Karel Čapek was almost certainly the Czech nation’s greatest writer, as well as a noted philosopher, political thinker, and teacher. He sought to make his people worthy of the independence they had achieved as a nation, almost without cost (as the gift of the Versailles Treaty). He sought to educate them—in spite of the condescension this implied. He even dared to try to amuse them.
For most of his life Čapek combined a dual role as journalist and creative writer. His numerous essays are the product of both impulses. He was hired to furnish Lidové Noviny (The people’s news), the paper to which he contributed, with one feuilleton or column nearly every day. Not all of these columns were essays, of course. Indeed, most were not:
they were daily columns that might present book reviews or articles on Prague and its sights, or on mundane national habits. In them Čapek followed the inspiration of Jan Neruda, the leading Czech feuilletonist, most often employing the point of view of an author chatting familiarly with his reader. Yet a substantial number are essays—enough to make their author the greatest Czech essayist. These are deeply reflective and introspective, frequently centered on nature, and dominated by a profoundly aesthetic view of life. They tend to fuse with the philosophical and lyric reflections we find in Čapek’s fiction, except that introspection—the rule of a lyrical “I”—dominates the essays.
From his literary beginnings—in writings done jointly with his elder brother Josef— Čapek took up the essay. The pieces contained in their early collection, Krakonošova zahrada (1918; The garden of Krakonoš), are customarily referred to as causeries, but at least two are superb essays: one concerned with metaphysical time (“…solitary confinement is the torment of time. And time is suffering and endurance”), the other with artificial flowers (“In the widest sense, artificial flowers are made only from paper and the restless movements of fine hands which feel themselves deserted”). Later Čapek was to employ the predominantly aesthetic point of view impjicit in these short pieces, but to forego their effeteness.
Čapek’s greatest essays were written for newspapers in the early 1920s; a collection of them was published in book form under the title of O nejbližśích vĕcech (1925; Intimate Things). They deal with a variety of matters, but all are small and intimate, and the Čapekovian pan-aesthetic principle applies to almost all of them. We read of frost flowers forming on a windowpane, of maps and the landscapes they symbolize, of the smell of home, of dreams, of being laid up by a cold. Only rarely does Čapek work on a grand scale, such as the essay on Ibsen’s heroes as melancholics condemned to live rather than die. One piece voices the playful conceit that the contours and colors of farmland should be copied on a map; another the notion that humankind would move far more efficiently if Nature had supplied us with wheels rather than legs.
Earlier Čapek, inspired by Henri Bergson, the American pragmatists, and the Viennese journalist Karl Kraus, had written a specialized cycle on words and language, the separate essays of which were collected as Kritika slov (1920; A critique of language). Later cycles of essays on particular topics, also published both individually in newspapers as well as in collections, include Zahradníkův rok (1929; The Gardener’s Year), Marsyas; čili, Na okraj literatury (1931; In Praise of Newspapers), O vĕcech obecných; čili, Zoon politikon (1932; On political affairs; or, Zoon Politikon), and Mĕl jsem psa a kočku (1939; I Had a Dog and a Cat). There are also five volumes of travel sketches of trips Čapek made to Italy, England, Spain, Holland, and Scandinavia, but these are closer to humorously tinged reportage than to essays as such.
A majority of these essays are playful or humorous, although those on domestic pets are interwoven with original and valid observations. The political essays are quite serious and two, “Betlém” (1924; “Bethlehem”) and “O malých pomĕrech (1925; “On a Small Scale”), preach the Čapkovian gospel of smallness as a model for his homeland:
Czechoslovakia, like Holland, can become great. The most famous is without doubt “Proč nejsem komunistou” (1924; “Why I Am Not a Communist”), which was suppressed during the whole period of communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Finally, In Praise of Newspapers is actually in praise of all the minor literary arts, including folklore and the romance novels popular with maidservants; there is even a lighthearted essay on pornography.
Later in life Čapek, perhaps with age and under the pressure of his quasi-official position (he was the close friend as well as biographer of the president, T.G.Masaryk), moved away from humor; his columns are devoted more to other writers and outstanding personalities, and often have a decidedly official quality to them. As essays they rank below the earlier pieces.
More perhaps than in his other work, in his essays Karel Čapek created a broad panorama of life and the world as he himself viewed it. The diversity of his essays can in part be explained by his need to educate his people in many things, as well as to reconcile them to the small size of their nation’s world.
Born 9 January 1890 in Malé Svatoňovice, Bohemia. Studied at Charles University, Prague, 1909–15, Ph.D. in philosophy, 1915; Universities of Paris and Berlin, 1909–10.
Wrote for Lidové Noviny (Literary journal). Cofounder, with his brother Josef Čapek, František Langer, and Edmond Konrad, Pátnici (Friday circle) avantgarde group.
Associated with the Vinohrady Theater, Prague, 1921–23. Married Olga Scheinpflugová, 1935. Died in Prague, 25 December 1938.
Essays and Related Prose
Krakonošova zahrada, with Josef Čapek, 1918
Kritika slov, 1920
Italské listy, 1923; as Letters from Italy, translated by Francis P. Marchant, 1929
Anglické listy, 1924; as Letters from England, translated by Paul Selver, 1925
O nejbližśích vĕcech, 1925; as Intimate Things, translated by Dora Round, 1935
Zahradníkův rok, 1929; as The Gardener’s Year, translated by M. and R.Weatherall, 1931
Vylet do Španĕl, 1930; as Letters from Spain, translated by Paul Selver, 1932
Marsyas; čili, Na okraj literatury (1919–1931), 1931; as In Praise of Newspapers and Other Essays on the Margin of Literature, translated by M.and R.Weatherall, 1951
Obrázky z Holandska, 1932; as Letters from Holland, translated by Paul Selver, 1933
O vĕcech obecných; čili, Zoon politikon, 1932
Cesta na sever, 1936; as Travels in the North, translated by M. and R.Weatherall, 1939
Mĕl jsem psa a kočku, with Josef Čapek, 1939; as I Had a Dog and a Cat, translated by M. and R.Weatherall, 1940
O lidech, 1940
Neuskutečnĕný dialog (selected essays), edited by Gustav Földi, 1978
Other writings: several novels (including Hordubal, 1933; Povĕtroň [Meteor], 1934;
Obyčejny život [An Ordinary Life], 1934), plays with his brother Josef Čapek (including R.U.R. [Rossum’s Universal Robots], 1920; Ze života hmyzu [The Insect Play], 1921), short stories, a biography of T.G.Masaryk (3 vols., 1928–35), and correspondence.
Collected works edition: Spisky bratří, 51 vols., 1928–47.
Křepinská, Margita, Karel Čapek, bibliografte díla a literatury o životĕ a díle, Prague: Národní Knihovna, 4 vols., 1991
Černy, Václav, Karel Čapek, Prague: Borový, 1936
Doležel, Lubomír, “Karel Čapek and Vladislav Vančura: An Essay in Comparative Stylistics,” in Narrative Modes in Czech Literature, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973:91–111
Harkins, William E., Karel Čapek, New York: Columbia University Press, 1962
Harkins, William E., “Karel Čapek and the Ordinary Life,” Books Abroad 36
Harkins, William E., “Karel Čapek,” in European Writers, vol. 10, edited by George Stade, New York: Scribner, 1990:1565–89
Klíma, Ivan, Karel Čapek, Prague: Československý Spisovatel, 1962
Králik, Oldřich, První řada v díle Karla Čapka, Ostrava: Profil, 1972
Makin, Michael, and Jindřich Toman, editors, Karel Čapek, Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992
Matuška, Alexander, Karel Čapek, an Essay, London: Allen and Unwin, 1964 (original Czech edition, 1963)
Mukařovský, Jan, “Karel Čapek,” in Kapitoly z české poetiky, Prague: Svoboda, 1948:325–400
Wellek, René, “Karel Čapek,” in Essays on Czech Literature, The Hague: Mouton, 1963:46–61
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