FRIGYES KARINTHY

(1887‑1938)

Born in Budapest, in 1887. These two facts signify more than a mere entry in the register of births, for the place, the age and the experiences of childhood and youth determined Karinthy’s character as an author: he became the prototype of the Budapest writer, the greatest representative of this city’s characteristic type of humour.

His father—first a factory clerk and later a shop-assistant in a second-hand bookshop—was a linguist of genius, an amateur philosopher and an innocent who in his youth really believed Napoleon’s saying that every soldier carried a fieldmarshal’s baton in his knapsack. When he found out he was wrong, he became a disappointed man. The mother came from a family of Viennese and Budapest bankers and stockbrokers and was a bel esprit, a dreamer, a lover of poetry. One of Frigyes’ brothers was also a remarkable linguist, two of his sisters were painters, and the others were also unusually gifted and highly individual personalities. The family circle included many a poet, philosopher, and scientist; Frigyes’s godfather was a retired sea captain and mysterious traveller with a legendary reputation for daring-do.

The last ten years of the past century were marked by the great millenary celebrations of thousand-year-old Hungary, and were a period of optimistic euphoria. It was then that the capital acquired its present appearance: high houses designed under the

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influence of Art Nouveau and a thousand other styles emerged from the sand-hills; rows of buildings developed into boulevards, squares, and modern quarters with narrow streets. The first underground on the Continent was built in Budapest for the opening of the Millennial festivities; trams were introduced; the new installations for public lighting were switched on; the telephonograph programmes over a special telephone line—the ancestor of radio broadcasting—was introduced; the telephone network was developed, and huge public buildings rose from the ground overnight. All these changes took place before the eyes of the child Karinthy. Unimpeded progress, success and new technical wonders all around, with Budapest growing daily more beautiful: this was the background that determined the formation of the future writer. And to these must be included the events of the outer world: the building of great railways and canals, the rapid development of shipping and aviation and the appearance of the moving picture found strong reaction also in Budapest and supplied food for the imagination of the young Karinthy.

As an adolescent, Karinthy was interested in everything. He read the daily papers with avidity, devoured Budapest and provincial humourous magazines, was fascinated by books of history and accounts of discoveries, and published his own first serialized novel at the age of fifteen. While still a youth he wrote about forty novels and two thousand poems, beside translating Heine and E. T. A. Hoffmann. Then, unexpectedly, he sought admission to the faculty of physics and mathematics at the University of Sciences.

Around 1910—the time Karinthy started on his career as a writer—the new literary movement, known as Nyugat (The West) after the periodical which represented it, began to exert its influence. Nyugat, which first appeared in 1908, was a rallying point for young writers with something new to say. Since the sixteenth century the circumstances of history, wars and oppression, the repeated depopulation of towns and villages, wars

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of independence defeated by heavy odds, and the reprisals that followed, all helped to delay the development of a bourgeois civilization in the country. The beginning of the twentieth century, it was assumed, would produce changes that would make good these shortcomings, and it was the writers of Nyugat who were the pioneers of bourgeois advance in the fields of aesthetics, ideology and art. They adopted different political attitudes, some attempting to achieve their goal through revolution, others by peaceful means, without the tempests and shocks of such upheavals. Karinthy belonged to the latter group.

The future physicist Karinthy was not, however, as a student content with following the courses of his own faculty; he was a frequent visitor at the Technical University and the Faculty of Arts. In a seminar at the Faculty of Arts, conducted by Professor Négyessy, he met the young men who were to become the “Nyugat generation” of writers: Gyula Juhász and Arpád Tóth, both of whom began their career writing impressionist poems, and Dezső Kosztolányi, as powerful in poetry as in prose. And when the adherents of Nyugat launched their attack against literary conservativism, the academic and the paper-flower culture of the past decades, Karinthy joined them; at first with mordantly critical articles, and later with parodies which in form may have had some affinity with Proust’s pastiches or Leacock’s “literary lapses”, but were actually pasquinades, passionate, murderous satirical caricatures. The special interest of his crushing satire That’s How You Write (Így írtok ti) lay in the fact that it ridiculed not only the conservatives, but also the symbolist, impressionist, expressionist and decadent authors: his best friends. The effect of these parodies was unexpected and nationwide: from Northern Hungary to the southern County of Bács, from the confines of Transylvania to the Transdanubian region in the west, the world began to read and love the original works of the Nyugat writers Karinthy had so wittily satirized. The unconventional modernity and audacity of Endre Ady, Zsigmond Móricz, Dezső Kosztolányi, Mihály Babits, and Milán Füst,

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all out to shock the bourgeoisie and the gentry, might indeed have alienated the readers had not Karinthy drawn the sting with his parodies, and so accustomed them to accept the irritating, offending and unusual overtone of the new trends, the rejection of the moth-eaten old standards and the creation of a new language, a new system of images and new literary forms.

In his essays and feuilletons as well as in his novels, Karinthy took on himself a scientific mission: he became the Hungarian apostle of new technical inventions and scientific discoveries and theories. His imagination was particularly stirred by the advance in aviation, and he hoped and believed that technical progress would open the way to a peaceful improvement of social conditions. He was interested in philosophy and particularly psychology; and one of the recurring subjects of his earlier works was the dissimilarities between men and women, the variance between mind and feeling, between the spirit and the flesh, in which he saw the source of social evils. Earlier than elsewhere in Europe, Freud exerted a powerful influence on Hungarian writers from nearby Vienna, and Karinthy wrote a number of short stories based on Freudian doctrine, and it was only around 1920 or thereabouts that he lost interest and faith in the Freudian theory.

The triumphs and successes he had seen around him in childhood and youth, the rapid and obvious progress witnessed in so many fields, had made Karinthy an optimistic man. He believed in the possibilities of technical and scientific progress.

The outbreak of World War I threw him into despair. Up to the very last minute he could not bring himself to believe that humanity was insane enough to become involved in such catastrophic folly. It awakened in him the dreadful suspicion that “one of the most characteristic features of human nature is an incapacity to take action...” A hatred of action and a complete indifference to the interests of humanity were, he believed, the greatest evil besetting society. The Hungarian writers, in the first place Ady and Babits, were openly antimilitaristic. They pro-

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tested against the war and attacked the government of the Monarchy for declaring war, whipping up a war psychosis and provoking senseless bloodshed. It was an important moment, the first test of the true humanism of the young movement. They condemned not only the politicians and leaders of the hostile powers, but those of their own country as well, refusing to make the enemy solely responsible.

All of Karinthy’s work during this period was inspired by humanism and antimilitarism. His novel Voyage to Faremido* (Utazás Faremidóba) satirizes war hysteria; in his poems, sketches and plays he derides the exploiters of war, the politicians and the military leaders. He wanted neither the war nor the revolution, yet he sympathized with the revolution in Russia, since it held out the prospect of peace. 1918-19 were the years of demilitarization, revolution and counter-revolution in Hungary. By the beginning of the twenties Karinthy was a disillusioned, apprehensive, despondent man; it can be seen from his fantasy novel Capillaria** (Capillaria) and his Rope Walking (Kötéltánc), the latter a work full of obscure symbols and—for lack of better analogy—let us say Kafkaesque visions.

It was only in the mid-twenties that the author recovered from his despair, but he never again regained his old confidence, his strong faith in general and technical progress, nor could he resume his happy pre-war Budapest café life. He remained overwrought, restless, unsatisfied. Ambitious experiments and some failures marked the further stages of his life. He became more and more embittered and cerebral, judging everything by intellectual and scientific criteria. He denounced the rightist movements, the sabre-rattling, the ostentatious demonstrations of physical force insulting the dignity of man. He scourged Mussolini and later Hitler with mordant irony, refuted the racial theory coolly by scientific arguments, and he went on warning the world...

*  English edition: Corvina Press, 1965.

** English edition: Corvina Press, 1965.

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Karinthy wrote some of his finest works in the thirties. His thin volume of poems took its place in the top flights of Hungarian verse. Written in free verse, they have a sonorous Biblical sound; they lament, they mourn, they are desperate “messages” (Message in the Bottle—Üzenet a palackban) telling of what retrospectively seemed a happy past, of what is a bitter present, for a future generation that might survive the years of 1933-38. It was during this period that he wrote his most passionate articles against the symptoms of fascism and the dehumanization of man. His political attitude was most closely akin to that of Thomas Mann. Karinthy had lost all his illusions; he was fully aware of the human unconcern and indifference that paved the way to the Second World War. Together with other Hungarian writers he campaigned, protested, argued and used all his powers of satire against the threatening new catastrophe.

In the meanwhile he lived the bitter but gay café life of Budapest writers, full of wit, sparkle and practical jokes, until one day, sitting in his favourite cafe he saw the huge mirror on the opposite wall tilt and heard a railway engine puff and throb somewhere outside in the narrow street, right in front of the café—or was it in his brain and veins?...

Symptoms of illness, fainting, all the torment of a succession of doctors followed. But Karinthy had been interested in medicine, had studied the diseases of the brain and knew the symptoms of brain tumour; he knew he was doomed.

Budapest—Vienna—Stockholm. His final destination: Professor Olivecrona’s operating theatre. By that time Karinthy was blind, his case was considered almost hopeless. The medical prognosis was that his life might be saved, but he would never regain his sight. His life at stake, he bore his sufferings with unprecedented courage, joking over his fatally affected brain and the humiliations of Death itself.

Only three months later he was again up and about, diligently scribbling away at his usual table in his usual café, accumulating

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debts and quarrelling with his wife, his editors, and his publishers.

During his operation, Budapest, his adored city, had held its breath waiting for the news to come through. The radio broadcasted the Stockholm developments in special editions. The operation lasted the whole morning. The city was transported with joy when the news of the successful operation came through. When he came home, however, things soon returned to normal. There were even some who doubted the story of the brain tumour and thought it was only a propaganda stunt.

The experience of the operation gave birth to a new masterpiece, the author’s last work: A Journey Around My Skull (Utazás a koponyám körül). It is a book of humour and introspection, containing an unusually meticulous description of a severe disease; it is interspersed with surrealistic visions tinged with humour and psychoanalytic introspection, and gives an excellent picture of Europe in the late thirties.

Karinthy was restless all his life, always in the search of something new. It is practically impossible to give a survey of his work. Every reader had his own image of the man. In many respects he was a pioneer, or at least one who led the way. As a humorist and satirist he paved the way for the tragic-comic, the humour of the Absurd, the black humour of modern Hungarian literature; as a thinker he enriched us by the literary formulation and widespread propagation of his scientific interests. His imaginative humour was inexhaustible, but at the same time he not only continued the serious work of his Hungarian predecessors, but worked for reform with an intensity almost unparalleled in Hungarian literary history. His work ended in 1938, which means that even his last work is more than forty years old. During that time he has had followers and successors both abroad and at home. His significance in the history of literature, the revolution he brought about in modern humour, are today difficult to assess and in truth a matter of speculation.

Karinthy was a bourgeois humanist. Antimilitarism, anti-

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fascism, a romantic form of anticapitalism, the pursuit of an ideal democracy, and the reign of scientific reason were the main themes of his oeuvre.

It is an irony of fate that this exceptional apostle of rationalism should have left us two examples of—shall we say—second sight?—The accurate description of the cause and manner of his death in a novel written in his youth, forty years before he actually died; and an entry in his diary at the death of his first wife in 1918, saying that he felt as if a sharp knife had been thrust into his brain and that foreign body would remain there for ever. He succumbed to his brain tumour fifteen years later. The diary only came to light after the author’s death; it was found among some junk in the attic of a flat he had left at the beginning of the twenties.

Károly Szalay


SOURCE: Szalay, Károly. “Frigyes Karinthy (1887‑1938),” in Grave and Gay: Selections from His Work, selected by István Kerékgyárto, afterword by Károly Szalay, binding and jacket by István Bányai, 2nd ed., (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1973), pp. 239-246.


Frigyes Karinthy, Humorist and Thinker” by Miklós Vajda

Frigyes & Ferenc Karinthy in English

Frigyes (Frederiko) Karinthy (1887-1938) en Esperanto

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Select Bibliography

Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo pri Esperanto & Interlingvistiko

Alireteje: Offsite:

Frigyes Karinthy @ Ĝirafo

Frigyes Karinthy @ 50 watts


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