This illness memoir was a delightful surprise from New York Review of Books. I was intrigued by the synopsis- 1930s Hungarian writer gets brain tumor and survives to write about it. The intro by Oliver Sacks is lively and shows a deep connection with Karinthy’s text, both as an observer of mental weirdness and as a writer. The translation seems a bit aggressively British sometimes, (too many see heres and old chaps), but seems to catch the voice of the author overall.
Chapter one, “The Invisible Train,” all six pages of it, is fun reading. With a teasing tone, Karinthy describes a day in the life of a working writer, while also telling the story of his first experience with the symptoms of a brain tumor. “And at that moment the trains started. Punctually to the minute, at ten past seven, I heard the first one.”
Karinthy structures the story of his illness in long anecdotes that often end with a wry take on unpleasant situations. These sections, which comprise the first two-thirds of the book, remind me of Mark Twain’s stories. You know that you’re being set up for something during the long descriptive passages and meandering asides and I find that fact to be charmingly old-timey. Less musty are Karinthy’s descriptions of his friends and family. I especially like how he talks about his son Cini (aka writer Ferenc Karinthy) and describes using the child for feedback on his newest pet theories like “a scientist experimenting with a test rabbit,” Cini in Vienna for the first time “manfully” concealing his excitement and “[hunting] about like a puppy in one of Jack London’s novels, and remembered the events of his father’s lifetime as well as his own.” When Karinthy writes about his second wife, a psychiatrist living in Vienna while he stayed in Pest, with fondness, some of the creativeness of this memoir becomes apparent; in actuality their marriage wasn’t very happy (well, according to wikipedia anyway).
This book made me reflect on the influence early psychiatry had on art and medicine in the years before this book was written and our continuing helplessness when it comes to many brain malfunctions. In the chapter “A Meeting by a Death-bed,” Karinthy describes the condition of a patient in the asylum where his wife works. It is pretty bleak, since at the time all the professionals could do for him was keep him sort of comfortable. When Karinthy shows interest in his case, his wife says, “ ‘Now, look here, how many times have I told you to not to show you’re sorry for the patient? It isn’t done. You might be causing him no end of harm.’ ” Chilling!
Late in the book he describes getting his head cut open and his brains mucked about, “these fumblings and creakings, gratings and clicks”—no small feat no matter how observant one is. “More terrifying than any pain was the fact that my position seemed impossible.” And it is the exploration of that impossibility that really made me pull through the final few chapters, as ellipses-filled as they were, to get to that final train ride and thank yous and waves goodbye.