Squeamish? Take heed, this might not be the book for you!:
“A straining sensation, a feeling of pressure, a cracking sound, a terrific wrench,” writes Frigyes Karinthy, who was kept awake during brain surgery, describing the sound his skull made when doctors pried it open. “Each cracking sound reminded me of taking the lid off a jam jar.”
If that hasn’t completely turned you off, pick up Karinthy’s remarkable A Journey Round My Skull, a memoir of the Hungarian author and playwright’s harrowing experience with a benign brain tumor, published in 1938.
The symptoms begin in a cafe in Budapest, where Karinthy is industriously hashing out new ideas for a play. The roar of passing trains interrupts his studies. He looks around, desperate to find the source of the noise, finding no trains or street cars anywhere near his the smoky cafe. This is a hallucination, the beginning of an unraveling that will upend the scholar’s life for the coming months.
He becomes manic, filled with intense ideas and urges to create, but is unable to follow through with his rambling thoughts. He faints. His taste buds lose their sensations. Hysterical blindness follows. Convinced he’s dying, he expresses his concerns to a friend, who waves it off, insisting that he’s merely a hypochondriac.
The problems persist and then worsen. He eventually makes his way to Stockholm, where a brusque world-class brain surgeon diagnoses him with a brain tumor and decides that the best course of action is to remove it.
Though the brain surgery scene is perhaps its the most harrowing (and any fan of medical mysteries will just be enthralled), Karinthy’s sardonic perspective of what it’s like to be a patient is what sets this book apart from any illness narrative before or after. He breaks his visitors down into three types: the jokesters, the ones who try to make you forget you’re sick with quips and lighthearted deflections; the serious souls, for whom Karinthy has the most respect, who can look at illness in the face and not divert their eyes; and finally, the matter-of-fact relatives, who are already asking how large their inheritance will be. Anyone who has been in a hospital bed can see how spot-on these portrayals are.
Still there’s no self-pity here. Nor is there anger. There is an acceptance of the cruel randomness in life — —and a need to see it all, the good, bad, and ugly in humorous terms. This might sound callous, but during the course of Karinthy’s journal, you become so linked to him that when he survives and thrives (spoiler alert, though having written the book is spoiler enough) you’re a little disappointed. Not because he’s doing so well, but because his story will end.
If you don’t believe me, listen to Oliver Sacks, who was so taken with Karinthy that he agreed to write the introduction to the New York Review of Book’s updated edition, published in 2008: “We are inundated now with medical memoirs, both biographical and autobiographical—–the entire genre has exploded in the last twenty years,” he writes. “Yet even though the technology may have changed, the human experience has not, and Journey Round My Skull, the first autobiographical description of a journey inside the brain, remains one of the very best.”