For contemporary publishing culture, sickness, in various configurations, has become a potent resource. It is hard now to imagine a bookshop without shelves devoted to writers whose pathographies detail and explore their own illnesses or those of friends or relatives. Equally, we are no longer surprised by the many books that, following writer-clinicians such as Oliver Sacks, use the case study as a popular mode for exploring the human condition taken to its bodily and psychological limits. In 1939, however, when the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthys A Journey Round My Skull was published, almost none of those people that medicine had previously called case studies used their illnesses as opportunities to speak for themselves. There were also no artist-doctors like Sacks (who writes the introduction to this new NYRB edition of Karinthys book), publishing musings on the shapes and structures of human experience thrown into sudden relief by the distortions of disease. Karinthys shocking account of the symptoms of his brain tumour and the extraordinary experience of undergoing pioneering brain surgery, while conscious, in order to remove it, is valuable, then, not only for its vivid rendering of the psychological and physical disturbances of neurological illness. The book is also worth rediscovering because it represents part of the beginning of our modern cultural moment fascinated by the torsions of experience wrought by disease and by the revelatory capacity of illness.
In 1917, the Russian formalist critic Victor Shklovsky claimed that art should defamiliarize the world, impart[ing] the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. This account of art is perhaps implicitly invoked by Karinthy as he uses the impairment of illness suddenly to render the experience of self and world startlingly strange, denuded of the transparency that usually allows the extraordinary ordinariness of world to slide past unnoticed. Such attention to the defamiliarized details of everyday life and the unexpected moves and moods of a consciousness that darts here and there is, of course, a recognisable modernist literary technique, and A Journey Round My Skull does bear comparison with novels such as Knut Hamsuns Hunger or Italo Svevos Confessions of Zeno. But Karinthys book remains more than a minor work of European modernism enlivened with some viscerally shocking, although often comic and oddly over-inflated, descriptions of extreme experience. This funny-peculiar book from an author whose extraordinarily diverse career spanned Swiftian satires, a translation of Winnie the Pooh, a short story entitled Chains in which he proposed the idea of six degrees of separation, and the presidency of the Hungarian Esperanto society, may indeed relish its distortions and comic incongruities (it was advertised using Karinthys own slogan -- The Newest Novel of the Famed Tumorist). But I think it is a book that deserves to be reread because, more importantly, it is part of the history of our fascination with the relatively new but now extraordinarily dominant idea that we are neurological beings with a precarious sense of self that can be disturbed and even destroyed by brain damage. If there is a strong sense now, after modernism, that novels can be experiments in consciousness a sense which has come to be mirrored by the neuroscientific idea that the experience of self-consciousness and a continuous personality is in fact produced by a sort of narrative technique at work within the firing of neurones that can be disrupted in neurological disorder then Karinthys A Journey Round My Skull has a revealing place in the back story of this particularly modern sense of how human consciousness might be formed. In remembering and reading it, we might then gain a context for this story whilst also coming to understand a little more about our present convictions of how the experience of consciousness and the limits of the human might best be shared between writers and readers.