A Journey Round My Skull: Unfinished But Still Love These Oddball Medical Memoirs

From the Publisher: The distinguished Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy was sitting in a Budapest café, wondering whether to write a long-planned monograph on modern man or a new play, when he was disturbed by the roaring—so loud as to drown out all other noises—of a passing train. Soon it was gone, only to be succeeded by another. And another. Strange, Karinthy thought, it had been years since Budapest had streetcars. Only then did he realize he was suffering from an auditory hallucination of extraordinary intensity.

What in fact Karinthy was suffering from was a brain tumor, not cancerous but hardly benign, though it was only much later—after spells of giddiness, fainting fits, friends remarking that his handwriting had altered, and books going blank before his eyes—that he consulted a doctor and embarked on a series of examinations that would lead to brain surgery.

Karinthy’s description of his descent into illness and his observations of his symptoms, thoughts, and feelings, as well as of his friends’ and doctors’ varied responses to his predicament, are exact and engrossing and entirely free of self-pity. A Journey Round My Skull is not only an extraordinary piece of medical testimony, but a powerful work of literature—one that dances brilliantly on the edge of extinction.

My Take: Karinthy is a lively writer. He describes even the most mundane things, such as trying to solve an impossible crossword, with such wit that I was delighted to accompany him on his medical journey. I usually have a horror for descriptions of arcane medical practices (the essay describing Frances Burney's crude mastectomy gives me shivers to this day). However, Karinthy is more concerned with the process of losing his considerable creative talents and of being a patient treated more like a specimen than a human being.

I've had great luck with other medical memoirs such as My Stroke Of Insight and Still Alice(the latter is fiction, but it reads like a memoir). This one just didn't gel. As Oliver Sachs warns the reader in the introduction, Karinthy is a sucker for a lengthy tangent and I started to get impatient. Such a compact little book shouldn't be such a kitchen sink. This book requires a patient reader with a great deal of interest in early medicine and the workings of the human brain.

Also interesting for its portrayal of 1930's Hungarian intelligentsia.

Thanks to Peter for this recommendation!

A Journey Round My Skull/ Frigyes Karinthy / New York Review of Books Classics / PB, 2008


Heather said...

Thanks for your review. After reading one of Sacks books, i added this one to my wish list. It will probably linger there a while yet before I get around the considering reading it. Right now I have a bunch of reading deadlines, this one will wait till i have time to ponder.

John Mutford said...

The way you describe it reminds me of Jan Lars Jensen's Nervous System-- not that I've read either, but they seem to have similar themes.

Ceri said...

Wow, B, you really read those most interesting sounding books. Your blog is definitely one of my favourites.


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