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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Birthday: Karel Capek, legend of the crosswords



Karel Capek (1890-1938)
Author, playwright, essayist, critic, publisher, dramatist

Timing is everything in literary fame. Capek’s timing was terrible, just phenomenally bad. Even after he was dead it was terrible. But for the rise of crossword puzzles, he would be unknown in the English-speaking world.

His father- doctor at a fashionable spa- was a distant, admired figure; his mother, a bit of a terror. Capek suffered back troubles all his life. He and his older brother, Joseph, sought refuge from the maternal warpath in books and imagination. Karel studied art history and theory in Prague and at The Sorbonne, and adored Cubism. As Patricia Hampl explained in a 2002 review of the first major biography of Capek,

One of the curiosities of Czech culture during Capek's era was its exceptional embrace of Cubism. The Czechs were alone in treating Cubism as a full-spectrum movement, not simply a method for the canvas but a liberating revolution for virtually all the arts, and for perception itself. In Prague it is possible, for example, to take a walking tour of Cubist architecture, to drink from a Cubist teacup, to sit on a Cubist sofa. Capek, along with his brother Josef (a major figure in Czech art), saw in Cubism a freeing method for narrative as well. The stories in [Capek’s] ''Cross Roads'' reveal shifts of tense and point of view, narrative jumbles and eloquent, spare images. It is tempting to claim them as postmodern in their trust of the fragment and their deft placement of image.

Exempt from military service in the Great War, he became a leading figure in the intellectual life of the interwar Czech Republic, hosting famous garden parties on Fridays and pioneering a new, native-language Czech literature to replace the High German of the collapsed empire.

He wrote in every form, it seemed. With his brother he published plays. He was a pioneer in science fiction. He was a dab hand at detective fiction and serious novels. He traveled widely in Europe and wrote books about his visits. He wrote fairy tales for children and even a book on gardening.

Having lived through the anarchy of the 1918-19 period, he penned a famous 1924 essay, “Why I Am Not A Communist,” in which he argued the new “ism” viewed the masses as tools as much as capitalism did, only to be manipulated in different ways. Each promised vague possibilities of uplift and improvement, things that might, or might not come to pass, but the net change was mostly in who was in charge.

During the 1930s, he turned to journalism and made a name as a passionate anti-fascist. Middle ways rarely prosper in extreme times, and, already unpopular with the Communists, he now moved up in the right-wing’s bad books. Few writers in the world- and none in his homeland- wrote with such passion and urgency against the coming of the Germans. He founded the Czech branch of the International PEN writers movement in the mid-Thirties to try and sound the tocsin in defense of writers.

He maintained a fifteen-year relationship with an actress and writer Olga Sheinpflugova; they married in 1935. From 1936 on, Czechoslovakia was a target for Nazi expansionism, and the infamous Munich Conference of 1938 set the stage for its dismemberment. After the German absorption of Austria, it was only a matter of time; rumors abounded that Capek was Number 2 on the Gestapo’s public enemies list.
Urged to leave the country, Capek stayed. He contracted pneumonia that winter and died on Christmas Day, 1938. His brother was rounded up in 1939 and died in the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in April 1945, days before the camp was liberated. He managed to smuggle out diaries and poems that were published after his death.

After the war, Capek’s reputation remained buried by the Communists, who picked up where the Nazis left off and ruled until 1993. Capek’s 1924 essay was hard to square with Marxism. His books became almost impossible to find, and, while the Kundera-Havel generation of writers admired his work, they could not safely write about it, or its author.


In the English-speaking world, Capek’s name rests on one play, premiered in Prague in 1921. Capek’s dystopian vision linked the rise of new technologies of death in World War I with some of the more utopian ideas of the postwar era to imagine life in which humans were served by a new, part organic, mostly mechanical type of servant- the robot.

Brother Joseph actually coined the term, drawing on Eastern European words for laborer, or menial. Carel had “labori” in mind, from the Latin, but when Joseph suggested “roboti”, the penny dropped, and thence came, “Rossum’s Universal Robots”.

One critic has summarized Capek’s idea as

"[resembling] more modern conceptions of man-made life forms, such as the Replicants in Blade Runner, and the humanoid Cylons in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, but in Čapek's time there was no conception of modern genetic engineering (DNA's role in heredity was not confirmed until 1952). There are descriptions of kneading-troughs for robot skin, great vats for liver and brains, and a factory for producing bones. Nerve fibers, arteries, and intestines are spun on factory bobbins, while the Robots themselves are assembled like automobiles. Čapek's robots are living biological beings, but they are still assembled, as opposed to grown or born...epitomizing "the traumatic transformation of modern society by the First World War and the Fordist assembly line."

Full of snappy dialogue, the light, almost-comedic tone turns darker as the robots, initially finding satisfaction in serving humans, become disenchanted, then angry, and turn on their masters. By the play’s end the human race seems virtually extinct, only one man left, directed by the robot government to find the chemical secret that will extend their lives.

Immortality by way of science and technology was another preoccupation of Capek’s; his play, The Makropulos Case (1921), involved a 300-year-old woman who has moved through identity after identity to conceal her secret; as the serum she took in 1585 begins to wear off, she is scrambling to find its formula, confusing the value of her life with its longevity. The play was turned into a widely performed opera by Janacek in 1925.

R.U.R. (in English, the subtitle became the title)  was quickly translated, by 1923 it was out in thirty languages. The “robot” concept became a household word. In October 1922 R.U.R. opened at The Garrick in New York, running for 184 shows. Two young actors, Pat O’Brien and the 22-year-old Spencer Tracy, made their Broadway debuts as robots with no lines.. A WPA theater in New York gave it a successful revival in 1939.

Capek explored a number of variations on the theme in his works; in his 1936 book, The War With the Newts, the discovery of highly intelligent ocean salamanders leads to their enslavement by men and revolt. It was a thinly veiled satire on Nazi expansionism and did him no favors with the enemies list keepers.

Capek’s writing style was a hybrid of the formalism of prewar German-language Czechs, melded with a breezy, slangy 1920s modernism taken from the streets of Prague. It plays merry hell for translators; an English equivalent might be the Jeeves and Wooster stories of P.G Wodehouse, in which Jeeves’ formalist Received English collides with the flapper-and-gin-soaked modernisms of Bertie.

His newspaper essays were similarly casual, rather like the “Talk of the Town” shorts The New Yorker magazine popularized in America after its founding in 1925. His plays retain their relevance. One, The Absolute at Large (1922) anticipated nuclear power, only with a twist: the side effect of an atom-splitting release of vast amounts of energy filled the populace with alarming levels of religious fervor.

Capek’s widow, Olga, survived World War II and the ban on her husband's work (the Communists, in a fit of liberality, issued a Capek stamp in 1958). She had a forty-year career at the National Theater in Prague. She died in April 1968, on stage, during the Prague Spring of 1968, during a production of her husband’s play, “Mother.” It was part of the “Prague Spring” of political liberalization that ran from January until Augus when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and restored repressive government for another quarter century.

For crossword enthusiasts, the possibilities of “Capek”, RUR” and “Robot” have been classic clues for nearly a century, perpetuating the author in his seemingly endless void of unknown, context-free fame.



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