Archive for the ‘Karel Čapek’ Category

Today is the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia.  It was the day the Czech and Slovak people gained their independence after hundreds of years of Hapsburg rule, ushering in a new era of democracy, liberalism, and tolerance.  It was a brief era (twenty years later the Nazis invaded) but a glorious one.  And no one epitomised the spirit of the new nation like its first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

Masaryk was 68 years old when he became president.  Born to estate workers in Moravia, he’d followed a long path to the presidency and had been tireless in his quest for reform and freedom.  And he was loved for it.  He served as president for 17 years, until 1935, and in the early years conducted a series of extraordinary interviews with the much-loved author, Karel Čapek.  The result of these interviews – although interview is hardly the right word for it, really it is musings that Čapek was around to capture – were several books that in 1995 were condensed into a single translated volume for English-speakers called simply Talks with T.G. Masaryk by Karel Čapek.  The book is in Masaryk’s voice, which is a wonderful way of getting a sense of the man himself.

The collection has been laid out to follow the chronology of Masaryk’s life, beginning with his childhood in Moravia.  His father was Slovak and his mother a German-speaking Moravian and those were the languages Masaryk grew up speaking.  German was spoken all through school (as was typical throughout Austria-Hungary), making it easy to progress to university in Vienna, but when Masaryk moved to Prague years later to take up a teaching post he was uncomfortably conscious of his poor Czech.

He had fond memories of his parents and somewhat rural upbringing but also acknowledged the limitations of such a life:

A boy in an out-of-the-way village has few living examples of anything beyond his circle of farmers and artisans: the teacher, the chaplain and dean, the owners of the estate and their servants, and a merchant perhaps.  What a boy becomes is determined not so much by his gifts as by the opportunities closest at hand.

A passion for helping young people runs throughout the interviews.  Masaryk had founded a social democracy that firmly believed in helping people make the most of themselves.  He thought about education and infrastructure and, constantly, health.  He believed deeply that the nation’s systems and institutions had to be crafted in a way that benefited the people.  They are ideas that sound very familiar to political discussions going on in certain supposedly developed countries even today:

…take health.  I can’t understand why we’ve thought so little about playgrounds, swimming pools, and parks for children.  The poorer the district, the more such facilities are needed: poor districts have more children.  With the proper watering we can have the same grassy playgrounds as England.  Here again it’s a question of money, yet putting money into children is the best investment there is.

But perhaps his most modern-seeming views were on the equality of the sexes.  Masaryk was an unapologetic feminist.  He was devoted to his American wife, Charlotte, and took her maiden name (Garrigue) as part of his.  Guided by logic and reason as always, he could see no reason to treat women differently than men:

How can people ask, I wonder, whether woman is man’s equal?  How can the mother who bears a child not be equal to the father?  And if a man truly loves, how can he love someone beneath him?  I see no difference between the endowments of men and women…

He believed firmly in marriage but was progressive as well, recognizing that divorce had its place in the society he envisioned:

The greatest argument for monogamy is love.  True love – love without reservation, the love of one whole being for another – does not pass with the passing years or even death.  One man and one woman for life, fidelity till death – that is how I see it.  Happy is the man or woman who has lived a rigorously monogamous life.  Yes, I am for divorce; I am for divorce because I want marriage to be love and not commerce or convention, not a senseless or thoughtless union.

Always a modest man, Masaryk believed in simple living.  His dictates in aid of this occur throughout the book and make clear that he probably wasn’t a huge amount of fun on a Friday night.  He gave up even modest drinking at 50, did not smoke, ate simply and sparingly (his details his menu at one point), and was devoted to his daily exercise regime (Sokol exercises and horseback riding).  When living in exile in London, he lived cheaply and would travel by bus to meetings with government officials and world leaders and then dine at a Lyons café, where he appreciated that you could “get a decent meal for ten or fifteen pence.”

In the end, his prescription for a long life was simple:

It shouldn’t be a feat to live to a hundred, but no tricks or gimmicks will get us there, that’s for sure.  Fresh air and sunshine; moderate food and drink; a moral life and a job involving muscles, heart, and brain; people to care for and a goal to strive for – that’s the macrobiotic recipe of success.  Oh, and a keen interest in life, because an interest in life is tantamount to life itself, and without it and without love, life ceases to exist.

Reading these passages felt eerie, in a way.  It was like hearing my great-grandfather speak, a man whose edicts for how to live were passed down from his children to their children to their children and now they are being passed again to the newest generation.  It is no surprise that he was a huge fan of Masaryk.

But, helpful as such guidance is, health tips are not what made Masaryk so beloved.  As staunch as he was in his personal habits, he was stauncher still in his beliefs.  His devotion to democracy was absolute and he was that rare man who did not change with power, whose beliefs held strong and fast for decades and guided first him and then an entire nation forward.  It was something he was rightly very proud of:

Should I be asked what I consider the high point of my life I would not say it was being elected president…It comes from having relinquished nothing as head of state that I believed in and loved as a penniless student, a teacher of youth, a nagging critic, and a political reformer, from having found no need in my position of power for any moral law or relationship to my fellow man, my nation, and the world but those which guided me before…I have not had to change one item of my faith in humanity and democracy, in my search for truth, or in my reliance on the supreme moral and religious commandment to “love they neighbour.”

My great-grandmother’s proudest story was of how Masaryk, whose estate shared a wall with her garden, used to ride past on his morning constitutional and admire her roses.  The roses were already the pride of her life (her four children were modestly appreciated, too) but to have the great man stop and tell her of their beauty made both them and him even more precious to her.  He was that sort of man – he appreciated small things and was thoughtful enough to show that appreciation.

Masaryk served as president until 1935 and died two years later at the age of 87.  He left behind a robust democracy with a thriving economy.  Thank god he did not live to see what came next.  Would things have been different if “the Grand Old Man of Europe” had survived a few years more?  Would Czechoslovakia’s allies have been so quick to desert them in 1938 if he had been there?  Who knows.

Masaryk believed in human progress and that “The future is with us now.  If we choose the best of what we have now, we’ll be on the right road; we’ll have extended our lives with a piece of the future.”  He was an extraordinary politician and statesman then and, sadly, is no less extraordinary today.  He is a reminder of what we all can and should be.  And, thankfully, he has not yet been forgotten.  In fact, a film has just been released dramatizing these conversations between Masaryk and Čapek.  It seems unlikely to make its way into the English-speaking world but one can hope.

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Letters from ItalyIn 1923, the great Czech writer Karel Čapek published his first travel book: Letters from Italy.  Having greatly enjoyed Letters from England (1924) and being now in the midst of planning my first trip to Italy, this seemed like the perfect time to read about Čapek’s travels there.

Good news about my upcoming trip: there will be fewer fascists (I hope) than Čapek encountered.  Needless to say, they were not the highlight of his trip.  Čapek spent much of his career speaking out against dictatorships and fascism in particular, which does make one wonder why he decided to visit Italy so soon after Mussolini came into power.  On the other hand, it is Italy.  I can understand how its charm would outweigh any feelings of disgust for its vile Prime Minister.

Čapek starts in Venice (as I plan to do – how cunning of him to mirror my own itinerary!).  The famously confusing streets befuddle the traveller almost immediately:

I, who flatter myself that I have the sense of direction, strolled round a circle for two hours yesterday.  I left St. Mark’s Square for the Rialto, a good ten minutes’ walk: after two hours I finally reached St. Mark’s Square.  These Venetian streets decidedly remind me of the East, clearly because I have never been in the East, or of the Middle Ages for perhaps the same reason.

Paragraphs like this are the reason I love Čapek so much.  Unfortunately, there are very few of them in this book.

Čapek moves on to, well, just about everywhere.  For a brief trip, he covers a lot of ground.  He moves comfortably through the country, despite speaking no Italian – perhaps, as he believes, because he speaks no Italian:

Undoubtedly in international hotels you can always make yourself understood in French: but there are places more interesting than all the hotels in the world, and there you have such a cosmopolitan babel that you cannot inquire or make yourself comprehensible or ask anyone for anything; there you rely upon people to provide you with food, drink, and lodgings and take you somewhere – how and where, that is of course in their powers and not yours, but you trust yourself to them as a dumb, helpless creature incapable of choice, self-defence, or insult.  And so they give you food and drink, protection and lodging; you accept everything with a thousand-fold more gratitude than if you ordered it in a lordly, comprehensive way.

On he travels but, to be honest, he moves too quickly to really observe any place very well.  It’s fun to say “oh, that sounds like somewhere worth visiting” but that is not what I look for in this sort of book.  I want to be charmed and entertained and, mostly, I want him to be funny in his criticisms of Italy and the Italians.  He did this brilliantly in Letters from England but obviously had not quite found his style yet with this book.  And what a shame – I’m sure he could have been quite devastatingly clever if he’d let loose (there are flashes of this at times).

The book ends in Bolzano, which Čapek views with relief.  After sunshine and arid hilltowns, palaces and museums, it is unbelievably cheering to come to a familiar landscape of mountains and forests and to see people who, until only a few years before, had been part of the same Empire as he.  Travel is broadening but never more delightful than when you encounter the familiar after weeks of feeling like an alien.

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Letters from EnglandGiven my love of travelogues, books about British identity, and humourous writing in general, it is no wonder that I loved Letters from England by Karel Čapek.  During the 1920s and 1930s, Čapek wrote a series of “Letters from” books detailing his travels in Italy, Spain, Holland, Scandinavia, and, of course, the United Kingdom.  Written to his fellow countrymen, Čapek tries to interpret what he sees on his journeys for his Czech readers and the results are truly delightful.

There are two impressions which are completely fantastic: to discover something unexpected, and to discover something altogether familiar.  One is always taken aback to meet an old acquaintance unawares.  Well, in the same way I was astonished when I discovered the Houses of Parliament by the Thames, gentlemen in grey top-hats in the streets, two-metre bobbies at the crossroads, and so on.  It was astonishing to find that England is really so English.

Though an admirer of England and the English, Čapek is not immediately impressed by his surroundings when he arrives in London in 1924.  In fact, he is (quite rightly) horrified by the monotonous architecture of London’s sprawling suburbs:

At last the train bores its way between houses of a curious sort; there are a hundred of them entirely alike; then a whole streetful alike; and again, and again.  This produces the effect of a fashion craze. The train flies past a whole town which is beset by some terrible curse; inexorable Fate has decreed that each house shall have two pillars at the door.  For another huge block she has decreed iron balconies.  The following block she has perpetually condemned to grey bricks.  On another mournful street she has relentlessly imposed blue verandahs.  Then there is a whole quarter doing penance for some unknown wrong by placing five steps before every front door.  I should be enormously relieved if even one house had only three; but for some reason that is not possible.

London proves a disappointment for Čapek.  He finds the size and bustle of the city overwhelming, the people reserved and the public places cold and impersonal.  He is duly impressed by the tall policemen but he finds the city impersonal and lacking in the warm communal spirit he is familiar with in continental Europe:

Only the people here are quieter than elsewhere; they talk to each other half-heartedly, and their aim is to get home with the least possible delay.  And that is the strangest thing about the English streets: here you do not see respectable ladies telling each other on the kerb what happened at the Smiths or the Greens, nor courting couples strolling arm-in-arm like sleep-walkers, nor worthy citizens seated on their doorstep with their hands on their knees (by the way, here I have not yet seen a carpenter or a locksmith or a workshop or a journeyman or an apprentice; here are nothing but shops, nothing but shops, nothing but Westminster Bank and Midland Bank, Ltd.), nor men drinking in the street, nor benches in the market-square, nor idlers, nor tramps, nor servant-girls, nor pensioners – in short, nothing, nothing, nothing; the London streets are just a gulley through which life flows to get home.  In the streets people do not live, stare, talk, stand or sit; they merely rush through the streets. ..In our country, in Italy, in France, the street is a sort of large tavern or public garden, a village green, a meeting-place, a playground and theatre, an extension of home and doorstep; here it is something which belongs to nobody, and which does not bring anyone closer to his fellows; here you do not meet with people, and things, but merely avoid them.

He does acknowledge that an Englishman’s silence has a certain sort of dignity and power – “A man from the Continent gives himself an air of importance by talking; an Englishman by holding his tongue” – but still it is not a silence that he could ever be comfortable with.

When Čapek finally leaves London though, he is delighted by what he sees: Where are you to pick words fine enough to portray the quiet and verdant charms of the English countryside?  Green pastures dotted with contented sheep and  majestic oaks scattered across the landscape leave Čapek with nothing but affection for pastoral England, though he is slightly confused by the lazy agricultural practices of the English, who leave so much good land unfarmed and seem to just leave their horses grazing in fields all day rather than putting them to work.  After visiting a few, he becomes particularly enamoured of the English country home, which, in 1924, represents all that is comfortable and gracious: …tennis and warm water, the gong summoning you to lunch, books, meadows, comfort selected, stabilized and blessed by the centuries, freedom of children and patriarchal disposition of parents, hospitality and a formalism as comfortable as a dressing gown…

Čapek travels northward through England, up into Scotland (where he finds himself much more at ease among the Scots than he was with the English), down to Wales, and out to the South West, where, already a bit irritated by the piety of the English, he finds himself stranded in Exeter on a rainy Sunday:

An Exeter Sunday is so thorough and holy that the very churches are closed, and as regards creature comforts, the wayfarer who despises cold potatoes must go to bed with an empty stomach; I do not know what particular joy this causes to the Exeter God.

He leaves happy to have visited (the final section details some of the prominent literary figures with whom he spent time during his visit) but very happy to be going home.  As much as he finds to admire in the English – they are courteous and absolutely trustworthy – he still finds them “hard as flint, incapable of adapting themselves, conservative, loyal, rather shallow, and always uncommunicative”.  It is with relief that he heads for home:

The Continent is noisier, less disciplined, dirtier, madder, subtler, more passionate, more affable, more amorous, fond of enjoyment, wayward, harsh, talkative, more reckless, and somehow less perfect.  Please give me a ticket straight away for the Continent. 

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I am slowly becoming a gardener.  As a child I always helped in the garden, always weeded and watered and fertilized as directed but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started taking an active interest in gardening.  Even when all I had was my little balcony in Calgary, how exciting it was to choose my plants!  To plant and care for them!  Even dead-heading became a sacred occupation, and I picked wilted petunia blossoms off with unrivalled discipline and care, snipped off browning roses with manic zeal.

And now that I have a real garden to work in – and a climate that doesn’t feel the need to have frosts in July and August – my enthusiasm has only grown, along with my anxiety.  I read The Gardener’s Year by Karel Čapek (a good Czech and friend of my great-grandfather and, yes, I’m bragging about that because it is pretty darn cool and I’ve relatively few connections to literary figures, aside from Alice Munro) in early June, just as the garden was coming to life and oh, what a perfect book and what a perfect time to read it!

The Gardener’s Year is a selection of humourous essays on a year in the life of a gardener.  It is very much about the gardener and his stresses and joys rather than the garden itself, which is what makes it so very enjoyable and timeless.  Even new as I am to the obsession, my own recent gardening plights, the missteps and mistakes that were weighing heavily on my soul, were perfectly echoed by Čapek, as though he had been in the garden witnessing my incompetence only a few days previously:

…nobody knows how it happens, but it occurs strikingly often that when you step on a bed to pick up some dry twig, or to pull out a dandelion, you usually tread on a shoot of the lily or trollius; it crunches under your foot, and you sicken with horror and shame; and you take yourself for a monster under whose hooves grass will not grow.  Or with infinite care you loosen the soil in a bed, with the inevitable result that you chop with the hoe a germinating bulb, or neatly cut off with the spade the sprouts of anemones; when, horrified, you start back, you crush with your paw a primula in flower, or break the young plume of a delphinium.  The more anxiously you work, the more damage you make; only years of practice will teach you the mysteries and bold certainty of a real gardener, who treads at random, and yet tramples on nothing; or if he does, at least he doesn’t mind. (p. 51)

As June has progresses and I’ve watched unusually savage rains beat the petals off my snapdragons and cosmos and cold snaps stunt my roses, I’ve often thought back on Čapek’s gardener’s prayer (and repeated it, to little effect):

If it were of any use, every day the gardener would fall on his knees and pray somehow like this: ‘O Lord, grant that in some way it may rain every day, say from about midnight until three o’clock in the morning, but, you see, it must be gentle and warm so that it can soak it; grant that at the same time it would not rain on campion, alyssum, helianthemum, lavender, and the others which you in your infinite wisdom know are drought-loving plants – I will write their names of a bit of paper if you like – and grant that the sun may shine the whole day long, but not everywhere (not, for instance, on spiraea, or on gentian, plantain lily, and rhododendron), and not too much; that there may be plenty of dew and little wind, enough worms, no plant lice and snails, no mildew, and that once a week thin liquid manure and guano may fall from heaven.  Amen.’ (p. 82-83)

The illustrations by Josef Čapek are no less delightful than the text, particularly the ones featuring the gardener as contortionist, hunched and bent and stretched entirely out of shape in order to service each unreachable corner of garden. 

Whether he’s lamenting the weather, lampooning the holidaying gardener’s instructions to his substitute or considering the traitorous and unpredictable nature of the garden hose, Čapek is always light-hearted, charming and, above all, affectionate.  He is able to recognize and brilliantly capture the ridiculous habits and mindsets of gardeners but he can only do it with such skill and accuracy because he is one himself and thinks as they think, feels as they feel.  Or, I suppose I should now say as a gardener, however amateur, as we think, as we feel:

Let no man think that real gardening is a bucolic and meditative occupation.  It is an insatiable passion, like everything else to which a man gives his heart. (p. 13)

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