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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

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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. ( )
  JamesMScott | 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 |
Who did the photo editing for this particular New York Review Book? My God, it's dreadful, and by far the most off-putting aspect of the book. The book itself is a fascinating autobiographical account by a well-known member of Hungary's pre-WW II literati who discovers that he has a brain tumor. The text itself is an interesting blend of travel writing, medical memoir, cultural observation, and philosophical inquiry. Karinthy is interested in the effect of his tumor on everything, not just himself. There's an interesting passage on the reporting of his surgery in the Budapest newspapers, and the effect it has on a number of his friends and coworkers. He was a popular figure at the time in Hungary (1936) because of both his books and journalism. In fact, because so many physicians were in his circle, he was actually impeded from getting a speedy diagnosis. Karinthy self-diagnosed rather early on. His medical friends, including his wife, when he told them of his conclusions were always 'Oh, come off it!' Today we have MRIs and CT scans. Diagnosis is fairly easy, if not simple. For Karinthy in his day there were no such technologies. The diagnosis was made by inference and it took a long time. The neurologist Oliver Sacks provides the introduction here. For him, a clinician who writes highly readable popular books about the brain, Karinthy's penchant for "long digressions, philosophical and literary" and "a certain amount of fanciful contrivance and extravagance" are faults. My view is otherwise. I see these flights as providing fascinating insight into the mental and emotional status of the writer. I adore Sacks' own books and have read them avidly, but here is a more literary alternative to his staunchly clinical narratives that I find both compelling and page-turning. Especially enjoyable are the glimpses of cafe society before WW II in Budapest, Hungary; the walks Karinthy takes through its streets. Karinthy survived his surgery and lived another two years before dying in 1938 of a stroke. He did not live to see the Anschluss or the German entry into the Sudetenland. He was never to know how the Nazi threat would unfold and all but destroy the continent. Naturally, he was seriously preoccupied; nevertheless, I find his obliviousness to the growing threat of fascism fascinating and it has made me wonder if it wasn't perhaps indicative of a broader mindset. The Spanish Civil War is never mentioned. There is no criticism of the Nazis here, just a sense of eerie foreboding when he finds himself passing through Germany on his way to Stockholm for the surgery (performed by the pioneering Olivecrona). Highly recommended though not for the squeamish or faint of heart. ( )
1 vote Brasidas | Aug 17, 2010 |
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The author's account of his own life when he was suffering from a brain tumor.

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