In newspaper articles, essays and lectures, or as translator and one responsible for literary selections, I have had ample opportunity of presenting to Hungarian readers a good many English novelists and poets. I have always regarded this as an exciting and pleasurable task, one which I am glad to undertake any time. As a matter of fact, it is not unlike the task which faces the returning traveller: to give an account of impressions obtained in a distant and strange land, on behalf of people who have already gained some idea about that strange land from travellers who were there before you. You do not therefore have to begin your story by interpreting fundamentals, struggling to explain generalities, or delving into things that must be evident at first sight. In nearly every instance, you can take for granted a knowledge of at least some basic facts of English literature and, even, history and society (as a rule, much more than that) in the same way as you can depend upon the elements of arithmetics, which are, after all, the foundation of even the most complicated higher mathematics. Readers in this country who cuddle up with a modern English novel or read an essay on, say, the Angry Young Men will have reached this stage after a considerable amount of previous reading—comprising, in the case of the average reader, certainly Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray and Scott; probably several modern novelists like Wilde, Priestley, Huxley, Greene and Bates; a couple of Shaw's plays; and undoubtedly at least a few poems by Burns, Shelley, Byron and Keats, for these poets are taught in the schools. But those now studying Shelley at school will recall Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver, Robin Hood and Treasure Island; and when, years earlier, they read these latter books, they already looked upon Mowgli and Winnie the Pooh as friends of long standing.
A traveller giving account of his recent discoveries consequently has a relatively easy job. It is not difficult to induce a public already won over
from the first to acquire further knowledge—if for no other reason than because, for the last two hundred years, scouts on the Hungarian cultural scene have traditionally been scanning contemporary foreign (among them English) literary horizons for works that merit being translated into Hungarian. The traveller’s task is facilitated, of course, by the circumstance that he can address his countrymen in his native tongue, using native literary concepts and idiom and being fully familiar with the demand be has undertaken to meet.
On the other hand, having grown tired of the centuries-old one-way literary metabolism under which Hungary resigned herself to being only an importer of intellectual assets, we are now making attempts to “gate-crash” foreign markets and as a result find ourselves confronted by the paradoxical but unhappily far from negligible fact that, on the literary map, the road from Hungary to Britain is many times shorter than the road from Britain to Hungary.
Hungarians have over the centuries beaten a well-travelled path to English literature, but English return travellers on the literary road have been few and far between to this day. No doubt, there is something a little odd about the zeal with which we are interpreting and translating and flourishing our classic authors (whom the world has somehow managed to do without so far), pouncing on an English interest that is little more than well-meaning indifference. We can offer no other excuse than that we are aware of this fact, but are prepared to go ahead none the less, since we cannot do otherwise. For we firmly believe that Hungary’s national lyric poetry is one of the richest in Europe and that at least a dozen of our 20th century works of fiction deserve to be known throughout the literary world.
Unfortunately this is by no means an easy task. For the non-Hungarian reader, our history, our traditions and our language—the trinity in which most literary ouevres are embedded (the more outstanding the deeper)—are a quaint curiosity, an impenetrable medium, a fact which only increases the need for interpretation. Presumably, a sizeable portion of our classic literature must in any case forever remain immured in the prison of the Hungarian tongue. In this country, eminent practitioners of Hungarian have for centuries evolved binding standards of perfect accuracy, both as to content and form, in translating foreign literature and have achieved astounding success. You can, however, scarcely expect equally ranking men of letters of big nations to devote time and energy to so complicated and badly-paying a task as mastering Hungarian to the point of being able to render our classics in their native tongues. Thus, in our efforts to win international appreciation for Hungarian literature, we cannot rely solely on
natural selection, according to the universally accepted norms of measuring literary value—the choice is bound to be governed also by the criteria of translatability and intelligibility. It is a specious argument to say that masterpieces are of necessity supra-national and at all times easily intelligible. In order to be able to appreciate the Divine Comedy, educated people of all European nations have gladly made themselves acquainted with all the intrigues of Italian medieval history, of Florence and the Papacy, and learned the names of a legion of petty plotters, nor have they hesitated, when faced with the bloody incidents and episodes of Shakespeare’s English Histories, to look up their encyclopedias, thus meeting the author half-way by assuring him of maximum effect. Yet whereas we Hungarians have readily, and with a confidence and conviction inherited from our forefathers been training ourselves into appreciative readers, we have not been repaid with equal confidence. Naturally, we are well aware that Italian and English history is one thing, and Hungarian history another: the former are more or less equivalent to European history. Still, Europe is inhabited not only by history‑making nations but also by those who were the suffering objects of that history‑making process and who, having survived it, are now asking for the floor in order to reveal the reverse of the medal: Europe as they have seen it.
I do not know if there exists in English literature a magic word of the kind Karinthy’s name represents for Hungarian readers. Splendid humorists and dazzlingly protean, ever restless intellects, learned encyclopedists and excitingly imaginative story-tellers, shrewd satirists and deeply sensitive lyricists, chatty reporters and bitter thinkers, believers and sceptics, are plentiful in English literature, but Karinthy was all these combined and many others besides. In him, Hungarian literature came of age at the beginning of the century by learning to ridicule itself, and it was partly through him that Hungarian fiction, humorous as well as serious, shook off the lingering provincialism of the Mikszáth era: in him the adolescent city of Budapest, hectically growing into a metropolis and emerging as the hub of the literary revival, found its self‑respect. To Hungarian minds, his name—the magic word—involves all these things, in addition to the irresistible laughter, rapturous thrills and pangs and poignancies which his life-work represents.
Hungarian literature at the turn of the century, ruminating on its laurels of half a century before, was stuck in the stagnant waters of epigonism. However, modern bourgeois development, so long retarded, had for several
decades been forcefully advancing in every sphere; Budapest was in the process of feverish growth; and conditions were rapidly approaching the point where Romanticism (which had well outlived its day), the worn and trite themes of a heroic national past, and anecdote-ridden 19th century fiction, would be replaced by a new literature adapted to the exigencies of modern times. First came the pioneers: mostly highly gifted young men from the provinces—like Sándor Bródy—who raised journalism to a metropolitan level and founded a naturalist prose and drama which were concerned with novel social problems. They were followed—at about the time Bartók and Kodály were on their first tour of villages, collecting folk tunes—by a new generation of writers of decidedly radical views, whose movement united diverse trends of opinion and aspirations and presented a well defined program advocating social as well as literary reforms (and, later on, even embracing the revolution). This generation—to name only the most important—included Endre Ady, the symbolist, revolutionary poet, their leader; Mihály Babits and Dezső Kosztolányi, great poets as well as prose writers; Gyula Juhász, melancholic poet of the Hungarian countryside; Árpád Tóth, this sensitive poet and masterly translator of English and French poetry; and, last but not least, Zsigmond Móricz, a naturalist novelist at the beginning of his career, but later the greatest figure of Hungarian realism. For their ideals and models they looked to western Europe, as was evident even in the title of their magazine (Nyugat, The West, 1908‑1941), a periodical which for over three decades was the centre of power on the Hungarian intellectual scene and a school that trained successive generations of writers.
It was with that first great generation that Frigyes Karinthy appeared on the literary scene. He made his début with a remarkable work—a volume of pastiches, literary caricatures on contemporary Hungarian writers. The book was an instant success—at one go, Karinthy won the lasting affection of the public. Entitled “The Way You Write” (Így írtok ti), it was prefaced as follows—
A party of soldiers are out on rifle practice. It’s not a particularly good show. The corporal swears, blusters, abuses the soldiers. At last, he snatches the rifle from the hands of one of them.
‘Ah, you’re all a bunch of wash‑outs,’ he cries. ‘Watch!’
And he takes aim, fires—and misses. He gets flustered—but only for a moment. Recovering his presence of mind, he turns to one of the rookies.
‘Now that’s the way you shoot.’
He takes aim again—and again misses.
‘That’s the way you shoot,’ he says to another.
At last, at the ninth go, he hits the target.
‘And that’s the way I shoot!’
The ninth shot is yet to be fired. The corporal’s hands still tremble, but his eyes now see the target a shade clearer.
The genre was not unknown, either abroad or in this country: very many parodies, travesties and persiflages had been written before Karinthy by numerous authors, among them writers of such diverse artistic tempers as La Bruyère, Flaubert, Proust, Leacock and Alfred Neumann. Those parodies, however, did not go beyond imitating and ridiculing the style—especially the mannerisms—of this or that given composition, mostly without touching the contents and ignoring the writer himself and his particular image of the world, as well as his oeuvre as a whole. Karinthy boldly went farther than that and actually created a new genre in which he wrote real little masterpieces. For him, the target is not the individual composition, but the whole oeuvre—i.e. the writer himself—and not merely features of his style. His first pastiches were published in comic papers, and were framed in humorous fiction of himself, the youthful writer, trying his hand at the whole gamut of possibilities and styles of writing before getting down to writing his own big novel. However, his extraordinary sense of style and humour and his active power of empathy soon enabled him to master the art of imitation. But as he aspired to higher things, the “frame story” was soon discarded, and from the steadily thickening later volumes of his collection of caricatures, his wasteful hand weeded out those pieces which were no more than parodies ridiculing particular compositions. The real Karinthian caricatures are miniature portraits, character drawings or criticisms, condensed into a humorous form.
After writing a series of caricatures of Hungarian writers, he proceeded to draw the portraits (sometimes in several versions) of a number of foreign authors—primarily authors that were fashionable in Budapest at the time. Of British authors, he treated Defoe, Dickens, Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace, H. G. Wells and Oscar Wilde and, in the field of drama, Shakespeare, Galsworthy, Edward B. Sheldon and G. B. Shaw, while America is represented by Sinclair Lewis and Eugene O’Neill. In trying to make a selection
for our English readers, we found to our astonishment and regret that none of these caricatures could be translated into English without substantially impairing its humorous quality. Karinthy’s is humour of the highest order, modern, sophisticated, playful, and, as such, is strongly tied to the language in which it is written; as often as not, his ridicule is directed at himself no less than at his subject. Each caricature is full of brilliant plays upon words and other linguistic acrobatics, flashes of wit, grimaces and absurdities; some of them—without thereby doing the least damage to the emerging over‑all image—spring topical allusions at you, or references to things Hungarian, allusions to contemporary public figures or to Hungarian imitators of the writer in question. In most cases, the very names of the characters and the titles of the works contain either an allusion of this sort or a pun, and so, in most cases, it would be futile to try to translate or even suggest them.
And yet, in a shot at the almost-impossible, we have had one of the most delightful pieces of “The Way You Write” translated—a caricature of Zola, containing comparatively little linguistic spoofing and all the more masterly bull’s eyes illustrative of Karinthy’s method.
Of course, Zolaesque naturalism, with its crass exaggerations, its naïve rediscoveries (a reaction to the bashful naïveté of Romanticism), and the clichés and mannerisms with which Zola’s vast oeuvre inevitably teams, offers rewarding material for caricature. Here too, Karinthy does not tilt his pen at any particular work of Zola’s, but at the writer himself and, above all, his Rougon-Macquart cycle.
What we get in this caricature is by no means just a distortion of style. Karinthy offers us a novel in miniature, complete with a “plot,” and all composed in Zola’s style, mingling plot with exposition, descriptive detail with theorizing literary insertions, representation with flashback in the peculiarly Zolaesque manner. The very milieu—a public convenience in Paris—is a caricature of the Zolaesque theme in itself. The “plot,” in its ludicrous absurdity and nonsensicalness, imitates the writhings of the impulsive Zolaesque heroes. The suspension‑pointed oaths—which actually are no oaths at all—are not just humorous somersaults, but represent a jab at the ridiculous prudery of contemporary book publishing. A vast arsenal of distortion is displayed in the details: "flowers of all sorts and denominations were breathing secretions of scent; and larks suffering from venereal diseases were whimpering on the branches of the trees” (italics mine)—absurd degradations, a parody of naturalism; “a piece of the pulpy mass got under Gervaise’s nails. That day, at the grocer’s, Old Fouan’s rat started to retch”—the contrary of degradation; “I’ve brought the oil, Ma’am,’ he said, and the whole place
resounded with his own voice, which issued from his powerful and somewhat frayed-out throat, through his mouth” cocks a snook at naturalism’s naïvely fervent and sciolistic rediscovery of life’s obvious facts; “Farther down the street, three metres beyond the stairs, there was a slightly worn cobble-stone, surrounded by several other cobble-stones. At the right-hand corner of this stone, peering back over his shoulder towards the cathedral, visible here through Rue de Bombarde, and twirling his moustache, stood a tuberculosis microbe”—is a sneer at Zola’s micro‑ and macro-cosmically angled, naturalistic descriptions; and so on. Never a superfluous detail, or a kill-joke exaggeration; every means made to serve the end; and in the witty concluding sentence, Karinthy is free to give the reader the glad eye: Zola, pulled to pieces, has been laid out for all the world to see. This caricature is enjoyable even by one who has never read Zola. Nevertheless, if he happens to despise the writer he sets out to caricature, Karinthy can be far more scathing even than that. He is responsible for the by now proverbial saying (which ought to be the maxim of every comic writer), “I’ll stand no nonsense about humour.”
Karinthy was twenty‑five years old when the first edition of “The Way You Write” was published (1912). This collection of rollickingly funny caricatures, which included all contemporary Hungarian writers of note, radicals and conservatives alike, paved the way for the aspirations Nyugat stood for. Although Karinthy’s mockery did not spare his own friends and comrades‑at-arms either (he himself belonged to the Nyugat coterie), from his caricatures one can tell quite unmistakably the writers he loves and appreciates from those he despises. The book was a tremendous success (to this day, it cannot be reissued or reprinted too many times and in too large editions). It was these caricatures that introduced a large number of fun-loving readers to the new great writers of the time; after enjoying the caricature, their natural curiosity made them want to know the original too. In this way Karinthy recruited large numbers of admiring readers for Nyugat’s writers. In a Karinthian caricature, not only can readers recognize the writer-subject; they can get to know him as well. Numerous are the writers, Hungarian and other, whose works have long since been forgotten but whose names and, more, entire character, favourite themes, and atmosphere are well remembered by the public from Karinthy’s masterly bull’s eye hits. Often, Karinthy’s caricatures have proved more valuable and more enduring than the originals they were meant to ridicule—therein lies the significance in Hungarian letters of this splendid little humorous history of literature, which consequently far transcends in importance Leacock’s and other authors’ seemingly similar writings. For instance, if a Hungarian reader wishes to know something about Georges Olinet, a now forgotten sentimental French
novelist of the late 19th century, he will find a perfect portrait of him in Karinthy, and as he reads the tears will stream from his eyes—with laughter, for the original would, today, scarcely be capable of bringing tears to his eyes.
With “The Way You Write” Karinthy at once made his mark. He became a regular contributor to big dailies and periodicals, and the same year he rushed into print with another two books. Amongst his friends—novelists and poets who contributed to Nyugat—he was the only native of Budapest, and he became, along with Ferenc Molnár, the first truly metropolitan writer in Hungarian literature. His was the typical literary and—which was almost equivalent at the time—journalistic way of life of the period, that of the coffee‑house. He and his friends would go to a café (he was a habitual visitor of three “literary cafés”) in the afternoon and stay there far into the night or, as was more often the case, until the small hours of the morning. Here they would while away their time debating, telling jokes, pulling each other’s legs and reading out their literary products, playing their exciting, bizarre and sophisticated parlour games, writing and courting, reading books and playing at cards. It is a mystery where, when and how—with all these pastimes and other occupations—they managed to write their extensive oeuvre. From a contemporary and friend, Milán Füst, a bizarre-toned, modern mystic poet of Nyugat, comes this description of the youthful Karinthy—
He wore an orange-coloured coat (it must at one time have been a livery or something) which did service as top-coat. The sleeves of this overcoat were indeed a little too long, and when he was off his guard, they would reach down to his fingers; so whenever he was very intent on explaining something, he would have to push them back a bit. His shoes were quite good enough—I can’t deny that. But again he was wearing—God forbid!—a pair of ducks, a new one, and holding nonchalantly in one hand a tremendous yellow glove, and in the other—alas!—again an iron cane resembling a fishing‑rod.
‘You cling to that very much?’ I asked him hopelessly, pointing at the iron sceptre.
‘Yes,’ he owned, proud and firm. ‘I like it.’
‘But,’ I tried again, ‘perhaps ducks aren’t quite the real thing this time of year?’
‘Why not? And what about those who haven’t got trousers at all? Or who have got a pair with one leg only?’ Karinthy opined.
‘That must be rather awkward,’ said I, desisting from raising any
further objections, of course. You couldn’t. I just cast a reproachful look at his untimely straw-hat.
However, the bohemian exterior hid an artistic sense of the highest order, a vast and many-sided learning, and a legion of plans of ambitious literary works. He did not mean to become a humorist. That his image in the public mind to-day survives, nevertheless, primarily as that of a humorist is due, besides his instinctive playfulness, his natural bent for mockery and his brilliant sense of humour, to a collection of about six hundred short humorous sketches, many volumes of one-act comedies, skits and longer pieces of humorous writing—all written in his unceasing bitter struggle to make ends meet. Of the caricatures in “The Way You Write,” he had this view: “For my part—although this is irrelevant—I don’t mind admitting that I would rather no trace should be left of my having lived and written than only have it remembered that ‘The Way You Write’ is associated with my name. It would be painfully embarrassing to me if this book came to mean more—if only in the annals of day-to-day happenings—than it has ever meant to me.”
English readers may find it hard to understand how it was possible for a popular and prolific writer, who published at least two books a year, to be plagued permanently by financial troubles. Yet they did plague him—and not only him, but all those of his fellow-writers who lived only by what they wrote. In Hungary, maintenance of a rather modest and none too secure ‘middle-class’ way of life—a three‑ or four-room flat, a wife and one or two children, a maid, café-going and buying books, summer holidays on the shores of Lake Balaton and, once in a while, an inexpensive trip abroad—called for a tremendous lot of work and involved bitter struggles and often distressing sacrifices of one’s artistic ambitions. Owning a car, a yacht and a villa fell to the share of only a few privileged pet writers of the regime, or authors of best-sellers, who readily conformed to low tastes.
The writer was a veritable drudge to his publisher, to whom, in most cases, he was compelled to sell—“in perpetuity”—the copyright of his works, both those already written and those to be composed in the future, so that the royalties he would receive from the numerous reprints were diminutive. To be able to make a living under the circumstances, leading writers of the time, like Karinthy, Zsigmond Móricz, Dezső Kosztolányi, Gyula Krúdy, Lajos Nag and others, were compelled to engage in multifarious literary and journalistic activities to an almost inconceivable degree. A quiet creative life, free from financial worries, from the rat-race and petty skirmishes of day-to-day existence—a way of life which is an important,
even if external, condition for the creation of grand epic writing, of the grand novel—was inconceivable in Hungary. Martin du Gard’s or Thomas Mann’s captivating accounts of how and under what circumstances they prepared themselves, through years, for writing their great works—of how they collected, arranged and shaped their material before completing, first, the detailed plan, then, after more years of systematic, slow and concentrated effort, the work itself—tell of things that, to Hungarian writers, were a pipe dream quite beyond their reach. It was by writing mostly short pieces, by embarking on quick-paying projects, and tackling simultaneously a hundred kinds of work in four or five genres at a time, that Karinthy and his contemporaries stormed the heights of immortality. This diversity, no doubt, was the lever that enabled the ‘secondary’ genres—represented by short stories for the press, columnist’s glossaries, reportages, humorous sketches, skits, chansons, essays, critiques and literary translations—to reach a hitherto unattained level in the Hungary of the inter-war years. Yet no great epic synthesis within the frame of a single work took shape for the very reason, among others, that it was impossible for it to take shape among the countless masterpieces these splendidly gifted authors produced.
On the face of it, Karinthy seemed to enjoy this harassed mode of life. We have it from his contemporaries that disorder and lack of organization were his life-giving element. He was eminently capable of working in cafés, even while engaging in conversation: his last work—the autobiographical novel “A Trip Round my Skull” (Utazás a koponyám körül)—which is his most splendid and, perhaps, most perfectly wrought work, was written at his customary table in the Café Central, on the back of bill slips and on paper napkins. He was exceedingly adept at improvising and would find momentary and quick solutions for his persistent financial worries by dashing off a humorous sketch, music-hall skit or newspaper article, forever putting off his more ambitious plans. Now and then, however, he would admit that all his life be had been tormented by compunction on account of the “great work” which was clamoring to see the light of day, but which he never had the time to write. Not long before his death, in his last book, he wrote: “Throughout my life I have been haunted by a vague feeling of having some business to attend to, of having left something behind, something I ought to go back and fetch. Of having omitted something, the most important thing at that ... This nagging, urging feeling has often haunted me, But what is this business I ought to attend to?” It is this self-reproach, the tragedy of the poet, constrained to do acrobatics, that he expressed in one of his finest short stories, the poignantly dramatic Circus (printed elsewhere in this issue).
Karinthy was bounteously endowed with all the essential qualities which might have allowed him to become one of the great satirists of all time. And yet he has written few satires in the true sense of the word, having squandered his talent on short pieces of humorous writing. In this latter domain, however, he has left behind him innumerable little masterpieces. For decades he satisfied the need for humour of a big metropolis all by himself, creating in the process, almost from scratch, countless types, basic situations and techniques—in fact, a whole arsenal—of humorous prose. He has practically worked up all possible themes of humorous prose. Even today, a quarter of a century after his death, his influence is well-nigh paralysing. Hungarian humorous literature ever since has been nothing but the aping, the continuation and repetition of Karinthy, and since his day, no Hungarian humorist worthy of the name has ever approached him. Most likely it is his spirit that feeds, through a ramified system of hidden capillary vessels, the legendary “Budapest humour”—the modern, anonymous folklore of a city which, though sorely tried, has preserved its apparently indestructible capacity for fun—which reacts with amazing promptitude to every new event, every new development, by spawning stupendous quantities of jokes, and whose pertness, cynicism and vitality belong as inseparably, to Budapest as do the yellow tramcars that run through its streets or the Chain Bridge across the Danube.
The hundreds of humorous sketches he has written embrace, in their themes, all the aspects of the educated, modern big-city dweller’'s life. Politics, war, love, marriage, jealousy, society, society life, natural sciences, Freudism, snobbery, the press, literature, philosophy, public life, various types of humanity, human relations, popular customs, the relativity of values, the trifles of everyday existence, or the Big Questions of Life seen in the distorting mirror of humorous degradation—it is well‑nigh impossible even to enumerate each of the themes he has treated in his sketches. His method is based on shrewd observation, an unerring selection of characteristic features, extraordinary imaginitiveness and maintenance of the right proportions in ludicrous distortion, and a startlingly original presentation. On the whole, the characters of his humorous sketches are not realistically drawn figures, but characters (suggested by a few characteristics) personifying various human qualities. Yet the situation—within the fundamental absurdity—is a realistic one. Karinthy has tried his hand at innumerable other varieties, each funnier than the other, of the relationship between absurdity and reality. His bizarre ideas, absurd situations and brilliant observations are without number. His comprehensive knowledge of psychology, high erudition, and extensive conversance with the natural sciences,
as well as his superb linguistic artistry, are all important factors in his humorous sketches, a few dozen of which, I am sure, are unique in their kind throughout world literature.
A great many of his sketches are based on the extremely simple—yet very profound—idea of the naïve believer who either refuses or is unable to recognize that life is all lies, base deception and compromise. Believing—we bear witness to the effect ourselves by laughing over it—is in itself something funny and pathetic. This sharpened contrast forms the basis upon which is founded the little sketch “There’s Something Fishy about my Wife.” The whole point lies in the husband’s inability to believe that he is being cuckolded. Akin to this naïveté is the innocence of the child who has not yet got over the stage at which one tries to take notions at their face value. This sketch—“An Allegory about the Writer”—again treats what is in fact a weighty issue. For is there a parent who has not yet been confronted with the dilemma of whether to give his or her child the idealistic or the realistic interpretation of ideas, considering that, in real life, these two interpretations have now drifted miles apart and the original notion is covered by a thick fabric of lies woven of conventions, make-believe and interests.
Many of his sketches deal with lunatics, whom—like modern psychology—he regarded as the extreme and deformed personifications of human possibilities and whom he deeply commiserated and respected. He can achieve extremely ludicrous effects through a modern variety of the animal fable, placing various animals in human situations, or having a centipede soliloquize or letting a pearl-oyster call on Rockefeller in order, personally and without the intervention of middlemen, to sell him the pearl he has toiled so hard to produce.
“Talk with a Good Man” belongs to still another group of sketches. Here, chatting during the torture procedure as if they were gossiping in the street, are “that honest fellow” of an executioner and the dutiful victim of the Inquisition. Commonplaces here acquire creepily grotesque overtones, and at once the trivial, everyday fact that man may be tried and tormented by man is turned upside down and becomes an absurdity. “Privisinszky” stands on the borderland between the humorous sketch and the light humorous essay (very many of Karinthy’s writings are such marginal cases, blurring the boundaries of different genres). You can never be the first man in a woman’s life: you are always preceded by someone else, a mysterious young man with a jaw-breaker name—it is a profound truth. And finally, “Mr. Selfsame,” this bitter little satire—a universal history of all revolutions seen through the eyes of a Budapest humorist, on one and a half pages.
There is a certain point beyond which—metaphorically speaking—the
atoms of humour cannot be broken down. Its roots reach down into the irrational and the subconscious: we laugh, but we cannot tell the reason why. Karinthy knew the psychological laws governing such laughter very well and, wherever this was possible, made the most of his knowledge. Alas, the modest selection offered along with this article is—due to difficulty of translation and considerations of space—scarcely capable of conveying to English readers even a faint idea of the protean wealth of Karinthy’s humour. Perhaps the most splendid effort produced by Karinthy the humorist is “Please, Sir” (Tanár úr kérem), a cycle of humorous sketches containing a masterly treatment of the schoolboy’s universe, his mentality, his joys and sorrows, his ties and anxieties, written with classic psychological precision and a nostalgic feeling that gleams through the author’s magnificent humour. Again, most of the sketches resist attempts at translation, because of the author’s lavish use of contemporary Hungarian school cant. Even in this latter day, more than forty-five years after he wrote them, Karinthy conjures up with astounding wizardry the great experience common to us all, those unforgettable years at school: the excruciating anxiety of being late at school, when you went slinking down silent passages and heard through the doors of classrooms the faint humming of pupils and the clearer voices of schoolmasters lecturing; the mortal fear caused by unexpected oral questioning; the first, innocent advances to girls, who seemed to be wreathed in a strange mystery that was at once attractive and repellent; the desperate efforts to explain away, for your parents, your baddish school report; the enchanting rot you wrote in your monthly tests; the entire bewitching atmosphere of those long-past boyhood years. One of the superb pieces of the cycle is the one entitled “The Form Splits with Laughter” (Röhög az osatály). Who among us can fail to recall the days when for some mysterious reason every boy seemed to be possessed of the devil and riotous spirits gave birth to some marvellous pranks in that strange little community of extremely complex structure? For instance—
Then someone invents the following game. You pick out, say, Auer, who happens to be engaged busily writing something. You run up to him, out of breath, in an apparent fever about some happy tidings, and grab him by the arm. “Come on... quick. . .” you splutter at him, and drag the fellow along with you. Auer is completely flustered. “Wha—what’s the idea? What's happened? Where’re we off to?” he asks, stepping out briskly, excited and alarmed. Never replying, you drag him along, panting, towing him down the passage and rushing with him up the stairs to the third floor. Motion pictures of a variety of possible explanations flash
with lightning speed across Auer’s mind. His uncle has arrived from America. The head’s sent for him, because the masters have held a conference where it has been agreed that this fellow Auer’s quite an exceptional genius, such as the spirit of the time brings forth but once in each century, and so his school certificate plus a scholarship of one thousand crowns will be handed over to him forthwith, accompanied by a festive speech, to be delivered by the headmaster in the common room. The Minister of Education has sent for him; he is now in the common room, has specially come to see him because someone has submitted to him Auer’s latest test-paper on Hungarian Literature, which having been read amid tears in Parliament, he has now come as the representative of the Government to shake hands with Auer. The drawing master has sent for him, for a wealthy art patron has by chance seen his free-hand drawing in sepia entitled ‘Stylized Shape of Leaf’ and proposes to purchase it for thirty thousand crowns and set it up at the City Park Gallery. ‘I’ll let him have it for twenty thousand,’ Auer reflects hurriedly as they reach the fourth floor, out of breath. Here, the dispatch-runner, who until now has never spoken a word, lets go of Auer’s arm, and starts quietly down the stairs. Puzzled, Auer turns after him. Down below, clustered at the bottom of the stairs, is the whole class to a man, roaring with laughter. For a minute, Auer stands rooted to the spot. “Idiots,” he says angrily, then starts his ignominious descent. Two minutes later, be fairly bursts his sides with laughing as he watches Roboz being taken through the same procedure.
Here, as in so many others of Karinthy’s writings, reality clashes with dream—derisive reality with the grotesque and yet touching soaring of the young spirit that knows, as yet, no restrictions. The story continues: one of the boys sits down inside the new litter-bin—quite a roomy chest in fact—and pulls the lid over himself. At a given signal, the boys become quiet, and rise as if to greet their master.
Zajcsek pokes his head out of the bin in alarm, under the impression that the master has entered the room. Howls of laughter. Contemptuously, Zajcsek spits across the rim and disgustedly pulls the lid on.
And now, suddenly, the master actually does enter the room and innocently begins his discourse on the virtues of Emperor Joseph II of Hapsburg.
And now begins a class of horrible agony. The whole form is one great quivering diaphragm pressed downward with absurd force by deadly
laughter. Glowing checks throb with the hot fever of stifled mirth, and temples swell. The boys pore over their desks. Silence, at bottom of which lurks the ghastly spectre of a possible explosion of mirth, is singing provokingly in our ears. And there are some desperate, dare-devil cads, in the back rows, who deliberately stretch the critical atmosphere to breaking-point. Little Löbl has gone down on all fours and is creeping about in a leisurely way under the desks. He has crept all round the form and got hold of our legs one by one. The litter-bin stirs suspiciously.
Meanwhile the master goes on with his lecturing, and the tension keeps mounting.
My eyes all but pop out of their sockets. Now ... this is the end... one minute more... now the explosion will come ... At this moment, the master indulges in the following pleasantry.
“I say, Auer,” he remarks. “Youd better stop squirming and wriggling like a cheese-hopper!”
No author of slapstick comedies ever had a like effect upon his audience. The cheers that greet this are like a swollen river bursting a dam. Relieved and wheezing, we howl and shriek for several minutes. The master looks on amazed and smiles indulgently: he comes to the conclusion that he is possessed of a keen and irresistible humour.
The two selections given in this issue from “Please, Sir” are by no means the most successful, only the most easily translatable, sketches of the cycle. The time may come, however, when Karinthy will find a congenial English translator who will be able to see and interpret his linguistic tours de force, just as he himself was a magnificent Hungarian interpreter of the humorous writings of Swift, Milne and Leacock.
Although there are among them quite a few pot-boilers, most of Karinthy’s humorous sketches, embodying as they do the intellectual conception of a restless inquiring, sophisticated mind, were intended to convey some earnest message. The seeds of serious thought hidden in the depths of his playful or satirical sketch-themes would at times sprout a short story or even a novel, thus proving that the humorist, the thinker and the novelist worked in the same fine material. There are in many of his sketches flashes of potentially magnificent satires. Reading them, we are constantly
aware of the presence behind the humorist of a strict rationalist philosopher who speculates on ponderous problems; who would like to believe and for that very reason is a sceptic; who unceasingly probes the relationship between man and nature and between man and man or the many preposterous laws of time and society, with a view to discovering the possibility of a happier and freer human society.
As a thinker Karinthy was a rationalist, an unquestioning believer in and ardent advocate of the natural sciences and technology. The cinema and aviation, for instance, were two absorbing interests of his—he greeted the first silent motion picture in an essay and was on board the first rickety Hungarian aeroplane during its first flight, after which he wrote enthusiastic reportages and poems on his experience. He held liberal views on society, and was an individualist and a pacifist. He wanted to probe everything to its depth, was always in search of explanations and hypotheses, was hostile to obscurantism and mysticism (except—as in his short stories—where he created them specially, for demonstrative purposes), and hated superstitions. He had an unbounded belief in human cognition, and in his articles and short stories he probed—amateur though he was—the distant future and ultimate issues of the natural sciences with remarkable foreboding. All his life he was preparing to write his Great Encyclopedia, which, in this chaotic century when words have long since ceased to conform to the notions they were invented to convey, would have offered a new, bold interpretation of this world that would have served to eliminate the tormenting relativity of things and values. This relativity claimed his attention with particular force: “Everything Is Different” (Minden másképpen van) is the title he gave to a volume of brilliant articles in which he tried to get to the bottom of this problem, searching for those fixed points which might provide a foothold for the man of our time, threatened as he is by mortal perils and disabused of all his beliefs.
He aimed at a synthesis that would embrace everything. His inquiring mind and imagination, which, unlike his contemporaries did not get bogged. down in things Hungarian, went a long way toward expanding and enriching the gamut of themes treated by Hungarian literature: he introduced into it the desires, the entirely novel anxieties and the scepticism of Modern Man.
Ever aspiring to higher things he once confessed: “I have written up every subject as best I could—Flying Man, the Motion Picture, the Book-I-have-read, the Friend-I-have-known, the Woman-I-have-loved, the Child, the Stars... But that for which I sought you out, dear Editor, about fifteen years ago, the things I really wanted to say, I have not been able to utter, And I am still incapable of uttering it. . .”
The First World War was a turning-point for Karinthy. His individualism and rationalism, his love of freedom and his humanism rose up against the horrible blood-bath and the jingoist claptrap, which, for periods of varying length, went to the head of many a fellow-writer; for war-mongering in literature was rampant throughout Europe at the time. Never for a moment did Karinthy fall for the beating of the war-drums. In 1917, he wrote the short newspaper story “Barabbas” (an English version of which appears in this issue), a magnificent little essay on mass psychology and, at the same time, a bitter heart-searching, in which he exposes the tragic failure of the pacifist struggle against war. The tone of despair in his earlier anti-war writings has here been dropped; and in this powerfully symbolic tale he formulates with ruthless pessimism the great Truth: the peoples do not want war, have never wanted it, and yet they have become its tools. Less than 29 at the time of writing, he already showed himself a mature artist, a master of succinct representation that confined itself to essentials, of symbolic concentration combined with a peculiar gift for evocating atmosphere.
He wrote numerous short stories, feuilletons and other newspaper articles against the war, bringing into action his most effective, most destructive weapon—his humour. “Simple Simon’s Encyclopedia” (Együgyű lexikon) a lengthy sketch, for instance, offers the following definition of a soldier:
SOLDIER (cf. ARMY).—A constituent part of the weapon known as Rifle, designed to pull the weapon’s trigger at the right moment, thereby causing it to go off. This operation is performed by three fleshy, finger-shaped excrescences that fit close to the trigger, which they press. The S.’s are turned out on the basis of domestic manufacture on Government commission, by skilled and qualified artisans—the so-called Mothers—whose craft, under State supervision, is kept operating round the clock... The S’s, as turned out by the mothers, contain some parts which do not answer the purposes of the State and are, in this crude condition, unserviceable as yet. Such parts are, inter alia: appetite, thirst, weariness, vivacity, zest for life, thoughts, plans and self-confidence—all of them a corollary of hurried and imperfect manufacture and either totally unsuited for, or constituting a downright impediment to, the aforementioned purpose, i. e. the pulling of the Rifle’s trigger. To make them serviceable, crude S.’s, fully-built at 21 are conveyed to state-run mills, where they are put through a process called drilling (cf. OIL REFINERIES, FORGE)...
Otherwise social problems failed to appeal to him, or they did so only on a universal and abstract, philosophical plane. A substantial part of his entire lifework is centred round the complex problem of Time. At the beginning of the Century of Technology, following the new inventions that were making such a determined bid to conquer Space (radio, automobile, airplane), somehow—especially after the astounding lesson drawn from the theory of relativity—Time too seemed to fall within the compass of man’s possible conquests. This was indicated not only by Wells’ time-machine but also by the novelists’ changed approach to Time, an approach that with a light gesture has knocked to pieces, turned upside clown, and jumbled conventional fiction-time—a faithful copy of the chronological order of real-life happenings. It has thereby opened up new ways—new dimensions, as it were—of representation, particularly in the works of Proust and Joyce—and, at the same time, to a less important extent, of Gyula Krúdy‑‑and later of V. Woolf, A. Huxley and others. At Karinthy’s hands, even topsyturvy Time was turned into an instrument of passionate speculative research. To say nothing of countless humorous sketches in which, by playing on different variants of the idea of the time-machine and flitting backwards and forwards in Time—into the past or into the future—he finds some excellent opportunities for poking fun, Karinthy has written short stories of a kind hitherto unknown in Hungarian literature—for instance, on the primeval world, selecting the dramatic moment when man for the first time picks up a weapon, or when Adam finds Eve, and so forth. His excursions into the future are in a similar vein.
Towards the end of his life he wrote a fantastic novel, Mennyei riport (“Celestial Report”), on a scientifically envisioned other world, on dimensions beyond the earthly three, in which he plays with the idea that the Past actually continues to exist, only in a different dimension from the Present, and that, somewhere in a fifth or sixth dimension, there is also to be found the imaginary heaven of each single human being, and so on. Incidentally, in this somewhat desultory and eccentric novel he contrived to voice, sub rosa, his protest against the growing menace of fascism: his hero disgustedly roams the Germanic heaven of a fanatical German spiritist. And—perhaps most meaningful of all—the hero, a British newspaperman called Merlin Oldtime, finds his Virgil in this strange other world, personified by the great eighteenth-century French rationalist, Diderot.
For Karinthy’s thinking was influenced largely by the French rationalists of the eighteenth century and—especially in his youth—by Swift (the subject of one of his essays), H. G. Wells, Strindberg, Freud and Weininger; but above all else, it was shaped by natural science, which, both as theme and
as material, he introduced into Hungarian belles lettres. In his makings, the thinker in him determined the writer of fiction and of plays, and even the poet. In all these genres, his sole, absorbing interest was the universe of abstract, philosophical and scientific problems, such as the relationship between the sexes, time, history, freedom, the other world, dreams, insanity, technology, relativity and human society. Two remarkable, bizarre experimental novels, continuing the voyages of Swift’s Gulliver, constitute bitter utopian satires. The first—Faremido—takes us into the wise, unsentimental and just world of inorganic existence, of machines superior to man, who is shaped out of perishable matter. In this world of machines, speech is replaced by music—the machines communicate with one another in musical phrases (hence the title—the name of this strange land, in musical idiom—Fa-re-mi-do). They have created a perfect harmony of community life such as the perishable, inferior earthly world is incapable of building up. At the time of writing (in 1915), Karinthy still looked to rapidly developing technology for a solution to the crisis of human society.
His other Swiftian satire (incidentally both satires also represent excellent parodies of Swift’s writing), Capillaria, is a statement of Karinthy’s pessimistic and slightly romantic views on womanhood. His original shyness towards women, combined with Strindberg’s then fashionable views and, even more, with Freudism. and with Weininger’s scientifically-based misogynic fanaticism, grew into a self-contained philosophy. At this period, he regarded Woman as a sensual, emotional, non-reasoning creature, the tyrant of reasoning, Man the fighter and builder, and also as the root of all social evils. In Capillaria, a submarine female empire, women devote themselves entirely to carnal pleasures and feed on the brains of the midget males, by now degenerated into mere genitals. But even here, he cannot refrain from lifting the Gulliverian mask to make grimaces at war. The story opens with Gulliver being called up to serve as surgeon on the S. S. Queen, which is subsequently sunk by the Germans—that is how Gulliver arrives in the submarine empire.
The novel is preceded by a preface in the form of an enthusiastic letter supposedly addressed to H. G. Wells. The author here gives a witty statement of his views on women. “When I am alone in a room,” he writes, “I am a human being. Let a woman enter, and I forthwith become a man, And I am as much a man as she who has entered the room is a woman.”
These Swiftian satires—belonging to Karinthy’s juvenilia—are naïve works which can be enjoyed today only as something of a curiosity. Strindberg’s and Weininger’s views are by now antiquated, small wonder that an English version of Capiillaria received little notice.
Karinthy’s pessimistic views about women find expression in several later writings. Incidentally, all his short stories served to demonstrate some abstract idea, scientific thesis or passionately maintained principle, or as a deduction from some experiment or utopian idea. Most short-story writers have the essential gift of narrative, descriptive art, and they may never achieve an abstract formulation of their message. Their theme—and, within it, their message—lives in the story-teller’s mind, embedded in and inseparably linked with his memories of real happenings and real characters, there is consequently almost no need for abstraction on his part: the narrative flair and the time-honoured tradition of creative work of this type will take care, as the story unfolds, of the typical, the essential, the things to be represented. By contrast, there are many writers in whose writings realism is supported by speculative elements of a high order. Karinthy belongs to a wholly different category of writers. He tells parables, expounds theories, and it is to develop these theories that he casts about him for stories, characters and situations. He does not portray flesh-and-blood characters, nor does he bother to give a description of milieu beyond what is absolutely necessary for achieving his effect. This passionate and dialectic way of seeing things has no use for details, and filters them out of the picture. What he writes is not—nor was it intended to be—realistic in the customary sense of the term. He brushes aside the laws of mundane reality and—sallying forth into fantasy or dream or technology or lunacy, or moving on some of the “planes” of time, or, quite possibly, without any apparent reason, but simply taking his theme for granted—searches for more remote, more universal laws, for which his characters are merely props. Mostly, the abstract quality of his characters is indicated by their very names. This abstraction is evident, not only on the plane of philosophical themes that probe the boundaries of existence, but also on that of more commonplace themes. Under the title “The Protean Soul” (Az ezerarcú lélek), he wrote a fantastic tale about a scientist who invents and carries out on himself a modern version of metempsychosis. Seated next to his apparatus, he kills himself, and immediately his soul passes into the dead being nearest to him, restoring it to life, and thence into a dried flower. From the flower, the soul finds its way, via a number of animals, to a battlefield, where it creates great confusion among the soldiers during a hand-to-hand engagement, by making the corpses jump to their feet, one after the other. Finally, as an enigmatic world power, it appears before the President of the USA and attempts to put an end to the world war. Another weird tale, “The Story of the Mesmeric Death” (Novella a delejes halálról), is about a young man who discovers with dismay that he has developed a capacity for
causing instantaneous death almost against his will, by a mere angry look. One might mention many more stories on similar lines; however, in the age (and, especially, the country) of science-fiction, they would, perhaps, strike the reader as somewhat out of date, even though none of them was written as an end in itself, for the sake of the fantastic, but in exposition of some far loftier thought.
I shall only touch upon two more of Karinthy’s numerous short stories. The heart-grippingly beautiful Circus—here reproduced—is no less a parable than the other stories; nevertheless, the seemingly rather commonplace clown-theme has a quite peculiar and very strongly personal lyric quality, being a commentary on his own tragedy—and, perhaps, that of his generation. The young man of the dream has to go through an excruciatingly long and arduous training, enduring many sufferings before be finds an opportunity, at a moment of appalling difficulty, to produce the violin be has been concealing under his singlet and play upon it, at long last, the beautiful melody which, long, long ago, he once heard singing and sobbing in his heart. This dream is not just a lament upon a writer’s cherished project, unrealized because it is unrealizable; it is a lament upon all man’s hopes that have never come true, an infinitely sad and gripping story and a beautiful symbol—perhaps one of the highest achievements in short fiction this century has produced.
The thematic kinship between Karinthy’s Circus and Franz Kafka’s celebrated two-sentence story, In the Circus Gallery, is striking. In both stories, the theme is the human anguish that lurks behind the performance, the invisible and greater achievement. Although this similarity of themes is wholly fortuitous (for there is no evidence to suggest that Karinthy knew Kafka when writing The Circus), this short story may supply eloquent proof to English readers that Kafka’s and Karinthy’s anguished, modern visions spring from a kindred intellectual make-up.
The other short story adds yet another touch to the image of Karinthy, evoking, as it does, the author’s youth—a theme he treated innumerable times and in hundreds of different ways, always with nostalgia and lyricism. “Meeting with a Young Man” (Találkozás egy fiatalemberrel), the author taking a walk in the streets one afternoon, runs into a young man who is none other than himself as a student. The ardent youth puts some awkward questions to the self-complacent, well-known writer, calling upon him to account for the ambitious plans of his younger days.
“What about your flying-machine?” he said in a husky voice.
“Er... Well,” I said, stammering in embarrassment, “Can’t help
it... it’s been invented. Farman... the Wright Brothers. I was there... But those people have done a pretty good job of it, believe me. Not bad at all, on the whole—er—You can fly it, you know. . .”
“I see,” he said, sneering. Then again he looked at me.
“What about the North Pole?”
I cast down my eyes.
“A certain Peary has reached it. I just didn’t have the time. . You were wrong. . . You can’t do everything yourself... I attended the university at the time. . .”
“Ah,” he said.
“What about Hungary, proud and free?”
“Well, you see... Odd that you should ask that, really... We are working towards that goal, I and other people. Still, it isn’t something you can do overnight... After all, you’ve got to make a living too.”
Then this apparition of a young man speaks as follows:
“You shall remember this last meeting of ours. And if you still retain, something of me in you, dip your pen into the fire of the westering sun: and describe how I have walked out on you, how I have vanished. . . young, handsome and infinitely free, never to see you again …”
This urge to discover and to see is, more than anything else, characteristic of Karinthy. In his work, he honestly faces all the mysterious and alarming question-marks of life which stare Twentieth-Century Man in the eye on every hand. His oeuvre is not based on any coherent system of thought, for he had too much of the author in him to be completely a thinker (as he was too much of a thinker to be a hundred-per-cent writer). But precisely because he stood on the borderland between author and thinker, he was able to put into words, in his peculiar way and at the intellectual level of his greatest contemporaries, the pervading anguish and disillusionment, the beliefs and disappointments, with which the literary masterpieces of the modern world are charged. Unlike Kafka, he comprehended all this in a keen, intellectual process, and formulated it in Hungarian, thus becoming perhaps the most European, most universal, writer in Hungarian literature.
Two volumes of poetry—‑also awaiting adequate translation—are a peculiar alloy of the same intellectual quality and an urge for self-revelation. Karinthy wrote vers libre with a quaint, hectic rhythm, poems that contain a good deal of sophisticated play and many ideas, such as are, indeed, foreign
to lyric poetry. In these verses, as in all of his work, the mind reigns supreme; all the same, the true lyric poet does at times break forth with impressive sincerity.
In March 1936, Karinthy developed a cerebral tumour. The diagnosis made an operation imperative. Friends and fellow-writers raised a fund to cover the necessary expenses, and Karinthy, accompanied by his wife, left for Stockholm, where the famous Professor Olivecrona performed a brilliant operation and removed the tumour—the size of an egg—from his brain. Karinthy was thus given two more years to live, as well as an opportunity for writing his best and most thrilling book—“A Trip Round My Skull” (Utazás a koponyám körül).
He observes himself with incredible equanimity and precision, from the first symptoms, the first hallucinations, lacing these observations with chatty accounts of his everyday life in the disarming, airily clever manner that is all his own. He tells of how he tried to deceive himself, devising various theories, fantastical explanations of his sickness; and yet all the time he knew perfectly well that something was wrong, very, very wrong. Here is his account of the first time he felt sick.
I had the first attack of vomiting early in April.
Suddenly one morning (the odd thing about it was that it came on an empty stomach), I was seized with nausea as abruptly as if I were surfeited with something.
I told myself that this was impossible, that this must be a mistake, ‑for I had absolutely nothing in my stomach. I tried to think “"pleasant thoughts” in an attempt to fight back the “peristaltic movement of the stomach”—this pulsation-in-reverse—as one tries to fight back insomnia. But a moment later, I jumped out of bed and, although still doubting that the disgraceful eruption would really occur, bent over the wash-basin, waiting with my mouth open and saliva running down my chin. The ‑bathroom began slowly to turn round as if I were drunk. But I was not. I observed myself painfully and closely. A crushing pain; my gullet stirred—I began to retch. I tipped my head forward. Again it subsided, but as the nausea did not stop, I had to keep on waiting. It was a long-lasting business. To kill the time, I tried to visualize my organs. I Saw the test-tube-shaped outlines of the stomach writhe in pain; the duodenum in a tight spasm, refusing to pass anything downwards. The
regurgitatory overflow of bile had stopped: the contents of the stomach were in turmoil. I wished I were through with it. And what was most disgusting of all—I again caught myself at “play-acting.” I have long been observing that in me, have built a whole theory round it; meanwhile, the outlines of a “histrionic view of the world” have emerged—a world outlook, a concept of a world in which nothing “exists” as such, everything is merely “playing a part”; the stars playing a celestial ensemble, and apple-trees playing at being apple-trees. Often have I discovered that my gestures aren’t genuine; that I hold my cigarette the way my father used to; the way I turn my head is reminiscent of the movement made by an ex-premier, as he turned in amazement towards us newspapermen up on the gallery when we suddenly broke into an uproar. Only when I am alone do I sometimes become conscious of these self-imposed mannerisms—conscious of and repelled by them. I remember the time when I first boarded an aeroplane. It was a dilapidated old rattletrap, a pre-war affair. When we left the ground, I had to stop talking. My guide was sitting in front of me—nobody saw me. In embarrassment, I drew myself up, gave a little cough, the palm of my hand over my mouth, although I felt no irritation in my throat. After that, I tried to find some place to lay my hands. I placed them nonchalantly on the sill, then alternately in my lap and beat the devil’s tattoo with the superior air I had seen Hegedüs put on in a dramatic scene. Even now, as I was waiting for my stomach to rise, standing with my legs straddled and turning slightly sideways as though it were of importance that the “line” should be effective, I brought the palm of my hand to my forehead in a sorrowful gesture—when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Immediately after that, in three or four jerks, I brought up the yellowish liquid, angrily and moaning as if I wanted to get rid of all my entrails once and for all.
At last, he was compelled to consult a doctor; and the circumstantial and secretive examinations were still going on when he had his own diagnosis ready in his mind. He took stock, and read up the pertinent literature. He learned that he had no more than a 20 to 30 per cent chance of surviving, even if he were to undergo an operation; yet nothing could shake his confidence in medicine. He watched his friends and his wife, their secretiveness and sympathy, and they made him smile. For a space, he was able to forget about his trouble: he tried to work and seek refuge in his long-standing habits, but all in vain. His sense of balance and, subsequently, his sight began to deteriorate rapidly. The physicians’ verdict was how in: he must
leave for Stockholm. He travelled through Nazi Germany and half of Europe, and by the time he and his wife arrived at the Stockholm clinic, he was hardly able to see. There now followed the operation. For many hours, he was by his senses; clinging desperately to consciousness, his mind went on observing and registering all that was happening around him, and even now, with his cranium opened, he was—playing. The operation was nearing its end when be fainted. Upon coming round, in his bed, be could scarcely believe that he was alive, that his life had been saved. Subsequently, meningitis set in, agonizing fever-dreams tormented him—the strange world of the old fantastic dream-stories was now seething dizzily inside his trepanned skull, in a brain that had once conceived them with such cool objectivity. Then, slowly, be began to convalesce, and his sneaking vanity was gratified on learning that a constant telephone connection bad been maintained between Stockholm and Budapest throughout the operation, that his state of health had been reported on hourly in the Hungarian newspapers, and that he had been much written about in the Swedish press too. He wrote to his son in Budapest: “Take care, son, for I may drop in any minute. I am all right except that there is a large hole at the back of my head. That is where I put my handkerchief.” After leaving Stockholm, he paid a short visit to Sir Alexander Korda in London. Korda was a close friend of his and had been one of those who helped to finance the operation. Karinthy was happy that death had granted him a respite, and no sooner had he got back to Budapest than he buckled down to writing this book, the story of his great encounter, rather late in life, with Reality.
That encounter had begotten a masterpiece.
The chapter presented in this issue speaks, we believe, for itself. Karinthy’s book is a dazzling piece of literary bravura, and a fore-runner of the much-debated “micro-realism” of our time. The theme lies in the human being—on this occasion, in his body, i.e. in the skull; but its treatment, its development, the by-plots and variations, are accompanied by an ominous rolling of drums: a life is at stake here. To this rolling of drums Karinthy, like the young hero of The Circus, balancing above the grave, climbs higher and higher up the pole and, having arrived on top, surveys the swinging makeshift edifice far below him which has been his life. And while hovering up there aloft, he does produce his violin.
His death came unexpectedly two years after, with his mind full of plans and themes and unfinished business, in growing solitude and increasing black despair under the sinister shadow of Hungarian Nazism and approaching war. During the ’thirties he bravely protested in many of his writings against the cruel stupidity and barbarism of fascism, but the futility of
his protests made him ever more desperate. The last book he read was Sterne’s Sentimental Journey. His bizarre idea that be would appear on the screen and speak on a gramophone record at his own funeral (he had a contempt for ceremony and looked upon death as something quite natural and expedient) was never carried out.
“A Trip Round my Skull” is one of the unfading masterpieces of Hungarian literature. Like several other of Karinthy’s writings, of which German and French—and, in a few instances, English, Swedish and other—versions have been published, the “Trip” has not been particularly successful anywhere. This may have been due to a variety of reasons: inadequate translation, the wrong work published at the wrong historical or literary moment, or certain views of Karinthy’s that have been gathering dust—it does not really matter which, for those initial failures of long ago do not alter the essence. We are nevertheless now having another try at presenting Karinthy, for it is our belief that, in him, we can give Europe a very European and very modern author.
SOURCE: Vajda, Miklós. Frigyes Karinthy, Humorist and Thinker, The New Hungarian Quarterly, vol. III, no. 6, April-June, 1962, pp. 42-67.
Mr. Selfsame by Frigyes Karinthy
Emile Zola: Oil (A Novel) by Frigyes Karinthy
Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938), afterword by Károly Szalay
Grave and Gay: Selections from His Work by Frigyes Karinthy
Frigyes & Ferenc Karinthy in English
Frigyes (Frederiko) Karinthy (1887-1938) en Esperanto
Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide
Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources: A Selective Work in Progress
Frigyes Karinthy @ Ĝirafo
Frigyes Karinthy @ 50 watts
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