Saturday, May 24, 2008

Organ recitals

At Bookforum, Wendy Lesser considers Frigyes Karinthy's A Journey Round My Skull and Sarah Manguso's The Two Kinds of Decay:
Both Karinthy and Manguso use the occasions of their illnesses to take a deep look at their own characters. Sontag blamed society (along with its outgrowths such as literature, opera, and film) for making patients with cancer and tuberculosis feel as if their disease were somehow their own fault. But we do not need society to make us feel this. It is natural, when the body has turned against us in this way, to imagine that some inner and largely inaccessible part of the self is sabotaging the rest of the enterprise, and no amount of rational medical talk can entirely do away with that feeling.

Karinthy’s is finally the better book, I think, in part because it looks outward as well as inward—and looks inward with the knowledge and intelligence of a person who has already spent sufficient time looking outward. But Karinthy is from the past, and they do things differently there. For a modern-day American, and for such a young American at that, Manguso has addressed her illness with a surprising degree of sharpness and style. Hers is not an inspirational work, nor is it a medical thriller; its appeal lies elsewhere, in the realm of poetry set to prose’s rhythms and coping with prose’s concerns. That she is immensely talented is never in doubt, and that her illness is itself one source of this talent only adds to the book’s many ironies.
Oliver Sacks' introduction to the reissue of Karinthy's book (published in the New York Review of Books earlier this year as a self-standing essay) is well worth reading. I must get that book and read it....

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