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Karel Čapek, 1890--1938

10 Apr 2009 17:40

Čapek (the C should have a convex-down bow above it, and the name is pronounced, I am told, something like "Chop-ek") was a Czech writer and man of letters. Between the wars he was very widely read and well known, and actually he deserved to be. Some of his admirers have said that the main reason he never got a Nobel Prize for Literature is that the Swedes thought it would offend Hitler too much to give it to such a well-known anti-fascist, and a Czech one at that; according to his widow, the Academy told him they'd give him the prize if only he wrote something blandly inoffensive for them to pin it on, to which he retorted that he'd already submitted his doctoral dissertation --- se non è vero, è bene trovato, and totally characteristic. As well as his novels, plays and short stories, he worked more or less full-time as a journalist; his political complexion was liberal, and very nearly identical to that of Tomas Masaryk, the great first president of Czechoslovakia.

He is most famous now for two things. One is the coining of the word "robot", from the Czech robota, "work", in his play about them taking over the world, R. U. R. The play used to be extremely popular and well-known, and could well stand revival. (Update, Sept. 2007: David Wyllie writes to tell me that he knows of several recent productions of his translation.)

The other is last and I think best novel, War with the Newts, where again humanity gets challenged by a force of its own creation, the eponymous Newts. These are a species of very large amphibian discovered in Indonesia which --- or rather, who --- prove to be docile, and are taught human language and technology, though not, for the most part, anything frivolous, cultured or nice (though there is a hilarious extended footnote where a Newt fondly recalls receiving a proper classical education from the very proper Mme. Zimmermann, especially the recitations of La Fontaine). Naturally, no country can resist using the Newts for military purposes, and, just as naturally, the Newts eventually begin to fight human beings, and then each other (this isn't a spoiler, since it's in the title).

Now, the critic Franco Moretti has recently claimed to have identified a new genre, the "modern epic", which isn't an epic in the old, heroic mold, and which many of us would hesitate to call novels, though it has aspects of both, and above all attempts to give us a synopsis of the world, a unified and total view of everything. He starts tracing the lineage with Faust, goes through Wagner and Moby-Dick to various monuments of modernism and to magical realism and Rushdie, claiming to correlate various changes in the form with changes in the "world-system" (which last need not concern us at the moment). Three notable traits of modern epics (at least, Moretti notes them, and they don't seem implicit in his definitions) are that they inspire vast exegitical industries; that they are often artistic failures; and that people don't really like to read them, and wouldn't if they didn't have to. (Bear in mind that this is a pukka professor of comparative literature at Columbia University saying these things, and not just a philistine physicist who gave up on Gravity's Rainbow after three tries.) What's remarkable about War with the Newts is that it fits most of the criteria for being a "modern epic", since it really does try to present, synoptically, the state of the world c. 1937, including, rather explicitly, the economic and political system, while at the same time it's a very readable, very funny book with no critical cult whatsoever.

Now a fine and excellent explanation for this last is that Čapek has no need of exegesis; a few of his references are dated after sixty years, and I imagine in a hundred he'll need a set of notes, but simple ones, along the lines of explaining why the rise of an ex-corporal with the initials A. S. to prominence as a dictator was much more amusing in Prague than in Berlin. Other than that sort of thing, there really isn't much to explain in Čapek; he is transparent. --- What this says about Čapek, or about Moretti's ideas, I'm not sure, but it looks worth exploring.

08 Aug 1997 11:09:49


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