Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Disease Week: Frigyes Karinthy's A Journey Round My Skull

Preliminary notes: This is really quite gross in some parts. Also, I have taken dreadful liberties with the quotes and strung distant sentences together in a most unprofessional manner—otherwise this would have been longer, and it's already very long.

I’m not sure why this gruesome book instantly appealed to me when I read a review of it two years ago in Book Forum, but it stuck in my head, and when it unexpectedly turned up at a used book sale last month, I latched onto it and guarded it possessively all the way to the counter. The coincidence of finding it so unexpectedly made me suspicious of further unlikelihoods, namely that there could well be another person in this obscure little town yearning for a 1939 Hungarian brain tumor memoir, and I might have to fight for it. I can say now it would have been worth it. It is marvelous.

I don’t know much about Karinthy, since he was Hungarian and I read a regrettable lack of foreign books, but the internet tells me this much: he was the first person to propose the theory that any two people on earth can be connected in six steps. In other words, without him we would not have The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. However, I believe he had other, more notable achievements, such as being a well-known writer and humorist (or, as someone joked to him, tumorist). At the time of his illness, he was so beloved in Budapest that the newspapers published updates of his ongoing brain surgery in Stockholm. Also, he translated Winnie-the-Pooh into Hungarian.

I would really just like to type the entire book into this box so that you can simply read it for yourself. In addition to having a splendid sense of humor, Karinthy does not gloss over the more vain and silly and superstitious aspects of his nature, without which anyone’s narration of such a trial would be unbearably saintlike. Moreover, his imaginative temperament seems miraculously well-suited to this subject. His account goes beyond the surrealism of simply having a brain tumor to begin with, into hallucinations and dreams that seem like they should be inexpressible—yet he manages to express them. And he manages to elevate episodes of fainting and retching to that bizarre other world in which impossible things, like brain tumors, happen and are nearly fun to hear about. This metaphor is overused, but it’s really like having Dante as a guide through hell.

The process starts out when Karinthy hallucinates the sound of a passing train. This progresses to peculiar sensations of unreality, headaches, fainting spells, and being unable to walk straight. At some point he goes to visit his wife who is studying at a clinic—the sort of clinics they have in Fitzgerald novels—and is shown a few of the unfortunates confined there. After meeting a man with a brain tumor, he diagnoses himself: “The pale, vacant face of the dying man reminded me of my own expression as I had seen it lately in my mirror while shaving. With a foolish grimace, like a man who pretends to belittle some achievement he is boasting about, I said to my wife: ‘Aranka, I’ve got a tumor on the brain.’”

Aranka mocks him for being a hypochondriac, telling him if he had a brain tumor he’d be retching and fainting. He does not mention to her that he has been doing exactly these things, because he doesn’t really want to have a brain tumor. But inevitably, bits and pieces of the diagnosis come together. He ends up back at his wife’s clinic as a patient, a depressing irony: “On that very staircase I had stood three weeks ago. I could not rid myself of the notion that the trouble began only when I spoke about it. Not only was it born at that moment, but as a direct result of my having given it a name. The anxious, eerie sensation that weighed on me as I passed down those echoing corridors was exactly like that experienced by a criminal revisiting the scene of his crime.” Throughout the book he uses a rather clever metaphor of the patient as a suspected criminal. After his first foreboding examination, the doctor wears the “expression a judge might have when called upon in his official capacity to try a friend on some serious criminal charge. For the life of me, I could not defend myself, though I felt certain I was innocent.”

Skipping on, he ends up going to Stockholm to be operated on by a famous neurosurgeon named Olivecrona. I imagine travelling by train from Budapest to Stockholm with a nauseating and disorienting brain tumor must have been pretty awful, but he seems to have slept most of the time and had extremely symbolic dreams. One is a series of vignettes in which he’s looking for something, and although it’s quite obvious he’s looking for his tumor, and he knows it, there’s always something in the way of his expressing it. For example, he has a long discussion about it with Al Capone, who has stolen it and kept it in a strong-box—but “all the time, the rascal would pretend we were talking about the Lindbergh baby.” It’s worth noting that Karinthy read a lot of Freud.

Onward to the grossness! Finally he gets to Stockholm and meets the famous surgeon, Olivecrona. After several days of delusions and increasing blindness, Karinthy gets his operation. He is less than eager to have it because they can’t use anesthesia and he is supposed to try not to pass out. They wheel him into the operating room, whispering together in an aggravating manner. Then they start trepanning his skull to drain the fluid from his brain cavity. This is the part where you truly begin to admire his fortitude: “There was an infernal scream as the steel plunged into my skull. It sank more and more rapidly through the bone, and the pitch of its scream became louder and more piercing every second. I had just time to say to myself that it must be the electric trephine. They needn’t have bothered to be so discreet about their whispering . . . !” I honestly, sincerely, completely unsarcastically cannot imagine not throwing up or going unconscious at this point. And that was just the drilling of a little hole.

Next, Olivecrona removes parts of the skull: “A straining sensation, a feeling of pressure, a cracking sound, a terrific wrench. This process was repeated many times. Each cracking sound reminded me of taking the lid off a jam jar.” At this point Karinthy starts thinking specifically of ways to remain conscious, and begins to be annoyed that no one seems to be paying much attention to him. “How much longer were these gentlemen going to fumble about in my skull? Couldn’t they do me the honor now and again of telling me what they were doing with my head? After all, I had been invited to this party, too . . .” Operating on the brain without anesthesia doesn’t hurt because there are no nerves in the brain, but as Karinthy observes, it doesn’t seem right: “It was impossible for a man to be lying here with his skull open and his brain exposed to the outer world—impossible for him to lie here and live. It was impossible, incredible, indecent, for him to remain alive—and not merely alive, but conscious and in his right mind. It wasn’t decent or natural.” Then he starts thinking about ducks.

He does eventually go unconscious, but the operation is successful, the tumor is benign, and he wakes up later that day. However, it somehow seems to him that twelve days have passed, and he becomes extremely irate that everyone is lying to him about how long he has been recovering. “I felt a bitter grievance against the world. Did they think I was going to swallow anything now, just because my brain had been operated on . . . ?” He is peevishly indignant through much of the book, which is both understandable and amusing.

The tale of woe winds down rather quickly after the surgery. He recovers his sense of taste, and although Olivecrona suspects he will not regain his sight, he regains it while still in the hospital. He becomes teary-eyed at everything, and tries to communicate to a Swede with gestures how beautiful life is. She thinks he wants to know where the bathroom is. He is also reunited with his sister, whom he hadn’t seen since she moved to Norway some twenty-five years earlier. It’s all very nice, which is why you shouldn’t read the introduction, because Oliver Sacks spoils everything by telling you he died of a stroke a year later.

I wouldn’t like to say something as insipid as, “It was all worth it because this is such a remarkable book,” but I do feel that way a little, and I think Karinthy would be tempted toward that interpretation as well, seeing as he spends entire sections talking about how “every life-history is at the same time a novel of a life” and his sustaining “self-dramatizing instinct.” My favorite part of the book is when he tries to impress Olivecrona, and demand his respect for the arts, by putting an unusual spin on the whole tumor business: “Perhaps this mysterious tumor, despite its apparent work of destruction, wanted to become something which would turn out eventually to man’s advantage, but for the present wished its purpose to remain unknown. . . . These tumors might be the first rudimentary attempt, whether conscious or unconscious, at supplying man with some new organ which would direct his evolution on lines as yet unsuspected. . . . Perhaps, acting on secret orders from the pituitary region, it had devised a plan for a new human sense. Perhaps it was preparing an organic electroscope, an organic antenna, or I know not what device . . .”

Olivecrona nods politely and gets away from him as quickly as possible. I, on the other hand, wish there were more.

1 comment:

Ivan said...

I really could have done without the jam jar analogy.