Karel Čapek 1890-1938
Czechoslovakian novelist, dramatist, short story writer, journalist, and travel writer.
One of Czechoslovakia's foremost writers, Čapek is best known for his science fiction, primarily the drama R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) and the novel Válka s mloky (War with the Newts). Čapek also wrote a number of stories over the course of his brief career as a journalist for Lidové noviny; the majority of his stories were first published in that newspaper between 1920 and 1938. They express Capek's ardent humanism, as well as his philosophical belief in the plurality and relativity of truth.
Čapek was born in Malé Svatoňovice, a small village in northeastern Bohemia. A frail and sickly child, he was especially close to his older brother Josef, and as adults the brothers frequently collaborated on short stories and plays. Čapek began writing poetry and fiction in high school; soon after graduation he was publishing stories, written in collaboration with Josef, in Czech newspapers. After studying at universities in Prague, Berlin, and Paris, Capek earned a doctorate in philosophy at Prague's Charles University in 1915. Two years later, he began a career as a journalist whose articles often championed the cause of Czech nationalism. As World War II approached, Čapek and his brother, both outspoken opponents of fascism, were advised to leave Prague, but chose to remain and continue their opposition to Nazism. Čapek died three months before the Nazis invaded Prague; the secret police, unaware of his death, arrived at his home seeking his arrest. Josef was interned in a concentration camp, where he died shortly before the end of the war.
Čapek's stories are marked by stylistic diversity and continual shifts in subject matter. Indeed, as Peter Steiner noted, "There is hardly a form of writing that he did not try." Čapek's early short fiction is overtly political and replete with his ideological convictions; "No poetic isolation releases a writer from the civic context," wrote Čapek in 1935, adding "as long as he shares others' worries, the troubles of the time, and love for the nations, he has a right and, perhaps, even a manly duty not to defect from others' struggles." His use of fiction to comment on the political climate of his day is most apparent in Kniha apokryfů (Apocryphal Stories). The twenty-nine tales in Apocryphal Stories, which appeared in Lidové noviny during an eighteen-year period, were published posthumously as a collection in 1945. Most of the stories were written to commemorate a holiday or a day of historical significance. They serve as snapshots of Western civilization in which Čapek rewrites historical events, using irony, parody, parables, allegories, and hyperbole. Čapek's "Hamlet" was inspired by a Croatian terrorist raid in Hungary and Germany that resulted in the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia, who was a close ally of the Czechs. In this story the hero is a budding playwright who wonders how he can influence an intolerable political situation. Published on the sixteenth anniversary of the formation of the Czech Republic, it provided Čapek with the opportunity to reflect on his role as a literary figure during an unstable time in his country's history.
Čapek's 1917 collection Boží muka (Wayside Crosses) is more philosophical than his newspaper stories. Deeply pessimistic, this collection reflects the author's spiritual crisis during the First World War. In "The Footprint," which is based on David Hume's speculations about an isolated print in the sand, two men find a mysterious, single footprint in fresh snow that leads nowhere. One of the men considers the footprint a miracle, a manifestation of God, but the second man dismantles the usefulness of miracles, arguing that they have no place in a rational world; "That footprint will not change me and will not save me, and will redeem me from nothing; it only torments me, it obsesses me and I cannot get rid of it. And I do not believe it; a miracle would content me, but that footprint is the first step to uncertainty. It would be better if I had not seen it." The theme of unsolved mysteries represented in "The Footprint" reappears in Čapek's pocket stories. Mysteries in these stories, however, do not follow the suspense-filled style of traditional detective stories. Instead, Čapek's mysteries often remain unsolved or are solved incidentally by unsuspecting lay persons. In "The Poet," for example, a detective fruitlessly questions a poet who witnesses a hit-and-run accident. The detective later discovers that a poem written by the witness contains the clue he needs to solve the mystery.
Capek's short fiction is not widely known in the United States, partly because many of his tales have not been translated into English. Critics have compared Čapek's stories to those of G. K. Chesterton and H. G. Wells, but have noted themes and ideas in Čapek's works sometimes stand in the way of plot and characterization. Nevertheless, Čapek's stones have been widely praised for their keen interest in humanity and its future. Clarence A. Manning regarded Čapek as "a man who combined a deep human philosophy and understanding, a sympathy for human life as it is, with a keen analytical sense of the source of the woes of the twentieth century." William E. Harkins added, "The tragedy of his homeland and his premature death cut short the philosophical and creative development of a great writer, a profound thinker, and a great human spirit."
Zárivé hlubiny [with Josef Čapek] 1916
Boží muka 1917
Krakonošova zahrada [with Josef Čapek] 1918
Trapné provídky [Money, and Other Stories] 1921
Povidky z jedné kapsy [Tales from One Pocket] 1929
Povidky z druhé kapsy [Tales from the Other Pocket] 1929
Kniha apokryfú [Apocryphal Stories] 1945
Other Major Works
Lásky hra osudna [with Josef Čapek] (drama) 1910
R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) [R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)] (drama) 1921
Továrna na absolutno [The Absolute at Large] (novel) 1922
Vec Makropulos [The Makropoulos Secret] (drama) 1922
Ze života hmyzu [with Josef Čapek; The Insect Play] (drama) 1922
Anglické listy [Letters from England] (travel sketches) 1924
Krakatit [Krakatit] (novel) 1924
Adam Stvořitel [with Josef Čapek; Adam the Creator] (drama) 1927
Hordubal [Hordubal] (novel) 1933
Provétroñ [Meteor] (novel) 1933
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SOURCE: "Karel Čapek: Short Tales and Fantasias," in Essays and Addresses, Longmans, Green & Co., 1939, pp. 151-90.
[In the following excerpt, Elton provides a laudatory overview of öapek's short stories.]
Čapek earned his European fame, justly enough, by R. U.R., The Insect Play, The White Sickness (translated as Power and Glory), and other dramas. They satirize the social order and depict, often in symbolic form, the perils that threaten it with shipwreck. Their wealth of ideas, their strength of purpose, and their pertinence to-day, must be recognized. And yet, considered as works of art, they have perils of their own. They are full of faults and fissures which will hardly stand close analysis and which are easily passed over in the theatre; and in any case, they cannot compare with the best of Čapek's stories. Most of these, though not all, have been translated; but to an Englishman the author's name suggests, above all, the Robots and the Slugs, and perhaps also his horrified and humorous drawings of the London buses and posters. The stories are seldom mentioned in our critical press; although the novels of the 'trilogy' (Hordubal, The Meteor, An Ordinary Life) and The First Rescue Party, may fairly be called classics. Many of the contes rank with those of Chekhov or of Maupassant. There are, first and last, more than eighty of them, and it must be enough...
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SOURCE: "Karel Capek's Apocrypha and Franz Kafka's Parables," in The American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. XVIII, April, 1959, pp. 238-47.
[In the excerpt below, Gibian discusses similarities between the tales of Čapek's Apocryphal Stories, concluding "His apocrypha amuse, rather than disturb us. Even their iconoclasms and satire are mild, optimistic, gentle."]
The general principle basic to Capek's apocrypha is to take an historical situation and retell (and reinterpret) it by filling in background, adding to it, recreating, looking at it from a fresh angle, elaborating, taking a highly magnified or distorted view of it.
Čapek relies heavily on direct speech—talk—between two or more persons. Thus Čapek reports in detail the conversation between Sarah and Abraham when they discuss possible candidates in a vain attempt to identify ten just persons in Sodom. Thersites expounds to his fellow warriors his seditious, cynical, negative thoughts about the Trojan expedition. Archimedes talks to a Roman soldier after the conquest of Syracuse (significantly his subsequent death is not described, merely briefly reported). Pure dialogue, without narration, a fragment of a drama, is found in Čapek's addition to Hamlet, in which Hamlet speaks to Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern in Czech blank verse. There are exceptions to the rule of dialogue and conversation. Čapek uses...
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SOURCE: "The Luminous Depths," "The Lost Way," and "The Offended," in Karel Čapek, Columbia University Press, 1962, pp. 46-50; 51-61; 62-65.
[In the following essay, Harkins traces Čapek's philosophical development through three collections, Zářivé hlubiny, Boži muka, and Trapné providky, which he renders as Luminous Depths, Wayside Crosses, and Painful Tales, respectively.]
The neo-classical period had been only a passing phase in the work of the Brothers Čapek, though the formal discipline it provided is felt in several new stories they published in 1911 and 1912. These, along with the two Italian tales, were subsequently collected in the volume published in 1916 as The Luminous Depths.1 Vitalism is the main force animating these tales, and the cynicism of the earlier pieces has disappeared almost completely. But the new faith in life brings a fresh skepticism: granting that life is self-valuable, is man capable of comprehending its innate worth? Will human civilization not frustrate natural life? Thus the whole collection turns in a circle leading the authors from cynical irony through optimism, and back to pessimism.
The story "A Scandal and the Press" is a new experiment in the technique of narrative fiction. Though not published until 1916 in the collected edition of The Luminous Depths, the story was probably written in...
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SOURCE: "The Truth in People," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3822, June 6, 1975, p. 629.
[In the following review of Čapek's Apocryphal Stories, Hajek argues that the author's philosophy is easily recognizable in these stories.]
Although the name of Karel Čapek is still well known in England, his books, quite popular in this country between the wars, are nowadays hard to come by. Only a handful of his lesser works have been kept in print over the years by Allen and Unwin, while the more recent OUP paperback of R.U.R., the play which introduced the word "robot" into many languages, uses an old translation which is in fact an adaptation of the original text. Paperback reprints of War with the Newts appear occasionally in bookshops, imported from the United States, where it is presumably a set book in university courses on science fiction. Čapek's other novels, however, seem to have fallen into near-oblivion; the blurb of the present reprint of Aprocyphal Stories lists only one of them, An Atomic Phantasy, but with an incorrect date: it was first published in 1922, not in 1938.
With the passage of time, flaws begin to show in Čapek's work, particularly in the early novels, but his shorter pieces, stories and essays have aged gracefully: what once may have impressed as elegant wit has matured into impressive wisdom. Čapek worked virtually...
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SOURCE: A review of Apocryphal Stories, in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1976, pp. 199-200.
[Below, Iggers recognizes both humorous and serious elements in Čapek's Apocryphal Stories.]
Karel Čapek is known in America, if at all, as the writer of R.U.R., the expressionistic play in which mankind narrowly escapes the fate of being replaced by robots. The author's concern for the threat of technology to the human environment (and mind) was but one of his many interests, which ranged from human society to insects, from the personality of Thomas Garrigue Masaryk to "philosophical detective stories." The unifying link in Čapek's work, as I see it, is that the surface story is never the main object of his concern; in fact, in a number of his works there is no story. Where there is one, it is only the surface parable through which he expresses his apprehensions about the direction in which he sees modern man going.
If Brecht, in his Kalendergeschichten and elsewhere, used well-known situations from history in which myth, subservience to rulers, or popular psychology provided the rationales, and retold them in keeping with an amalgam of his own political philosophy and common sense, Čapek utilized similar subject matter, known to the Western world at least in the form of clichés, to show what types of prejudices and conflicts recur. This is...
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SOURCE: "The Pocket-Stories of Karel Čapek," in Studia Slavica, Vol. XXII, Nos. 3-4, 1976, pp. 401-14.
[In the following essay, Heé examines the techniques Čapek employed in his "pocket" stories to convey his philosophical ideas, discusses the success of these works as short stories, and considers their relation to the genre of detective fiction.]
The whole literary career of Karel Čapek is characterized by a restless search for human values that could act as ideals for man in the 20th century. In his literary works different phases of this searching process can be distinguished from the formation of an ideal through loosing faith in it to the creation of a new one. This process is very distinct especially in Čapek's early works, while from the late twenties to the end of his life we can trace certain ideological changes within the new ideal of "littleness" which was reshaped by that time.
The ideal-forming process in Čapek's works passes from an Absolute-centred conception, showing up the beauty of "absolute" human values, through the seeking for the Absolute in a more general form to the slow but complete disentanglement from the problem of the Absolute. The first stage appears in Zářivé hlubiny ("Luminous Depth"1 written in collaboration with the author's brother, Josef; published as a volume for the first time in 1916). The "renaissance"...
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SOURCE: "Tales from One Pocket: Detective and Justice Stories of Karel Čapek," in The Structure of the Literary Process: Studies Dedicated to the Memory of Felix Vodička, edited by P. Steiner, M. Červenka, and R. Vroon, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1982, pp. 95-107.
[In the essay below, Davydov measures the stories in Čapek's Tales from One Pocket against the traditional detective genre.]
When Karel Čapek began his Tales from One Pockety he intended to write a series of detective tales. However, what appeared in 1929 under this title can hardly be termed "detective tales" in the conventional sense. Only half of the stories deal with classic mystery; the rest preserve only the detective situation or focus on aspects lying beyond the interest of the detective genre. Čapek wrote about the composition of the Tales:
My first authorial interest in detective stories originated with the problem of epistemology—how does one perceive and discover truth. The Tales from One Pocket are epistemological tales. As soon as I began to deal with the world of crime I became involuntarily attracted to the problem of justice. You will find the break near the middle of my book. Instead of the question "how to perceive" the question "how to punish" becomes predominant. The Tales from One Pocket consist of...
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SOURCE: "Revelling in Hope," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4565, September 28, 1990, p. 1036.
[In the following review of Nine Fairy Tales and One More Thrown in for Good Measure, Warner notes the didactic nature of the stories and compares them to those of the Grimm brothers, concluding "the Grimm Brothers led quiet lives, but in their fairy-tales dealt more in fatalism; Čapek's revel in hope, against all the odds.]
The Czech playwright, novelist and fantasist Karel Čapek coined the word "robot", and in his drama of 1920, RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots) imagined the death of the world after robots have been manufactured to spare man labour; a few years later, in spite of international success as a dramatist, Čapek decided to concentrate on journalism: "Now I must help educate the nation". Čapek's methods were cunning, mischievous, full of a magician's legerdemain and a comedian's verve. Just as RUR warns bitterly against treating people like machines, so the occasional pieces Čapek wrote—his essays, squibs and stories—plead for pleasure, tenderness, mercy and laughter against the gathering forces that would exterminate these aspects of the human.
The Nine Fairy Tales published here in a new English translation belong to Čapek's popularizing, Utopian enterprise. Through flights of exuberant fancy, improbable journeys and clever animals,...
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SOURCE: "Čapek's Early Work," in On Karel Čapek: A Michigan Slavic Colloquium, Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992, pp. 43-50.
[In the following essay, Harkins discusses Čapek's early convictions as they are exemplified through the stories collected in Krakonošova zahrada and Boži muka, here rendered as The Garden of Krakonoš and Wayside Crosses.]
The idea behind the present talk was conceived last summer when I visited a Czech friend of mine, one who was all his life a fervent member of the artistic avantgarde. We were discussing Čapek, whom he had always praised in my hearing. This time he praised him again, but added, "I'm only thinking of his early work, of course."
Perhaps Čapek's translations from modern French poetry were foremost in his mind. But much of Čapek's early work could be viewed as avantgarde, especially in the context of Czech post-symbolist and pre-expressionist literature of the day. This was the period of the Brothers' friendship for the poet S. K. Neumann, for instance. It was the time of influence of Bergson, William James, and Karl Kraus. It was the only period of Čapek's work for which the great Czech critic Salda had kind words.
In this paper, however, I do not seek to approach Čapek's early work from the point of view of avantgardism. One reason is that the qualities which make much of this writing avantgarde...
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SOURCE: "The Neglected Collection—Čapek's Apocryphal Stories as Allegory," in On Karel Čapek: A Michigan Slavic Colloquium, Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992, pp. 65-86.
[In the following essay, Steiner provides the historical context for Čapek's Apocryphal Stories. The critic claims that, in addition to their philosophical and aesthetic value, the stories have political significance, asserting "The allegorical mode of writing permitted Čapek to close the gap between poetics and politics, to satisfy his artistic ambitions without giving up the civic responsibilities he felt so keenly."]
The word "apocrypha" is, according to the OED, derived from the Greek kryptein, 'to hide away'. Its occurrence in the title of Čapek's collection of stories, which has been so well hidden from the prying eye of literary critics, thus seems quite appropriate. To the best of my knowledge there is only one scholarly article devoted to the Apocryphal Stories, and it was published in, of all places, Rostov on Don.1
This neglect is not accidental. First, the collection is composed of 29 bafflingly heterogeneous, tiny texts written from 1920 to 1938 mainly as newspaper columns for the popular daily Lidové noviny where Čapek worked. Most are dialogues of various types but there is also a letter, a philosophical lecture, and a fragment of a play written...
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SOURCE: "Karel Capek's Tales of Truth and Detection," in Tribune Books, Chicago, August 21, 1994, pp. 1, 9.
[Here, Drew argues that Čapek's "pocket" stories should not be categorized as detective fiction because they focus on larger themes than crime and detection, mainly humanity, justice, and truth.]
A generation or two ago, Karel Capek (pronounced "Chopek") was the world's most renowned Czech man of letters, the author of six novels, six plays and many volumes of stories, travel writing, criticism and children's books. Several times nominated for the Nobel Prize, buried among the Czech immortals, Capek achieved instant fame in the 1920s when his play R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots introduced the word "robot" to the languages of the world. But Capek's foreign reputation waned during the 50-year repression of Czech culture by the Nazis and Soviets.
Unlike his countryman Franz Kafka, who wrote very little in the Czech language, and Jaroslav Hasek, famous mostly for "The Good Soldier Svejk," the prolific Capek exemplified the interwar cultural flowering of the first Czechoslovak Republic, formed after the Austro-Hungarian Empire's post-World War I collapse. That Republic, which lasted only 20 years, enacted universal suffrage, land reform and a social security system; the country had a strong industrial base, and the arts flourished. As their successors did following the...
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SOURCE: "The Short Story Writer," in Karel Čapek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance, and Trust, Sussex Academic Press, 1998, pp. 123-45.
[In the essay that follows, Bradbrook presents a comprehensive overview of Capek's short fiction, noting in particular the author's thoughts and motives regarding his stories.]
"Short story will always be one of the most attractive matters for an author, both in form and content."
"To write short stories you need good fortune or (and mainly) a good deal of realism. Literature which shirks realism will not be able to produce short stories." K. Č.
Čapek wrote his first collection of short stories between 1916 and 1917. His philosophical studies were still strongly echoing in his mind, but he appears free from the pretentious frivolities apparent in his early works. His health problem depressed him, as well as the gloomy war atmosphere surrounding him: no wonder that the Wayside Crosses sound pessimistic in his effort to express artistically his vain search for truth. His characters find themselves confronted with invisible, puzzling events, the secrets of which surpass all human recognition and only a miracle can bring relief. According to the title, the search is a painful experience, as Capek explains: The title Wayside Crosses has a double meaning...
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Bradbrook, Bohuslava R. "Early Writings." In Karel Capek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance, and Trust, pp. 21-36. Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.
Discussion of Capek's early works, primarily the short stories written in collaboration with his brother Josef.
Doležel, Lubomir. "Karel Čapek—a Modern Storyteller." In On Karel Capek: A Michigan Slavic Colloquium, edited by Michael Makin and Jindřich Toman, pp. 15-28. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992.
Places Capek within the Bohemian tradition of storytelling, concluding "Capek is an innovative, experimental, thoroughly modern writer."
Haman, Aleš, and Paul I. Trensky. "Man Against the Absolute: The Art of Karel Capek." The Slavic and East European Journal XI, No. 2 (Summer, 1967): 168-84.
Comprehensive analysis of Capek's works, including his short fiction, aimed at deciphering Capek's art. The critics conclude, "The dramatic nature of his art was the quintessence of his existence, which was marked by the struggle for humanitarian ideas, and against the absolute, be it in the form of outlived, stilled values or global technocracy and a totalitarian mechanism of modern civilization."
Harkins, William E. Karel Capek. New York: Columbia...
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