Born on January 9, 1890, Karel apek was the youngest of three children. His sister, Helene, after whom a major character in R.U.R. is named, was born in 1886 and also became a writer. Josef, who was Karel’s closest lifelong friend as well as his brother, was born in 1887. The apek family was living at that time in the idyllic country town of Malé Svatoovice, close to what later became Czechoslovakia’s border with Austria and Germany. The town, situated in the Krakonoe Mountains, was essentially bilingual, so that apek and his siblings grew up with equal fluency in German and Czech.
apek’s father, Antonín, was a country doctor, but his interests encompassed a wide range of topics. Always intrigued by theater, he headed an amateur theatrical group in his town. He enjoyed painting, was a poet although he remained unpublished, and was an enthusiastic gardener who passed on this enthusiasm to both of his sons. apek’s mother, Boena apková, was extremely cultivated, having a particular interest in the folklore of her area and in the music and tales that had grown out of this folklore. She told and read many tales to her children when they were very young, and she sang to them the songs of their region. The later work of both apek brothers reflects directly these early influences. Until his final days, Karel was more devoted to fairy tales than to any other form of literature, save, perhaps, mystery stories, to which he was addicted.
Boena apková was basically quite neurotic. Abused by her father, she quickly developed a resentment for and distrust of her husband. Their marriage was not a happy one. Her hypochondria manifested itself in an overconcern for the health of her children, particularly for the health of Karel, who was very small at birth and who suffered early from weak lungs, an affliction with which he lived throughout his life and which ultimately brought about his death in 1938.
apek was exposed to a broad range of people as he was growing up, partly because his father’s patients came from all walks of life and levels of society and partly because his mother surrounded herself with the people who best knew the folklore of the region, the peasants who lived in the environs in which apek was reared.
The closeness that developed between Karel and his brother Josef is largely attributable to the fact that Josef was expected as a small child to look after his sickly brother. The two were virtually inseparable until 1910, at which time Karel went to Berlin to study and Josef went to Paris. By this time, Karel had studied at the gymnasium in Brno in the province of Moravia for two years, from 1905 to 1907; had completed secondary school in Prague, where his father, by then retired from his medical practice, had come with his wife to live; and had spent one year, 1909-1910, as a student of philosophy at Charles University, where he presumably first came under the strong influence of Tomas G. Masaryk, also a philosopher.
When Karel went to Berlin and his brother to Paris, the collaboration of their early days was interrupted. Lásky hra osudná had been completed, but it was still to be eight years before the two brothers published Krakonoova zahrada, a collection of their earlier sketches, and twelve years before they were to engage in the thoroughgoing collaboration of which The Insect Play was the product.
apek, who had an...
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