I belong amongst those short-sighted creatures who are unable to see the wood for the trees, or humankind for actual humans.—Karel Čapek, "Save Yourself If You Can"
The Czech author and playwright Karel Čapek is best known to SF readers as the writer who, in his play R.U.R., gifted the word robot to the Anglophone world. However, this claim to fame can obscure the talents of a man who was regarded as one of the leading literary figures of inter-war Czechoslovakia, and played an active role in the cultural life of an infant nation-state which was fated to be strangled in its cradle less than three months after his premature death. He not only penned the novels (War with the Newts, Krakatit, Meteor) and plays (R.U.R., The Insect Play) for which he is famous, but also published travelogues, literary criticism, children's fables, a gardener's almanac, and a book-length interview with the founder of the Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk. This new collection of Čapek's popular journalism from the 1920s and 1930s, lovingly translated and edited by Šárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová, allows readers to more fully appreciate the scope and intensity of his engagement with the artistic and political events of his era.
Much of the work gathered in this book does, at first sight, seem to be the kind of frivolous ephemera one would expect from what is, in large part, a compilation of daily newspaper columns. There is a paean to the vacuum cleaner, musings on how clumsiness fostered human evolution, a mock-epic on the subject of toothache, and lengthy digressions on three of Čapek's favorite topics: the changing seasons, horticulture, and his beloved pets. Running through all these disparate pieces, and giving them a semblance of cohesion, is the author's whimsical sense of humor and incurably optimistic outlook, as summarized in a piece on Charlie Chaplin: "If you find sacredly blooming roses all around you, and a redeemed angel in every human, if everyone is a winged cherub for you, harp-sounding and eternal and worthy of eternal glory, you'll be in heaven" (pp. 13-4). It is only in his private letters to his young lover, Olga Scheinpflugová, that the reader gets a glimpse of an altogether darker side of Čapek's character: tormented by his physical failings, insecure, prone to self-pity, and somewhat controlling.
The eclectic range of topics Čapek engages with demonstrate his omnivorous cultural tastes: amongst other things, he reflects on the new visual language of cinema, the homely appeal of the wireless, Brave New World, the inherent futility of literary criticism, and the etiquette of the theater-goer. Čapek is unabashedly hostile to the idea of a rarefied "high culture" and his cultural instincts are innately democratizing ones: "Culture comprises a kitchen as well as a university, football as well as poetry, a home bathroom as well as a comprehensive school. . . . Culture is not a segment or a fraction of contemporary life, but its aggregate and centre" (pp. 23-4). He also returns persistently to the tricks played by language, using humor to interrogate and demystify both everyday phrases (such as "a little bird told me" or "every schoolchild knows") and individual words ("novelty," "superstition," "aim," "principle," "mere," "relative"). His aim in doing so is to drive home the message that writers must abandon cliché and literary artifice, and should instead seek to describe the world around them in as sincere and ungilded a fashion as possible. He also holds that what is good for creative writing is also good for public discourse, for he identifies the tendency to resort to cliché and generalization with the lurch to political extremism—whether of the left or right—demagoguery and authoritarianism.
As this suggests, Čapek, for all the light-heartedness on display in this collection, was a committed political writer in a country where democratic politics was still something of a novelty. His own political values—identified by his peers as "relativism, pragmatism, humanism [and] liberalism" (pp. 30)—were deeply unfashionable in inter-war central Europe, which was still crawling from the wreckage of the Habsburg monarchy. Many of the articles in this collection are rather defensive repudiations of the political extremes gathering force amongst these ruins. He agonizes over how the German intelligentsia could have thrown their lot in with the crude vulgarities of Nazism. Čapek is himself unashamed of being a Czech patriot, and in response to a nationalist contemporary who challenges him on this point responds that "no one becomes a linguistic creator and a poet without infinite spiritual love for their nation, for language is the soul of the nation" (pp. 56). But in another article, "Bethlehem," he clarifies that he is no chauvinist, and that he loves Czechoslovakia precisely because it is so small, humble, and unthreatening; he mocks those who believe that the new nation-state must embrace a new monolithic architecture. It should also be added that his retorts to political extremism are not directly solely to the right: his article "Why I Am Not A Communist" is one of the better anti-Leninist polemics I have read, dissecting the ideology's dogmatism, Manicheanism, and fundamental lack of empathy for human suffering with understated, clinical efficiency.
The most tragic, and compelling, section of this collection brings together Čapek's articles on England and the English (although he does, intriguingly for such a prominent spokesman for "the Czechoslovak idea," conflate the English and the British). His "England" is one that would be unforgivably trite if eulogized in such a fashion by a native, being exemplified by sturdy oaks, distinguished aristocrats, comfy old chairs and speakers at Hyde Park corner. It is the supposed conservatism, pragmatism, and moral refinement of the English that Čapek finds so appealing in his writings of the 1920s and early 1930s. He even advocates the English sense of "fair play" as a potential solution to the ever-darkening international situation of the mid-1930s:
I'd say there exists something like the mission of a gentleman in international politics: ensuring—no matter where it is—that fears of violence and iniquity subside and room is made for trust between nations and states. Given the way things look these days, the ideal of a gentleman is one of the most urgent aims of the world. Would it be possible to achieve this British ideal without the closest and most active participation of Britons? (pp. 122)
Given Čapek's earlier naïve regard for England, it is no surprise that in 1938, as his home country is offered up to Hitler on a platter and dismissed in the House of Commons as 'a faraway country of which we know little', he rages impotently:
I beg you, help us to unravel this question: did your country, did France, really have any interest in ensuring that it should all turn out in the worst possible way for Czechoslovakia; and when, why, and in what British or French interest, was the conclusion reached that the healthy life of this small and relatively happy country must be broken? (pp. 128)
However, reading Čapek's last few articles (he died in December 1938, in the brief interlude between the Munich crisis and the Nazi occupation of his country) what is most striking is that his characteristic optimism remained stubbornly intact. This is made clear in one of his many depictions of the changing seasons, in which a tree settles in for the winter:
I'm not a stump, human creature, I'm a living tree because I still have roots. And as long as your roots are in the ground, my friend, you can go on to grow in the spring. It's easy to say I'm a fallen tree but just wait, wait till the bark closes over, wait till I take an even firmer grasp on the earth . . . . Hush! Can't you hear the future crown humming? (pp. 198-99)
It requires no great stretch of the imagination to see the tree as a metaphor for Czechoslovakia itself, entering into a prolonged period of hibernation, but by no means dead. Čapek's faith in human nature was so deeply ingrained that even in his final article, written on the night before he died, he lauded the shared cultural and human values that united the peoples of Europe, disregarding all the evidence then to the contrary.
Calling this collection "the essential" Čapek is somewhat questionable, given that it is made up of journalism (most translated into English for the first time) and personal letters, rather than being an attempt at a "greatest hits" package. It should also be said that it is best read as intended, one article at a time, rather than in prolonged sittings, when its relentlessly chummy tone can become a little wearying. However, served in small helpings, it does succeed in making Čapek come alive, as an articulate, wise, and humane writer, one whose aphorisms manage to be simultaneously heart-warming and thought-provoking.
Michael Froggatt lives in Oxford, UK.
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