2. The Grotesque: Frigyes Karinthy

The writer who caused no less a revolution in modern Hungarian literature than Ady or any of the innovators was Karinthy. His creative intellect could not find the genre best suited to the peculiar talent he possessed: his aspiration to a perception of totality and a systematic assessment of the whole relationship between man and the universe doomed him to failure. He did, however, inject a large dose of doubt into the accepted metaphysical, moral, and national values, and establish the relativity of the semantic content of words. In the first case his scepticism represented his basic attitude not only to intellectual conceit, but also to ‘profound ideas’, and it helped him to question the validity of all abstractions. By a clever change of context or by reproducing thought-patterns out of context Karinthy showed the grotesque aspects of all human thought and the absurdity of sacrosanct dogmas. In the second case his thinking came close to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s semantic concept: the meaning of words is what we ascribe to them; there is no inherent meaning, only usage. By clever manipulation of context, Karinthy achieved startling results, coined ‘meaningless’ words by the dozen, and he popularized, if not invented, the idea of a pseudo-language (his term being halandzsa) with context-free and made-up words, verging on intelligible speech. While Wittgenstein’s efforts to reinterpret language by introducing a new concept of meaning and usage was likely to be influenced by the bankruptcy of the moral and spiritual values of the Austrian Hausmacht, with its social anomalies and inflated language, Karinthy’s inspiration was almost metaphysical: ‘We live in a new Babel – in a hellish chaos of concepts. I am very much surprised when two men ascribe the same meaning to the word “table”. Where would you find two kindred souls who look and feel in the same way about the meaning of words like God, honour, art, country, mankind, woman and world?’

Karinthy’s desire to bring about a redefinition of worn-out phrases which used to signify lofty ideas led him to embark on a project which was certainly bold; he thought that if intellectuals were provided with a ‘new encyclopaedia’, similar to the great undertaking of the French Enlightenment, the encyclopédie, common consent could then be achieved on terminology, and mankind would thereby eliminate many causes of discord. Needless to say what Karinthy wrote alone was bound to remain a tiny fragment of a work; his ambition, however, demonstrated very well the boldness of his vision. Born on 25 June 1887 into a Budapest middle-class family, Karinthy was an infant prodigy whose first novel, much influenced by Jules Verne, was serialized in a Budapest daily when its author was only fifteen years of age. His rational intellect was particularly disposed to the natural sciences and mathematics, and during his university years he changed the subject of his studies several times. He never received a degree, but his scientific and philosophical training left an imprint on his thinking and writing.

Karinthy is, however, regarded primarily as a humorous writer. His extraordinary sense of parody first became apparent with the publication of That’s How You Write! (1912), a collection of short literary caricatures on most of his contemporaries, which was an instant success and won him the lasting affection of the public. These pastiches unfolded the potentials of a new genre; his target was not a particular work, or some mannerism of a writer – instead, he presented a miniature portrait, a stylistic profile of an author, and condensed his criticism into humorous form. Naturally the overall effect of such works as these is heavily dependent on language and allusions which mean nothing to the outsider. Yet there are numerous foreign and Hungarian writers whose works have long been forgotten but whose names, or rather whose entire character, favourite themes, and peculiar atmosphere are well remembered as a result of Karinthy’s miniature masterpieces. For young Karinthy it was all practice, trying his hand at the whole range of possibilities of fashionable literary forms before settling down to write his own great masterpiece.

The great masterpiece, however, remained unwritten, partly because of Karinthy’s unceasing struggle to make ends meet as a journalist. His brilliant ideas, linguistic acrobatics, peculiar grimaces, startling mixed metaphors and other absurdities were all utilized in the course of the daily routine of journalism, in columnist’s glossaries, reportages, humorous sketches, skits, or essays, creating countless types, adding bizarre twists to basic situations and techniques – in fact, creating a uniquely grotesque attitude to writing. This attitude was so strongly absorbed into Hungarian humorous literature that all humorists imitated him, but none has emerged to this day who has equalled, let alone surpassed, him. Karinthy seemed to enjoy the harassed life he led in cafés, working to short deadlines under enormous pressure, because living like this he could still occasionally produce a brilliantly cut gem, and at the same time keep on postponing his confrontation with the challenge of a truly large-scale literary work.

His cycle of humorous sketches, with its masterly treatment of the schoolboy’s small world (Please, Sir!, 1916), was also originally written for a newspaper. Yet it is a work complete in itself; in it he successfully evokes the authentic atmosphere of the classroom by humorously overdrawing the tiny joys and sorrows, the lies and anxieties of those unforgettable years at school. None of the sketches contain material enough for a short story – they are brilliant snapshots recording the excruciating anxiety of being late; the deadly fear caused by a looming question period; the wild fantasies about explaining away a particularly bad school-report; giggling girls seen through the eyes of timid schoolboys at the most awkward age – feather-brained creatures, yet at the same time unaccountably fascinating; or the occasion when, after a long inner struggle, our young hero decides to sell his history textbook in order to supplement his pocket money to buy some candy he fancies in the shop-window.

Karinthy was certainly influenced in choosing his subject-matter, just as Kosztolányi had been in his early poems or Molnár in The Paul Street Boys, by the discovery that children are not little ‘grown-ups’, and that their world is different. Nevertheless Please, Sir! is a unique book, and the stereotypes created in it (e.g. Steinmann, the good pupil) live their separate lives as eternal schoolchildren in the minds of generations of readers. In spite of, or rather on account of, the mildly caricaturing sketches, Karinthy successfully conjured up the soaring spirit of the young who know no restrictions, are not bothered by the clash between reality and dreams; he conveyed the notion that the roots of their humour reach down into the irrational and the subconscious, and that adults preserve only a tiny segment of this childlike mentality: the more they lose it, the more the world becomes a drab place to live in (e.g. Refund).

The ‘serious’ novels and short stories of Karinthy fall short of expectation. Although he was in no sense a committed writer, since social problems failed to appeal to him-his eyes being always cast on the universal and the abstract-he only occasionally managed to write a work with universal appeal that also maintained interest. His short stories are often sentimental, and almost always speculative (e.g. It’s Snowing, 1912); he had the ability to see clearly what appeared in the distorting mirror, but was hardly ever able to depict genuine human relationships. This fascination with the theoretical caused him to drift inevitably towards science-fiction, experimenting with new possibilities, and putting them into the context of what scientific evolution would achieve in the future; in two books, he continued Gulliver’s travels in fantastic setting. The story of Faremido (1916) was prompted by Karinthy’s desire to liberate the mind from the frailties of the body; the reader is taken into the wise, unsentimental, and just world of inorganic existence. It is inhabited by machines (self-programmed computers?) superior to men. Machines communicate with one another in musical phrases (hence the title, the name of this strange land: Fa-re-mi-do as in solmization). They have created perfect society which inferior earthlings are incapable of even conceiving.

Capillaria (1921) concerns the empire of females under the sea; it is Karinthy’s pessimistic statement about women, and it implies that in the twentieth century it is man who should be liberated from the domineering influence of women, because they are sensual, emotional, non-reasoning creatures, being the eternal menace to Man, the fighter and the builder. The theme has much to do with his initial shyness with women, combined with the then fashionable Strindbergian view of them. The novel takes Karinthy’s misogyny to the extreme; the women of Capillaria devote themselves entirely to carnal pleasures and feed on the brains of midget males, by now degenerated into mere genitals. In Celestial Report (1937) Merlin Oldtime, a British journalist, visits those dimensions beyond the earthly three-dimensional world where all layers of the Past continue to exist, but in separation from the Present. This somewhat desultory and ecentric novel fails to make full use of the possibilities created by Karinthy’s inventiveness.

Karinthy also wrote poetry (I Can’t Tell Anyone, 1930; and Message in the Bottle, 1938), which proves that in spite of his superb ability to imitate any poet, he himself was no poet. His verses are proof of his experimenting spirit and his speculative approach to various subjects, and show a strong desire to transmit his ‘message’ in a concise form-self-revelation as the ultimate artistic concept. The poems lack nothing in impressive sincerity, but the flow of sophisticated ideas often choke the effect. The torturing urge to attain complete self-revelation comes through brilliantly in one of his short stories, ‘Circus’, an allegory about a musician who realizes his dream to hold the undivided attention of a huge audience. This he does not as a concert violinist but in a circus, where he has to surmount incredible difficulties in order to climb to the soaring heights of a trapeze; there he produces his violin and plays the beautiful melody he has always longed to perform. The clown up in the air is a symbol of man’s unfulfilled dream of perfect communication: the struggle to break down reluctance to speak openly about the self, which makes everybody a unique individual.

In the last years of his life, Karinthy developed a tumour on the brain. Surgery was imperative, and a famous Swedish brain surgeon performed a successful operation in 1936, when the chances of success were estimated at about 20-30 per cent. No anaesthesia could be employed; the skull was drilled and taken off while the patient was conscious. This unique experience provided Karinthy with the material for a unique book: A Journey Around My Skull (1937). It is not only an amazing document of human awareness in the shadow of possible death, it is Karinthy’s most sober statement of his tragicomic relationship to the concept of heroic living, which he so often mocked, a statement written with the detachment of a scientific observer and with the imaginative precision of a great novelist without a trace of morbidity, self-pity, or sentimentalism.

Karinthy died unexpectedly on 29 August 1938, two years after the operation, full of plans and themes which remained unrealized. His last grotesque idea, that he would appear on a screen and speak on a gramophone at his own funeral, was not put into practice. This last design epitomizes Karinthy on more than one level. While stressing his contempt for ceremony, it is a bizarre protest at conventions and a proof of being able to look at the most important event of life, death, with the same humorous grimace with which he regarded everything. It remained an idea only, it added the last item to the inventory of unfinished projects of this exceptional and fecund spirit, whose ideas were to impregnate generations of writers.