A Journey Round My Skull

If one could extract the subplot from Hannah and Her Sisters involving Woody Allen’s hypochondriacal brush with mortality via a possible brain tumor, then hand those pages to the team of Franz Kafka, Robert Benchley, and Isaac Bashevis Singer for a rewrite, one might possibly get back A Journey Round My Skull: a surreal, absurdist, yet philosophically and emotionally deep and fancifully antic meditation upon death and life. Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938) had gained literary fame in his native Hungary for a wide range of literary material. At age 48, he was prosperous and complacent, a prolific craftsman. Then came a baffling array of symptoms, leading to the diagnosis of a brain tumor. This book is the narrative of those days — which he survived, only to die of a stroke shortly afterward. Karinthy’s book captures and captivates our interest on two levels. The medical drama is the obvious surface attraction, full of suspense and intellectual puzzlement along the lines of the great Berton Roueché’s “Annals of Medicine” tales in The New Yorker . The vivid journalistic account that progresses from onset of symptoms to diagnosis to treatment to recovery allows the reader to enjoy a vicarious passage through the fires of illness. Charming period details (imagine a doctor today taking time out for a game of chess with his patient!) contrast with instances of mere flesh and blood overcome by beauracracy that still ring true today. (In matters of health insurance, we should all be as lucky as Karinthy, who found a sympathetic Countess to foot all the bills.) But even more intimate and alluring is the self-portrait of the man and artist, and Karinty’s droll, wistful, sardonic observations on our debauched and glorious human nature. Anatomizing human foibles and virtues, he acknowledges his own vain Imp of the Perverse that made him fight treatment for so long. (Decades before K�bler-Ross, Karinthy charts the Five Stages of Grief.) Then he imagines what a fellow writer will think upon hearing of Karinthy’s illness: “What a piece of luck! Providence had created so that that obituary notice might be written?. Perfect!” Unsentimental yet heartfelt, Karinthy’s observations recall his analysis of his particular personality: “Every minute I am obliged to concentrate on my whole life.” This account is indeed a whole life distilled into its most crucial moments.