A Journey Round My Skull by Frigyes Karinthy (Non-Fiction)

A Journey Round My Skull
Frigyes Karinthy

Frigyes Karinthy

Frigyes Karinthy

The mirror opposite me seemed to move. Not more than an inch or two, then it hung still. In itself, this would never have worried me. It might have been a mere hallucination, like the roaring trains. But what was happening now?

What was this—queer feeling—coming over me? The queerest thing was that—I didn’t know what was queer. Perhaps there was nothing else queer about it. Yet I was conscious of something I had never known before, or rather I missed something I had been accustomed to since I was first conscious of being alive, though I had never paid much heed to it. I had no headache nor pain of any kind, I heard no trains, my heart was perfectly normal. And yet…

And yet everything, myself included, seemed to have lost its grip on reality. The tables remained in their usual places, two men were just walking across the café, and in front of me I saw the familiar water-jug and match-box. Yet in some eerie and alarming way they had all become accidental, as if they happened to be where they were purely by chance, and might just as well be anywhere else. But—and this was the most incredible of all—I did not feel certain I was there myself, or that the man sitting there was I. There seemed no reason why the water-jug should not be sitting in my place on the seat, and I standing on the tray. And now the whole box of tricks was starting to roll about, as if the floor underneath it had given way. I wanted to cling on to something. But what was there to cling to? Not the table or the seat, for they, too, were rocking about like everything else. There wasn’t a fixed point anywhere…. Unless, perhaps, I could find one in my own head. If I could catch hold of a single image or memory or association that would help me to recognize myself. Or even a word might do. “There’s something wrong,” I stammered convulsively. “Ss-something—wr-wrong….” And then I caught sight of my face in the mirror. It had gone as white as chalk. Good God, then…!

“A stroke!” The words flashed through my mind. I must have burst a blood vessel somewhere. At once came the realization that I had pictured it otherwise. I had always heard and, parrot-like, had repeated that a sudden death was infinitely easier and better than a long, painful illness. One moment and all is over—as cleanly as a man shot down. I did not know what I was talking about. Although the sensation lasted only a moment, that moment seemed longer than my whole previous lifetime. I was still only half-way through it, and the agony of waiting for its second half seemed more ghastly than the suspense of a prisoner who is to die at dawn. Men are not good at measuring time. They have only one standard—their tempo of experience, as in Wells’s Time Machine, where six months were compressed into a minute by manipulating the speed of impressions.

No one could possibly call such a death desirable, or prefer it to pain. Though I had no pain whatever, I felt that there could not be any tortures in comparison with which it would not be worse. Outside, the sun was shining and I could see its light, but in my head everything suddenly went dark. I had only one idea now. By hook or by crook, I must hang on and keep above water during the second half of that moment. If I failed, the next instant would see me no longer captain of the ship. No more should I be in command of the myriads of tiny atoms, cells and organs over which I had been king since my birth. All that rebellious multitude, having shaken off my despotic rule, would become an inert mass again and would return to its effortless, natural position under the sway of gravity. In plain English, I should collapse on the floor. That miserable rag, my body, being only common matter, would soon adjust itself, but what was to become of me, the lost rules of the empire? It was a ghastly moment—surely worse than the tortures of the Inquisition, I said to myself, as I began slowly to recover. This time it had not been a stroke, but I was the poorer by one more illusion. Never again should I long for a sudden death….

The experience had been an appalling one. Yet, on thinking it over, I asked myself if this was only because I had no real faith to uphold me? I had had a ghastly, giddy sensation that it was only here, on this side, that I could keep my hold. If that began to give, I should be helpless. Never could I throw my line on to the farther shore. Out yonder I saw nothing. And yet this was not all. I felt that something else had let me down. Past and future, as I had imagined them, did not exist. Reality was ever present. The indivisible moment was reality—the one moment unique and eternal. The moment that exists could neither be long nor short—it was the only possible mode of being. And from this magic circle which is the prison of the moment no escape was possible. When it came the moment of my death would be as immediate as that in which I was now struggling to pull myself together. It, too, would occur in the present and not at some time in the future, as I had always assured myself for my greater peace of mind. The future, save as a figure of speech, did not exist.

The doctor whom I called to consult shortly afterwards did not even examine me. Before I could describe half my symptoms he lifted his hand. “My dear fellow, you’ve neither aural catarrh nor have you had a stroke. And, for the time being, we needn’t worry about your psycho-analyst friend either. Nicotine poisoning, that’s what’s the matter with you.” His orders were for me to leave off smoking at once.

An excerpt from A Journey Round My Skull, by Frigyes Karinthy, translated from Hungarian by Vernon Duckworth Barker.


The Seven Madmen (review)

The Seven Madmen, by Roberto Arlt

a review by Matthew Spencer

Now might be a good time to talk about Roberto Arlt. New York Review of Books recently published a translation of the Argentine’s second novel, The Seven Madmen, giving present-day students of the confidence game a rich source for comparative historical analysis.

Bamboozle an entire nation: that’s the mission Remo Erdosain (cuckold, small-time embezzler) sets for himself. The scheme proceeds by its own tortured logic. First, Erdosain must kidnap his wife’s cousin, Gregorio Barsut, and extort his life savings from him. Then, with the money as a seed investment, Erdosain will found a secret society under the direction of a man named The Astrologer, his patron and confidant.

Like many of the novel’s characters, The Astrologer simply appears in the narrative, with no other introduction than an epithet. His relationship to Erdosain is obscure. He lives at a weekend ranch on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, meeting with fellow charlatans and reactionaries. He occasionally does an astrological chart. For whom? That goes unsaid. Arlt’s characters do what they do without any apparent motivation but the will to power.

As Julio Cortázar points out in his introduction, the parallels between the author and his creation are salient. Born to an immigrant family in the slums of Buenos Aires, Arlt lived a life radically removed from mandarin contemporaries like Silvina Ocampo or Jorge Luis Borges. Without critical acclaim, inherited wealth, or a government sinecure, he struggled his whole life to achieve financial stability and the esteem of others.

Failure is palpable from the first sentence: “As soon as he opened the frosted glass door to the manager’s office, Remo Erdosain wanted to turn back; he realised he was a lost man, but it was too late.” Today, someone might use the term “radical vulnerability” to describe the near-constant soul baring that happens in The Seven Madmen. But the world Erdosain lives in has no reward for weakness. It crushes it, without pity. One can reasonably assume this was the case for Arlt as well.

In an early chapter, as Erdosain’s wife is about to leave him for her lover, Erdosain describes how his father instilled a lifelong sense of humiliation in him.

“When I was ten and I had done something wrong, he would say to me: ‘tomorrow I’m going to thrash you.’ That’s what he always said: ‘tomorrow.’ What d’you think of that? Tomorrow…so that night I would sleep awfully, like a sick dog, waking at midnight and staring fitfully at the window to see if it was already day, but when I saw the moon clipping the transom I would force my eyes shut, and tell myself ‘there’s a long time to go yet.’”

The omnipresence of failure seems to be drawn from Arlt’s own life. Finding little success in literary ventures, Arlt sought, like his creation, to make his fortune by patenting different inventions. When he died of a heart attack, at age 42, Arlt was working on a formula for run-free women’s stockings.

The novelist’s life as a part-time crank shows up again and again in The Seven Madmen. Erdosain has a scheme to make money by coating flowers with galvanized metal. He enlists a poor family to manufacture these tchotchkes, fully aware that they will probably lose everything for believing in him. As the novel closes, Erdosain visits them at their shack on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. He reacts with disgust at their state—the father Eustaquio is deaf and dying of tuberculosis, the daughter Luciana is in love with the feckless inventor. “I hope they all croak and leave me in peace,” Erdosain says to himself.

None of the conspirators really believes in what they are doing. Yet all are confident that events will play in their favor, perversely upending the famous dictum of Marxist politician and intellectual Antonio Gramsci: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” This shared delusion is the glue that holds Erdosain’s would be revolutionary cell together. Each member believes that he stands to gain more than the man sitting next to him. In the end, little is accomplished except for a kind of collective self-mugging.

Does it need to be said that this novel, written in 1929, presaged a great deal? Only a year later, a coup d’état was staged against the President of Argentina, Hipólito Yrigoyen, ushering in what came to be known as the Infamous Decade: years of violence, corruption, and economic crisis. This is to say nothing of Fascism and the horrors of the Second World War. Now, with almost ninety years of history behind the novel, a reader can see the rise of demagogic movements through its oracular lens. But this is a stupid way to think about Arlt’s work.

The Seven Madmen succeeds precisely because it cannot offer the illusions of moral clarity that hindsight gives us. The narrative is just as constrained as its characters, just as subject to the same impersonal forces. Erdosain is benighted and Arlt forces us to live in the dark with him. Now, when moral righteousness is both the substance and currency of cultural politics, Art’s novel inspires empathy and contempt in equal measure, understanding and rejection, a feat that seems beyond the ken of today’s politically engaged writers.

Matthew Spencer is a writer and visual arts curator based in Seattle, Washington.