fate. After losing his sight, he decides that he can endure a life of blindness, since he is old enough to have drawn from the world of light all he needs to sustain himself in darkness. Besides, he could finally work in peace without being disturbed.

A short interlude in the middle of the book relates a series of dreams Karinthy has while waiting for treatment: high up in a swaying skyscraper in New York City (a place he has never been) he sits across the table from someone he knows is Al Capone, who Karinthy suspects of having stolen it and hidden it in a wooden box—but it is unclear whether the two of them are pretending to ignore a tumor or the Lindbergh baby; a banquet of tasteless, chewy meat is held in his honor in Ankara; in the Alhambra, hunched over, he studies an anatomical atlas with a glass-like illustration of the human circulatory system that seems to throb and wobble the table.

The cover of the NYRB edition of A Journey Around My Skull by Alice Attie shows a moon-scape head sutured with wire and clamped with threaded knobs to a hatch-marked contraption suggestive of railroad tracks. The cranial-machine vibe carries through the passage describing Karinthy’s surgery at the hands of a renowned surgeon in Stockholm (the whir of electric trephine, ‘the silent rush of liquid over a glass slab,’ ‘the sound of pumping and draining’) like a steampunk version of Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation,” or a scene from Terry Gilliam's "Brazil." ( )
  HectorSwell | May 12, 2020 |
Another worthy reissue from NYRB. A popular Budapest writer grows ill with a brain tumor, and this is a memoir of his experience, from rumbling auditory hallucinations to eventual removal of the offending lump. Peppered with asides, dream reveries, lit references. Medicine in 1936 was so much trial, wait -and-see, guesswork. Wish he'd been a little less vague and digressive in his relating, but otherwise glad he felt inspired to leave us his story. ( )
  ThoughtPolice | Apr 12, 2014 |
É estranho ler as memórias de um homem contando como um tumor cerebral afetou sua vida – especialmente quando sabemos que esse tumor acabou por matá-lo. Mais estranho é que isso é não só interessante, mas divertido, graças à escrita de Karinthy. ( )
  JuliaBoechat | Mar 30, 2013 |
In 1936, Frigyes Karinthy, a famous Hungarian writer and journalist, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Though the tumor was benign, it affected Karinthy’s vision and mental state and would lead to blindness if untreated. Karinthy was able to schedule an appointment with one of the foremost experts of the day, Dr. Olivecrona, and traveled to Sweden for the surgery. He underwent the procedure with no anaesthetic. It was successful and Karinthy retained his vision, contrary to expectation. A Journey Round My Skull is the story of his experiences. While sometimes Karinthy dwells on random matters and can be a bit distant, the book is engaging and well-written with all sorts of interesting fantastical flourishes.

Karinthy starts off by describing the first moment he knew something was off – when he heard a roaring train while seated at a Budapest café. There was no train but Karinthy regularly began to hear the hallucination. Fits of dizziness and vomiting followed with one instance where the world was suddenly off. Several coincidental occurrences – a film he saw about brain surgery, a discussion of tumors with his wife, a psychiatrist – led the narrator to suggest a diagnosis to his doctor. Previous diagnoses had been mild but the symptoms continued. As discussions went on about his condition, Karinthy went to a sanatorium and was finally told he had to have surgery immediately. He describes impressions of Sweden and the doctors which leads up to several chapters of his experiences during the surgery. He also describes his recovery.

Karinthy spends time on some things that I felt weren’t too important – lots of travel time for example – and occasionally doesn’t give his thoughts on motivations (why the delay in telling his family – certainly there would be reasons, but he doesn’t give them). The writing is appealing and surprisingly light. Karinthy has imaginative descriptions of his symptoms – the hallucinations, the moment when it seems like everything is wrong. He includes comic moments, like the scene where he describes his visitors to the sanatorium or a council meeting of doctors. There are also some unexpected flights of fancy, like when Karinthy pictures the life of a sanatorium inmate, relates confusing dreams, describes a possible meeting with death, and, when he is being operated on, has a vision of floating out of his body and looking down on the surgery. One chapter also describes how nonfiction can be stranger than fiction and the process that the author used to reassemble his memoirs. ( )
4 vote DieFledermaus | Jun 10, 2012 |
In this book, Karinthy, a Hungarian writer, describes his diagnosis of and surgery to remove a brain tumor. Strangely enough, given the subject matter, it is a delightful read. Karinthy's sparkling personality and self-deprecating humor never desert him. He is a talented writer with an original way of saying things, and he never bores.

Poking a little fun at the world-reknowned surgeon who will operate on him he says, tongue in cheek: 'I found it a little humiliating that he was not interested in my own views about my condition. He probably regarded me as a layman who had no opinions on such matters, or perhaps, having heard that I was some kind of poet, he was on his guard against the vagaries of an overheated imagination.'

In fact, Karinthy tries to keep his imagination in check: 'When I put my questions, I used medical terms....I did not ask her what the cowering, terrified Being that lurked somewhere behind my tumour was so plaintively asking below the threshold of consciousness. I did not ask whether the patient screamed like a wild beast and struggled to escape when they split her skull open, whether her blood and brains came pouring out of the wound or whether at last the victim fainted on the torture rack, gasping for breath, with mouth open and staring eyes. Instead, I questioned her about the operation as if it had been some delicate experiment in physics or a job of repairs by a watchmaker.'
(This is about as gorey as the book gets, BTW).

As a writer, he came to realize that, 'for the first time in my life, I was to observe not for the sake of recording that personal vision which the artist calls 'truth'...but for the sake of reality, which remains reality even if we have no means of communicating its message. Never had I been so far from a lyrical state of mind as in this, the most subjective phase of my life. ( )
1 vote arubabookwoman | May 9, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Karinthy, FrigyesAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sacks, OliverIntroductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Rényi, AndreaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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