04. 10. 2008. 09:55

Gulliver in Hungary

Frigyes Karinthy (1887–1938)

Karinthy is a contemporary author. To put it in a laconic and slightly simplified way, Karinthy created Budapest’s sense of humour, created the absurd and the grotesque. He recognised the eccentric in metropolitan man, and, following the lead of one of his role models, Swift’s Gulliver, highlighted the Chaplinesque minor characters of this ever more technical world.

The reviewer feels in an odd position when commissioned to draw a rough sketch of one of the most prominent figures of 20th century Hungarian literature. It is an odd position, because in many ways the author at issue is a unique figure within the tradition. The task is to talk about a writer and an oeuvre which show perennial popularity even within a solidly shrinking literary culture and without having first to undergo significant philological research. As critic András Beck noted in the late 1990’s, “His contemporaries clearly appear to have been more aware than we are of the special place that his oeuvre occupies in our literature. At least, the ‘Karinthy literature’ produced over the sixty years that have gone by since his death has added fairly little to what had been said about him at that time. Instead of using the contemporaries as a point of departure, these reflections seem to have buried the acute insights and apposite statements of their forebears”. Karinthy has become, more than anything else, a concept, a figurehead, a famous yet nameless creator of Hungarian modernism whose humoresques, short stories and poems have since then risen to the rank of vernacular (!). The childhood journals which captured the turn of the century; the brilliant string of stories in Tanár úr kérem (Please, Sir!) with their stylised school humour, the stylistic parodies of Így írtok ti (That’s How YOU Write), the congenial Hungarian translation of Winnie the Pooh, the blood-freezing, yet hilarious line of observations in A Journey Around My Skull, recently re-published in English: his works crop up like an underground rivulet from time to time in the most varied types of social discourse. Karinthy is a contemporary author. To put it in a laconic and slightly simplified way, Karinthy created Budapest’s sense of humour, created the absurd and the grotesque.
 
Born in 1887, he was clearly a child of the century in an age in which Hungarian literature “came of age” rather rapidly and unexpectedly. While Flaubert’s contemporary in this country was Mór (Maurus) Jókai, Karinthy was more a counterpart of authors like Kafka and Capek. One of the most prominent artists of Hungarian modernity, he captured the spirit of his age with great precision. After the Austro–Hungarian Compromise of 1867, many found it impossible to keep up with the pace of urban bourgeois development, but, seen through Karinthy’s eyes, the new character types within the society of the age acquire a special lustre of their own. A description given by philosopher-essayist Walter Benjamin in “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire” might as well have been written about Karinthy: “the stroller makes the street his abode – he feels just as much at home surrounded by the facades of houses as does the bourgeois between his four walls. To him a bright, enamelled shop sign is at least as good an ornament on the wall as is an oil painting for the bourgeois. The walls of houses serve as his writing desk – he leans his notebook against them; his library is the newspaper stand, the terrace of a café is the balcony where he sits musing over his courtyard. Life can only fully unfold in all its multi-coloured variety and its inexhaustible richness against the backdrop of grey stone and grey despotism. This was the political hind thought in the literature to which these physiologies belonged.”
 
Benjamin’s interpretation also forecasts the genealogy of a nascent literary genre, the feuilleton. Speaking the language of this genre as a native tongue, Karinthy described the eccentrics of the new culture which was unfolding at a rocket speed as he roamed the backdrops of the metropolis. He recognised the eccentric in metropolitan man, and, following the lead of one of his role models, Swift’s Gulliver, highlighted the Chaplinesque minor characters of this ever more technical world. And he did all of this in the frame of a Hungarian reality which showed the consequences of the recent rapid changes, the way in which the political, artistic tradition and the old attitudes had withstood the disintegration of earlier strata of tradition. Landowner and capitalist, moneyless petty nobility and bureaucrat came to share the same sphere of experiences. Leopard skin and top hats, signet rings and double cuffs were having their comic dates in the boudoirs of Budapest.
 
The fact that “children’s books” are so perennially present in Karinthy’s oeuvre can partly be attributed to the fact that what he exposed was exactly the various dimensions of adulthood, highlighting the small-minded and the ridiculous feature of the (petit) bourgeois structure which aspired above all to safety and used its props as tokens of stability. With the wide-eyed curiosity of children, he noticed and noted everything that came his way. In terms of genre, he is one of the most versatile and playful authors. His career is an impressive line of sketches, stage and cabaret scenes, novels and reports. His biggest success was the two-volume collection That’s How YOU Write, in which he holds up a distorting mirror to his Hungarian and foreign contemporaries, including the greatest. His friend, the poet Dezso Kosztolányi wrote about Karinthy, “He exposes something that we had not seen so clearly before. His distorted representations are so thoroughly considered, so hard-wired in structure and texture that the reader experiences the opening of a wide horizon, as though we were somewhere high up, looking over a vast plane from an observation tower. Beyond a doubt, the greater part of readers only noticed the extraneous and the amusing about this genre which became popular so quickly, only the distortion in style. They laughed until their sides ached. ‘What a witty jester to make such cruel fun of everyone.’” What is rarely noticed about these pieces is the acute cultural critique, based on the main intellectual current of the time (criticised also by Karinthy himself), Freudianism. In Civilization and Its Discontents, the founding father, Sigmund Freud claims that mental constructs and objective manifestations of culture are actually means and ways of denial, suppressing and covering up our authentic self. If not in principle, at least in approach Karinthy sees eye to eye with Freud, but while the latter analyses his subject with a tragic accent in value terms, Karinthy sees in it the potential for the absurd.
 
In his confessional short story, “Meeting with a Young Man” (published in English in a collection of his short stories entitled Grave and Gay, Corvina, 1973), he gives a bitter-sweet summary and justification of the fact that he never came to write The Book. Indeed, the opus magnum was never written; however, Karinthy’s oeuvre is replete with splendid crystallising points such as A Journey Around My Skull.
 
A Journey Around My Skull
Frigyes Karinthy’s diary entry for 29th October 1918 includes the following lines, “I feel that when she died some sort of a growth began in my brain or as if a sharp object was jabbed into it. I cannot pull this knife out ever again – for she remains dead.” The lost woman was his first wife, Etel Judik, who died of the Spanish flu epidemic in the autumn of 1918. In spring 1936, a potentially lethal cancerous growth was identified in Karinthy’s brain. This was not the first instance of correct intuition in his life. After a successful operation – performed by the Swedish brain surgeon Olivecrona, the most famous specialist of the time –, Karinthy’s talent seemed to dry up. Then he recognised that the stuff of writing lay not, as the Hungarian saying goes, in the street, but right under his eyes, or rather, in his head. From 1936 onwards, the daily Pesti Napló published instalments of A Journey Around My Skull.
 
As in the case of his other books, the unique quality of A Journey around my Skull is in its approach to the topic. He treats illness in a way which goes against the cultic approaches and novels of 20th century literature. Illness is shown not as a mythical state of consciousness, as a metaphor reserved for a chosen few, but in its physiognomy, as a mutant transformation of matter. Karinthy tracks the growth of the cancer from the first symptoms onwards, registering every detail with minute attention. All the while, he remains indomitably funny. He relates to himself in the same way as he did to the heroes of his works. His objectivity and analytic reflection remain unbroken to the end. He is just as surprised by the appearance of this hitherto unknown world as he was inclined in his stories to notice the reverse side of everything. He is amazed and amused. Illness comes to take its role as the force that spoils life, and the body becomes all but detached from the soul. It is torn by something, it acquires an independent, sick life of its own, even though consciousness carries on working faultlessly, offering experiential evidence of the idea about the duality of body and the soul.
 
The author reports his symptoms and medical history with sublime elegance. He exposes the process without self-pity as the unimaginable and unacceptable ultimately become real. “I know it is lunacy – my education and my positivism protests against it and yet (and superstition of this kind has accompanied me throughout my life) – I am tormented by the suspicion that this thing began when I stated this. This is when the child was born. Not simply ‘then’ but by virtue of being named. Things emerge by us giving them names and thus declaring them possible – everything we consider possible will happen. Reality is created by the human imagination. In our case: research has hijacked it, it has diverted it from other ways, from the real path”, the book states at one point. This quote is another creed – a self-portrait of Karinthy’s less publicised side: the inventive user of language. At the same time, it shows the absolute validity of his thinking in the global literary and philosophical sense; furthermore an attitude which enters into dialogue with contemporary linguistic philosophies and the then latest strivings of the modernist novel.
 
If we place A Journey Around My Skull in a global literary context, we cannot resist referring to another topic of the book: the quality of human life as that of a visitor. There is no doubt that even before this novel Karinthy’s perspective was quite close to this viewpoint. Under his angelic (i.e. Gulliver-like) gaze, the figures he displayed were stripped naked or turned inside out like a glove. The awareness of illness, however, deepened the experience of the transitory to its maximum. In A Journey Around My Skull, the motif of the visitor crops up more like a signal than a leading theme, but this does not diminish its weight as a dramatic insight.
 
Gulliver came, laughed, and bowed down to the ground as did Karinthy in the moment directly preceding his death. He bent down to tie a shoelace, and, bending down to the earth, he returned to it.
 

Lajos Jánossy

Tags: Frigyes Karinthy (1887–1938)