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Karel Čapek. Life and Work
Ivan Klíma, translated by Norma Comrada
Catbird Press, 266 pages

Karel Čapek
The Czech novelist, playwright, and editorialist Karel Čapek was born in Malé Svatonovice, Bohemia, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now the Czech Republic). Capek's elder brother, Josef (1887-1945), was a Cubist painter, novelist, and dramatist who collaborated with Karel on some plays and illustrated several of his brother's books. Čapek started to write poetry and short stories while still in high school. In 1909 he entered Charles University in Prague, where he studied philosophy. Capek continued his studies in Berlin, and Paris, receiving his doctorate in 1915 for a thesis on Objective Methods in Aesthetics, with Reference to Creative Art. Capek settled in Prague in 1917, where he began to write for the leading daily, Lidové Noviny. Most of his essays were written in popular rather than formal Czech and were playful or humorous, but he also dealt with aesthetic life and politics. His writings were very much pro-democracy and he vehemently denounced communism and fascism. Čapek, who had suffered from a spinal disease all his life, died of pneumonia, Christmas Day 1938, an exhausted and dejected man in the face of fascism's rising power. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 his works were blacklisted by the Nazis.

Čapek Tribute Site (in Czech)
Site devoted to Čapek's R.U.R.
About R.U.R.
Site devoted to Čapek's War With the Newts

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (in German), 10 (in Czech), 11 (in Czech), 12 (in Hungarian), 13 (in Esperanto), 14 (in Norwegian), 15 (in Polish)

Postage stamp commemorating Čapek
More about Čapek (in Czech)
Appearance of Čapek's plays on Broadway

ISFDB entry

Ivan Klíma
Ivan Klíma was born in Prague in 1931. He edited the journal of the Czech Writer's Union during the Prague Spring. In 1969, he was visiting professor at the University of Michigan, but he returned to Czechoslovakia the following year. Ivan Klíma is best known here for his novels and stories (Judge on Trial, Lovers for a Day and, most recently, No Saints or Angels), but he is also highly regarded at home for his plays and his essays. Collections of his essays have only recently begun to appear in English: The Spirit of Prague and Other Essays and Between Security and Insecurity. His story collection My First Loves won the Egon Hostovský Prize for best prose work of the year in 1990 (the first time it could be awarded in Prague) and his story collection My Golden Trades won the George Theiner Prize. Klíma's works have been translated into 31 languages.

Biographical materials
Links to reviews of Klima titles in New York Times
Photo of author

Norma Comrada
Norma (Bean) Comrada has translated Karel Capek's Cross Roads, Tales from Two Pockets, and Apocryphal Tales, as well as the play The Mother and several stories and feuilletons in Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader. She has retired from a long, varied career and lives in Eugene, Oregon. She also writes and lectures on his life and work. This past January, she was invited to speak at an international Čapek conference in Prague.

Norma Comrada home page

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Karel Čapek. Life and Work Klíma , in this biography of Karel Čapek, summarizes the life and works of one the premier Czech authors of the 20th century, and after Franz Kafka probably the best known. While known to most English readers as a writer of science-fiction and creator of the term "robot", Čapek was really a mainstream writer who employed science-fictional themes to expose the foibles of contemporary society, to promulgate his anti-fascist/pro-democratic rhetoric, and to outline his pragmatic and relativist philosophy. In some sense one could draw a parallel between Čapek and Rod Serling who, in the Twilight Zone, used fantasy and science-fiction to comment on society in ways network censors would not allow in a standard comtemporary drama context. Also, a large portion of Čapek's literary output was as a newspaper editorialist. In R.U.R. (1920), Čapek created the term "robot," though his "robots" were, like Philip George Chadwick's The Death Guard (1939), made up of live tissues rather than electro-mechanical. Similar themes of a cheap labour force revolting against humanity are revisited in his novel The War With The Newts (1936). Čapek's other works of science fiction with a message are Krakatit (1924) and The Absolute at Large (1922).

Besides these differences with the English science-fiction of the era, which tended far more towards the bug-eyed monster genre, one finds in Čapek, and in much Slavic literature, including their science fiction, a great sense of humour, a love of the absurd, and a conversational style of writing, as though the story was told around a pint of Urquell in a Prague beerhall -- if you've read some Stanislaw Lem (the Polish author of Solaris and others) you'll know what I mean. Čapek besides his novels and plays was also a full time editorialist for a major Czech newspaper.

Klíma's biography, while written by someone who obviously reveres Čapek, isn't beyond pointing out his foibles, character flaws, and idiosyncracies. For example, Karel's somewhat awkward adult relationships with women, particularly his later wife, Olga Scheinpflugová, were largely the result of an unnaturally coddling and clinging mother, combined with the difficulties of living with a spinal deformity. Nonetheless, Čapek was no Lovecraft-like recluse, and was close friends with a number of influential authors, artists, and politicians, including T.G. Masaryk the long-time president of the Czechoslovak Republic, whose biography-through-conversations he published (1934 in English). Čapek also had received a doctorate from Prague's Charles University and spent time in artists' circles in Paris. Consequently, Čapek was far more of an intellectual and aesthete than the vast majority of contemporaneous English writers cranking out science-fiction, who at best might have a scientific or technical degree. Yet, many of his characters are average folk, the sort of people who would have lived in the small mining village he grew up in.

Karel Čapek

Klíma delves into the meaning and sources of Čapek's writings, bringing out both the personal and socio-historical context of his writings. While the analysis of his early works and how he worked in his pragmatic and relativist beliefs is certainly of interest, but what is most remarkable and sad is that Čapek was one of the few voices with the guts and integrity to denounce Hitler and warn of Czechoslovakia's impending doom at his hands. Čapek's empassioned and tireless championing of democracy in his daily editorials further deteriorated his already poor health, until Chamberlain's signing of the Munich Agreement disheartened him and pneumonia killed him. Perhaps, he was better off not knowing what WWII did to his country.

Karel Čapek. Life and Work is literary biography which, by the author's own admittance, is not exhaustive, but strikes a good balance between documentary evidence and the emotion of a eulogy for a good friend. The book might have been improved by an index (the version I read was an "advance uncorrected proof"), but it does include a useful list of Čapek's works published in English and gives a good, succinct overview of Čapek the man and of his works. Catbird Press also reprints a number of Čapek's works, including short stories, essays, editorials and novels.

Copyright © 2002 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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