A Journey Round My Skull by distinguished Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy is an extraordinary non-fiction account of the author's diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from a brain tumor in 1936. Tom, the friend I talked about yesterday, lent me the book when we first met many years ago. When I saw the recent New York Review Books (NYRB) edition (featuring an introduction by Oliver Sacks), I knew I needed to reread it and let you all know about it.
Karinthy begins his book with the experience of his first symptom. As he sits in a cafe in Budapest contemplating the next literary work to produce, he hears the roaring of a train. He is surprised; when did the last trains in the city disappear? When he looks up and sees that no one else seems to have heard the sound, it slowly becomes clear to him that he was experiencing an auditory hallucination. As the days passed by, Karinthy's symptoms increased. He continued to hear trains--and those hallucinations were joined by fainting and retching, giddiness, and eventually a loss of vision.
While the topic of this book sounds tragic and depressing, it is anything but. Karinthy is a master at satire, at gentle loving humor, and also at what feels like disinterested character analysis. He doesn't have a shred of pity for himself. His tale is not a simple account of what it was like for him to survive a brain tumor in early-twentieth-century Hungary. Instead it is a sweeping story full of philosophical musings, medical history, personal reflection and analysis, and a great deal of humor. It is the story of a man who is trying to make sense of what is to him a new self and a new world.
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Some of the most powerful discussions in A Journey Round My Skull are Karinthy's stories of how medical professionals immediately saw "a case" rather than "a person" once they heard his diagnosis. Groups of physicians and students would congregate around him, all coming "to join the fun" as Karinthy puts it. "My congratulations! A really admirable diagnosis!" said one physician to another. When the patient raised his voice and spoke up, "it was as if they had only just realized that [he] was one of the party."
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Karinthy's tumor was non-cancerous. Neurosurgeons often avoid the use of the word "benign" when classifying non-cancerous brain tumors since they so frequently have such severe consequences. In Karinthy's case, the expected outcome of his tumor was a quick death. The author recounts how his doctors as well as his friends and coworkers--and even his readers--reacted to his prognosis. These stories are among the most insightful parts of the book.
Like Karinthy, I knew my tumor was non-cancerous. Unlike the author, I went into surgery knowing that the outcome was extremely likely to be a positive one. I had a different kind of tumor--and medical science has changed radically since the 1930s. Nevertheless, I was struck again and again by similarities or parallels in our stories. In my case, my first-year medical student boyfriend suggested the diagnosis and I pooh-poohed it as a variation of typical first-year exaggeration. In Karinthy's case, his physician wife teases him when he begins to suspect that he might have a brain tumor: "You talk like a first-year medical student!"
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Oliver Sacks, the author of such amazing books as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and Awakenings, writes in the introduction to Karinthy's book that the memoir had a profound affect on him as a young boy of thirteen or fourteen. It is easy to see how Sacks's phenomenally humanistic portrayals of how the mind works--and how it can go awry--were sparked by reading A Journey Round My Skull.
As I recovered from the surgery for my own brain tumor and began to regain the ability to read, one of the first books I read was by Oliver Sacks. It was his Seeing Voices, an analysis of the meanings of audiological deafness and its cultural expression (Deafness, with a capital D). His book, along with my deficits following surgery, shaped my life and career profoundly. How incredible that his career was also, in a very different way, shaped by a brain tumor.
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When I told the NYRB twitter team how pleased I was to see their edition, they steered me to an amazing blog named after this book. Make sure you take a look.