Turning Kafka on His Head

By Frigyes Karinthy
New York Review Books, 288 pages, $17.95

Frigyes Karinthy, in his day a well-known Hungarian humorist and writer, was in his favorite cafe in Budapest when he heard the roaring of a train that no one else heard. On subsequent evenings his hallucination repeated itself at precisely the same time. He developed blinding headaches, and he also began to go blind—very slowly.

His memoir A Journey Round My Skull, reissued this month by New York Review Books, covers his experience of mysterious symptoms; the diagnosis of a brain tumor; his travel to Stockholm to see a preeminent neurosurgeon; and the successful surgery to remove it. But the greater part of the book concerns his strange avoidance of the gravity of his problem. As if an inverted Kafka, Karinthy wanders from doctor to doctor, looking for one who doesn’t annoy him, receiving no firm diagnosis, making light of his symptoms, delivering himself occasionally of profound but disconnected observations and drifting slowly toward blindness and death without ever losing the breezy tone of a Viennese society reporter.

“Were doctors in Budapest in 1936,” asks Oliver Sacks in his introduction to the new edition, “worse than doctors in, say, New York or London seventy years later? … [O]ne needs to remember … how difficult and delicate an art it was, seventy years ago, to diagnose and locate a cerebral tumor.” This may be true; but this historical truth creates a literary problem. Since his book is a memoir, we know that Karinthy will survive his tumor, and the slow build toward diagnosis and surgery that in a novel would be suspenseful becomes merely annoying. Karinthy’s experiences do not add up to or prove anything in particular; they merely serve as the occasion for his epigrams.

If, however, you can relinquish your desire for its jokes and observations to knit together—if you let go of your natural insistence that the narrator learn something from his experiences, and instead simply allow him to provide you with rich material from which to draw your own conclusions—this becomes a wonderful book. At one point, Karinthy seems almost to propose an argument for this gallimaufry approach: “I felt absolutely at peace,” he writes. “This was no longer my whole life; it was just one afternoon. It might be that I was very ill. Perhaps I was even going to die. Yet this had nothing to do with that afternoon, nor I with the man born to sorrow from the day he came into the world.”

“Throughout nature,” he writes, in another beautiful remark unrelated to its context, “every living body has two aspects—one connected with its private functions and individual life, and one which we may call the sexual. Each of our organs has likewise two aspects, adapted for completely different purposes. Thus, the eye is not merely an instrument of vision, but an alluring jewel, an ever-burning lamp, whose sparkle inflames the opposite sex.”

One more: “Reality as a genre,” he writes, “requires no helping hand from the artist.” As if to bear this out, one year after finishing his memoir of triumphant recovery, Frigyes Karinthy dropped dead of a stroke.


Will Heinrich is the author of The King’s Evil (Scribner). He can be reached at wheinrich@observer.com. Turning Kafka on His Head