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Mightier than the Sword

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There’s an esprit de l’escalier peculiar to the writer, when your book has just gone to the printer and you hit upon something so crucial to it that you hop about for days cursing at the loss. So it is with me and Karel Čapek.

I first came across Čapek’s name obliquely, as the friend and interlocutor of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomás Garrigue Masaryk. I was writing a memoir centred around my Czechoslovak father’s journey out of central Europe in December 1939, and was finding out about the history of his country – a history which to many English people, and not just Chamberlain, was as unknown as the word itself was exotic.

The philosopher-president Masaryk was central to that history, conjuring up the new country in October 1918 out of the debris of the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a new country based on an old dream, latent for 300 years of Habsburg domination: the dream of an independent and united Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. This Czechoslovakia was the country my father was born into in 1920 (and which would subliminally influence my life nearly a hundred years later). For my purposes then, Karel Čapek was simply the man who had interviewed Masaryk, in a book translated into English as President Masaryk Tells His Story, ‘recounted by Karel Čapek’, and published in England in 1936.

All the same, I did register that Čapek sounded quirky and intriguing. He’d written a play called R.U.R., which introduced the word ‘robot’ to the world – a coinage of his brother Josef. The titles of his plays and novels had an appealingly modern, Kafkaesque ring: From the Life of Insects, War with the Newts, Meteor, Awkward Tales, A Factory for the Absolute, An Ordinary Life. He was prolific, his writing blooming with the new country which came into being just as he came into his prime, aged 28. He wrote poetry, children’s books, essa

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There’s an esprit de l’escalier peculiar to the writer, when your book has just gone to the printer and you hit upon something so crucial to it that you hop about for days cursing at the loss. So it is with me and Karel Čapek.

I first came across Čapek’s name obliquely, as the friend and interlocutor of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomás Garrigue Masaryk. I was writing a memoir centred around my Czechoslovak father’s journey out of central Europe in December 1939, and was finding out about the history of his country – a history which to many English people, and not just Chamberlain, was as unknown as the word itself was exotic. The philosopher-president Masaryk was central to that history, conjuring up the new country in October 1918 out of the debris of the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a new country based on an old dream, latent for 300 years of Habsburg domination: the dream of an independent and united Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. This Czechoslovakia was the country my father was born into in 1920 (and which would subliminally influence my life nearly a hundred years later). For my purposes then, Karel Čapek was simply the man who had interviewed Masaryk, in a book translated into English as President Masaryk Tells His Story, ‘recounted by Karel Čapek’, and published in England in 1936. All the same, I did register that Čapek sounded quirky and intriguing. He’d written a play called R.U.R., which introduced the word ‘robot’ to the world – a coinage of his brother Josef. The titles of his plays and novels had an appealingly modern, Kafkaesque ring: From the Life of Insects, War with the Newts, Meteor, Awkward Tales, A Factory for the Absolute, An Ordinary Life. He was prolific, his writing blooming with the new country which came into being just as he came into his prime, aged 28. He wrote poetry, children’s books, essays, short stories. He was a producer at the Prague Theatre; he translated Apollinaire’s poetry; he was on the editorial staff of lively Czech newspapers; in 1935 he was a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He had a doctorate in philosophy, and had studied in Paris, Berlin and Prague. Looking back now, I realize how much of Čapek himself – his springy syntax, his offbeat joy in small things, his philosophy – is in that book about Masaryk. True, the men were like-minded in their excitement about their new country, about its distinct values and philosophy, picked up and dusted down from Bohemia’s glory days. But it was Čapek’s zest, vocabulary and eye which gave the book ‘recounted’ by him much of its flavour. Now that I’ve read his Letters from England, what I grieve at having left out of my book is this: his wry comment – after observing London clubs, with their smoking, their lack of women and above all their old leather armchairs – that ‘Our tradition isn’t rooted in such old and above all comfortable armchairs. Since it doesn’t have anything to sit on, it hangs in the air.’ This is prophetic, bearing in mind that it was written in 1924, at the height of Czechoslovakia’s optimism, and that it would be fourteen years before his country would be sold down the river. Moreover, the other characteristic of the clubs – and of the English – that Čapek identifies is their silence. And since silence is where my own book starts, with the silence of my father about his past, a secondary loss to me is Čapek’s sentence: ‘We ought to have such places where people are silent in our country.’ Such is a writer’s sometimes blinkered way of reading a book, when obsessed. To read these two books now for their own sake, newly translated by Geoffrey Newsome, and in editions that are a pleasure to handle, is pure delight. They are books I keep out on a table, rather than on the bookshelf, for the sheer pleasure of catching them – and something of their spirit – out of the corner of my eye. Karel Čapek came to England for the first and last time in May 1924, and stayed for two months. Letters from England was written on the hoof, which partly accounts for its freshness. When the book was first translated into English in 1924, Punch described it as ‘the best book about our race since the Germania of Tacitus’. On the surface, Čapek’s take on England is unguarded, guileless and full of laugh-out-loud surrealism and charm; but the surrealism has a plangent, existential undertow. Thus, his first impression of London scares him into brilliant hyperbole:
Yes, I freely admit it, I was scared; I was scared of getting lost, of my bus not coming, of something happening to me, of my being damned, of human life having no worth, of man being a hypertrophied bacterium teeming in the millions on a sort of mildewy potato, of it all being perhaps only a sickening dream, of humanity dying out through some awful disaster, of man being powerless, of my bursting into tears for no reason whatsoever and of everyone laughing at me: all seven and half million of them.
The mountains and lochs of Scotland (which he freely elides with England), with their opposite emptiness, have the same effect: ‘a region empty of people, anxiety without a cause, a road without a goal’. All the same, Čapek finds ‘this Babylonian island’ fabulously exotic. His endearing illustrations to the book include the white cliffs of Dover looking like a surreal black whale suspended in the air; Folkestone like a troll-filled mountain looming over a fjord; and a drawing of the stripes on a policeman’s armband to prove his genial theory that they derive from Elizabethan timbered houses. Like many central Europeans deprived of an individual voice, he is fascinated by Speakers’ Corner: ‘Sometimes a crowd separates by simple fission or a coup, like the lowest organisms and cell colonies.’ He takes a keen interest in our island’s animals and its ingenious machinery, both of which on the whole come alive for him more than the people do. What he likes least about the nation is the English Sunday; even worse, the Scottish Sunday; and worst of all the Exeter Sunday, when ‘even the churches are closed’. His gift is to be clear-eyed in a throwaway manner: of Scotland he writes, ‘It is a province, but it is monumental; it is a poorer country, but brisk’; of the British Empire Exhibition he notes that 400 million ‘coloured people’ are part of the Empire but barely represented: ‘And I don’t know whether it is a terrible bankruptcy of the coloured races or a terrible silence of four hundred million people’. His genius is to take that thought a stage further, after a semicolon: ‘nor do I know which of these two would be the more horrible’. What he admires most about England is ‘English turf ’, and particularly the fact that people are free to walk across it:
Perhaps that’s also why England has had so few revolutions in history: because Britons could always satisfy their instinct for freedom by a mere striding over meadows. Nor do I consider it impossible that Britain began to rule the waves because she saw something in them like a great lawn over which it was permitted to proceed wherever one pleased.
This is whimsy raised to liberating and enlightening heights. For Čapek’s generalizations always start from the particular, and the minute particular is his realm. Nowhere is that realm more beautifully set out than in The Gardener’s Year, first published in English in 1931. Geoffrey Newsome has produced a scintillating new translation of what must be one of the most lovable books. Author and translator seamlessly combine to find February a ‘whippersnapper among months . . . this fickle, catarrhal, crafty runt of a month’, and Čapek’s zestful attention to detail in the gardening world is matched by Newsome’s virtuosity in finding the right English names for such arcana as spiderwort and sneezeweed. Throughout, Čapek’s hands-on picture of the manic pact between gardener and garden is brilliantly recognizable, from the sudden wild urge to order far more seeds than you have room for in spring or autumn to the solemn observation that ‘not until now, when his garden is snowed under, does he remember that he has forgotten to do something: to look at it’. As he says, ‘Let no-one think that true gardening is a bucolic, meditative activity: it is an insatiable passion, like everything which the thorough person sets himself to.’ In The Gardener’s Year, Čapek’s limber prose is at its best. After a spectacular list of kinds of cacti (‘surly, morose, spiky like a kerf, woven like a basket’), he calls them ‘armed to the teeth, and determined to stand their ground. Get lost, paleface, or I’ll shoot!’ However, as in Letters from England, this light touch shouldn’t deceive us. In his introduction, Roger Scruton sees the letters as ‘gentle and propaganda-free’, whereas in fact they are propaganda-rich: they propagate the idea that profuse variety, change, things that ‘wink at you friendlily and openly’, joy of life, not taking your place in the world too seriously, either as a person or as a nation, yet seriously enough to labour hard for anything that is a ‘gain to life’, that these things are high priorities. They are, as it happens, part of the ‘Pragmatic Philosophy’ that Čapek, Masaryk and their ‘new-old’ country shared. It is terribly ironic that Čapek should have died ‘of a broken heart’ after his country lost out at Munich to just that brutalism, power-mania and lack of attention to the small things (including small nations) which he wrote against. It is ironic too that his brother Josef, who did the delightful drawings for The Gardener’s Year, died in a concentration camp. Fortunately, these new, beautiful editions of Čapek’s books are happy proof of what he writes about gardens: ‘I tell you, there is no such thing as death; there is not even such a thing as sleep. We merely grow from one season to another.’ Nature, he notes, is not asleep, let alone dead, in winter: it is merely growing downwards. It’s a lesson that both his homeland, with its long underground periods, and he himself, with his decades of not being published, have both borne out. In the long run, the word does seem to be mightier than the sword. It’s just that sometimes it seems a pretty long run.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Annette Kobak 2004


About the contributor

Annette Kobak reviews for the New York Times Book Review and the TLS, and has written a biography of Isabelle Eberhardt. She hopes there will be a second edition of her new book Joe’s War: My Father Decoded, so that she can do justice to Karel Čapek.

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