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Presentation on Karel Capek

The life and works of Karel Capek

   Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Tomas Mates, I study at the Univesity of West Bohemia and tonight I would like to guide you through the life and works of Karel Capek. I have read several books written by this author and I consider them one of the best books written in Czech, mainly because of the excellent Czech usage. In my presentation tonight I want to presents you Karel Capek as a writer and Karel Capek as a man.

General Information:
   Let us start with the general information about this author. As far as I am concerned, I have to say, that I admire this writer for the number of books and plays, he has written during his hard and short life. Another surprising fact, that you may not kn ow is that Karel Capek almost got a Nober Prize for Literature. The details concerning this will be discussed later.
   What do we imagine under the name "Karel Capek" ? Or what book or play can we remember ? If you asked some native Czech, you would be probably given such an answer : 'The play "White Disease", "Mother" and >>What did you say - 'Capek'?<< - "From the Inse ct's Life". On the other hand a foreigner would probably say : 'Isn't it the play about the 'robots' - "RUR" and ... maybe "War with the Newts"'
   This evening I would like to develop several main points covering the important events in his life and we will also look at his litarary activity. You can see the structure of my presentation on the transparency.
   Before we start speaking about the individual topics, I'll tell you briefly, what are you going to hear tonight. We will start with life and career of Karel Capek, then we will look at the main works that were written in five different periods of his lif e. We will continue with his political orientation and relationships with famous people. Lastly, I will summarize the importance of this outstanding Czech writer.

Karel Capek (1890 - 1938) and his career


Important places:
   Speaking about a famous person we usually mention the place where he was born. In the case of Karel Capek it was a small village in the very east Bohemia called "Mal Svatonovice". As you can see in the title, he was born on 9th January 1890 and died on 25th December 1938. Soon after his birth the family moved to Úpice, where his father established his private surgery. As a student, Karel Capek stayed in Hradec Králové and Brno and also in Prague. The whole family moved there about the year 1910. Last three years spent Karel Capek togeher with his wife in the village "Stará Hut" near the town "Dobríz".

   Like an every child, Karel Capek was strongly influenced by his parents. Firstly, he followed his father, when he visited the patients as a private doctor. Secondly, his father was a keen gardener and both brothers inherited this passion too. Later, they even wrote a book called "The Gardener's Year" (Zahradníkuv rok). The mother of Karel Capek was a very sensitive woman, which caused his strong human feeling and understanding.

   At the age of 11 he was sent to a grammar-school in Hradec Králové. Here he started to write his first "pieces". Last two years of the grammar-school he finished in Brno. Then he travelled to France and Germany and in the year 1915 he successfully finish ed the Philosophical faculty of Charles University in Prague.

   Most of us know Karel Capek as a writer of novels and dramas. However, he also worked as a journalist in the newspapers "National Papers" and "People's Newspaper". In this branch he became famous for his short articles printed in the form of columns and analysing ordinary topics. They should not only entertain the readers, but also make them think about some problems of that time.

Important people in his life

   Speaking about Karel Capek we have to mention several people with a strong influence on him.

Brother "Josef":
   The first one was his brother Josef, which was three years older than him. There were several things these brothers had in common. Firstly, they were keen gardeners as well as their father. Then, they oftern worked together (for example as the editors of the "National Papers" (Národní listy)). We can also find several books written by Karel and illustrated by Josef. Finally, they lived many years in the semidetached house - it means - almost together.

Sister "Helena":
   There were three important women in the life of Karel Capek. We have already mentioned the first one - it was his mother. The second woman was his four years older sister "Helena". She wrote a book of memories called "My Dear Brothers" (Moji milí bratri).

Wife "Olga Scheinpflugová":
   The third important woman, as you probably expected, was his wife. The actress "Olga Scheinpflugová" and Karel Capek had known each other for almost 15 years until they got married in 1935. In this year they left Prague and moved to their private house i n the village "Stará Hu" near the town "Dob?í". Unfortunately, they did not spend too much time together because Karel is dying of pneumonia in 1938. To the memory of her husband, Olga wrote a semi-biobraphical book "The Czech Novel" (Ceský román) descibing their relationship and their common life.

Literary activity

Karel Capek as a Student:
   As a student of the grammar-school in Hradec Králové, Karel Capek wrote short articles to the secret students' newspaper. Later, in April 1904, when he moved to Brno, he sent two poems called "Simple Motives" (Prosté motivy) to the weekly "Sunday" (Nedele). It was his first officially published work. At the beginning of the World War One, he was examined by the military doctors. They found him some neck disease reducing his ability to move with the head. That is why, he avoided the compulsory military service and it gave him more time to work.

First Period of Literary Activity:
   Let us come to the beginning of his art career. His first period of literary activity starts around the year 1910 when he still studied at the Philosophical faculty. His first independent book, which was a collection of short non-action stories called "G od's Torture" (Bozí muka) was published in 1917. In the same year he finished and also published another collection of stories - "Painful Stories" (Trapné povídky). In these stories he tried to express his feeling of anxiety and uncertainty coming from h is personal life and from the society. He also wanted to suggest that there may exist such mysteries one can never understand. In this period there were written two more works. One of them is the drama "Robbery Man" (Loupeník) and the second is the translation of selected French poems which brought his brother Josef in 1912 from his journey to Paris. Karel Capek's effort was to mediate new trends in French literature and there really appeared a book called "French Poetry of the New Age" (Francouzská poezie nové doby) in 1920.

Second Period of Literary Activity:
   The second period of his literary activity began, when Karel Capek left the newspaper "National Papers" (Národní listy). He worked there together with his brother Josef and after his brother was discharged, he left too. He obtained more time to write and he focused on the utopian topics. His plays "RUR", "Factory for Absolute Space" (Továrna na Absolutno) and "Thing Makropulos" (Vec Makropulos) as well as the novel "Krakatit" deal with some unrealistic invention and des cribe possible results if they were abused. The first play RUR written in 1920 was translated into English in 1923 and it brought a completely new word "robot". This word describes a sophisticated machine that should help man with the hard work. All the plays and the novel finish with a disaster showing, how meaningless the certain invention was.

Third Period of Literary Activity:
   In 1929 Karel Capek wrote a nice collection of short stories called "Tales from Two Pockets" (Povídky z jedné a druhé kapsy), which tell different human stories in a colloquial Czech. This makes the tales not only easily understandable, but also shows th e brilliant language usage. In the third period we can mainly find short articles and newspaper "columns" analysing simple and common things of everyday's life. For example the story "I had a dog and a cat" (M?l jsem psa a koCku). As you may rememeber, in the first part of my presentation, where you have heard about parents of Karel Capek, I have told you, that his father infuenced him much when working in the garden. Now I shall mention the book "The Gardener's Year" (Zahradníkuv rok) where he used his experiences gained by gardening. This activity caused him a pain in the neck, but he liked to grow flowers and cultivate the grass because it was a way of relaxation, he liked very much. When working as an editor of the "People's Newspaper" (Lidové noviny), he published two very nice works for children. I suppose the each of you have read at least a part of the book "Dáe?ka or a puppy's life" or some tale from the book "Nine Fairy Tales " (Devatero pohádek) which includes quite modern fairy tales and shows how many synonyms could be used in the Czech language. Finally, his five books of travel written almost 70 years ago can give us a lifelike picture of the following countries : Grat Britain, Italy, Spain, Hollan and the countries in the north Europe. Karel Capek did hit the nail on the head when describing t he characters of the nations. It is strongly recommended to read these books of travel before travelling to the mentioned countries.

Fourth Period of Literary Activity:
   In the year 1933 starts the fourth period of Capek's literary activity. Within two following years he wrote three novels - each of them describing and analysing an interesting human life-stories. The names are called "Hordubal", "Meteor" and "An Ordinary Life" (Hordubal, Povetron a Obycejný zivot).

Fifth Period of Literary Activity:
   Last period of his literary activity is closely connected with the political situation of that time. We are in the year 1935 and there appears a threat of Fascism in the Europe. The Czechoslovakia bordering on Germany is watching the political situation of its neighbour with fear. Karel Capek wants to express his feelings and so he writes several anti-fascist works. The famous novel "War with the Newts" (Válka s mloky) is published in 1936. Capek is returning to his favourite utopian topics. This novel narrates a story of strange and big animals, that were discovered in Indonesia. People found them quite intelligent and after the newts were taught human language and technology, people started using them as a cheap working power. The support goes so far, that there is suddenly too much newts in the world demanding more and more space. Newts become dangerous and peop le have to start fighting them. Other works forming his anti-fascist campaign were the dramas "White Disease" (Bílá nemoc) and "Mother" (Matka). His last work "Life and works of the composer Foltýn" (Zivot a dílo skladatele Foltýna) remained unfinished.

Common Production with Brother Josef:
   Finally, I want to mention the common work of the Capek's brothers. Although Josef was first of all a very gifted painter, we can find some works holding the names of both brothers. It is a well known fact that most of the books written by Karel Capek we re illustrated by his brother, especially the books for children. Josef and Karel wrote together several nice works. In 1915, they published their first book called "Shining Depths" (Zá?ivé hlubiny) inspired by the catastrophe of Titanic. As the most important product of their co-operation I would mark the drama "From the Insect's Life" (Ze ivota hmyzu) showing and laughing at the features of a human character.

Political and public activity

Political Orientation:
   As we have heard, Karel Capek was a sensitive person, who tried to undestand people and could not stand any form of violence. His political orientation was liberal. He did not join the Communist Party and he expressed his relationship to this party in th e short story ""Why Did I Not Become a Communist". He could not hate someone simply just because it is a member of another class.

Group of Intellectual Personalities:
   Friends of Karel Capek used to have a party in his garden on Fridays. Every week there appeared such personalities like Vladislav VanCura, Karel PoláCek, Eduard Bass, Frá?a rámek and sometimes even Tomá Garrigue Masaryk. They used to discuss intellectu al and political topics and helped each other in the field of literature.

Friendship with TGM:
   It is a well-known fact, that Tomá Garrigue Masaryk and Karel Capek were friends. They often met themselves on Capek's parties, spent several holiday together, relaxed together in the spa and also worked together. Thank to the three books written by Kar el Capek and edited by Tomá Garrigue Masaryk himself, we know a lot of details from the life of the first Czechoslovak president. The titles of the books are : "Talks with TGM" (Hovory s TGM), "New Talks with TGM" (Nov hovory s TGM) and "Reading about TGM" (Ctení o TGM).

Contribution of Capek's work:
   I hope that those of you, who have not read a book by Karel Capek yet, will do so very soon. Now I will summarize, what do I consider important concerning this outstanding writer.
   Firstly, he wrote many works and on very different topics. I mean the fairy-tales for children and also the philosophical detective stories. His approach to people was very human including the readers.
   Every teacher of the Czech language can use his stories to show, how many synonyms the Czech language has. He was very intelligent and considered important to warn people against the technology abuse, although it was not as developed as today.
   His plays should persuade everyone about the meaningless of every war. This message did he develop in several last plays, he had written. The reason to nominate him for the Nobel Prize was the anti-war message incudede in his plays. Unfortunately, the Sw edish Academy was too afraid to give it to him when Germany was so strong at that time...

   Finally, thank you for your attention and if you want ask me questions concerning this topic, you can do it now ...

by Leonardo XI/1998

Dominik Zunt 1998-2004, design: Radek Varbuchta