Karel Čapek

"Čapek" redirects here. For the surname, see Čapek (surname).
Karel Čapek
Born (1890-01-09)9 January 1890
Malé Svatoňovice, Austria-Hungary (today Czech Republic)
Died 25 December 1938(1938-12-25) (aged 48)
Prague, Czechoslovakia
Pen name K. Č., B. Č.
Occupation Novelist, dramatist, journalist
Nationality Czech
Alma mater Charles University in Prague
Genre Science fiction, Political satire
Notable works R.U.R
Válka s mloky (War with the Newts)
Bílá nemoc (The White Disease)
Továrna na absolutno (The Absolute at Large)
Notable awards Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (in memoriam)
Spouse Olga Scheinpflugová
Relatives Josef Čapek (brother)
Helena Čapková (sister)


Karel Čapek (Czech: [ˈkarɛl ˈtʃapɛk]; 9 January 1890 – 25 December 1938) was a Czech writer of the early 20th century. He had multiple roles throughout his career such as playwright, dramatist, essayist, publisher, literary reviewer, photographer and art critic. Nonetheless, he is best known for his science fiction including his novel War with the Newts and the play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), which introduced the word robot.[1][2] He also wrote many politically charged works dealing with the social turmoil of his time. Largely influenced by American pragmatic liberalism[3] he campaigned in favor of free expression and utterly despised the rise of both fascism and communism in Europe.[4][5]

Čapek was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times,[6] but he never won one. However, several awards are named after him,[7][8] for example Karel Čapek Prize, which is awarded every other year by Czech PEN Club for literary work that contributes to reinforcing or maintaining democratic and humanist values in the society.[9] He was also a key figure in the creation of the Czechoslovak PEN Club as a part of the International PEN.[10] He died on the brink of World War II as a result of lifelong medical condition,[11] but his legacy as a literary figure has been well established after the war.[4]


House of Čapek brothers in Prague 10, Vinohrady

Early life and education

Karel Čapek was born in 1890 in the Bohemian mountain village of Malé Svatoňovice. However, six months after his birth, the Čapek family moved to their own house in Úpice.[12] His father, Antonín Čapek, worked as a doctor at the local textile factory.[13] Antonín was a very energetic person; apart from his work as a doctor, he also co-funded the local museum and was a member of the town council.[14] Despite opposing his father's materialist and positivist views, Karel Čapek loved and admired his father, later calling him “a good example... of the generation of national awakeners.”[15] Karel's mother, Božena Čapková, was a homemaker.[13] Unlike her husband she didn't like life in the country and she suffered from long-term depressions.[14] Despite that, she assiduously collected and recorded local folklore, such as lengends, songs or stories.[16] Karel was the youngest of three siblings. He would maintain an especially close relationship with his brother Josef, a highly successful painter, living and working with him throughout his adult life.[17] His sister, Helena, was a talented pianist, but later become a writer and published several memoires about Karel and Josef.[18]

After finishing elementary school in Úpice, he moved to Hradec Králové with his grandmother where he attended high school but after two years he got expelled for taking part in an illegal students' club.[13] Čapek later described this club as a “very non-murderous anarchist society.”[19] After this incident he moved to Brno with his sister and attempted to finish high school there, but after another two years he moved Prague where he finished high school at Academic Grammar School in 1909.[13][20] During his teenage years Čapek became enamored with the visual arts, especially Cubism, which influenced his future writing.[21] After graduating high school he studied philosophy and aesthetics in Prague at Charles University, but he also spent some time at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin and at the Sorbonne in Paris.[13][22] While he was still a university student, he wrote some works on contemporary art and literature.[23] He graduated as a doctor of philosophy in 1915.[24]

World War I and Interwar period

Exempted from military service due to the spinal problems that would haunt him his whole life, Čapek observed World War I from Prague. His political views were strongly affected by the war, and as a budding journalist he began to write on topics like nationalism, totalitarianism and consumerism.[25] Through social circles, the young author developed close relationships with many of the political leaders of the nascent Czechoslovak state, including Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovak patriot and the first President of Czechoslovakia, and his son Jan,[26][27] who would later become foreign secretary. T. G. Masaryk was a regular guest at Čapek's "Friday Men" garden parties for leading Czech intellectuals. Čapek was also a member of Masaryk's Hrad political network.[28] Their frequent conversations on various topics later served as basis for Čapek's Talks with T. G. Masaryk.[29]

Tomb of Karel Čapek and Olga Scheinpflugová at Vyšehrad cemetery

Čapek began his writing career as a journalist. With his brother Josef, he worked as an editor for the Czech paper Národní listy (The National Newspaper) from October 1917 to April 1921.[30] Upon leaving, he and Josef joined the staff of Lidové noviny (The People's Paper) in April 1921.[31]

Čapek's early attempts at fiction were mostly short stories and plays written with his brother Josef.[32][33] Čapek's first international success was R.U.R., a dystopian work about a bad day at a factory populated with sentient androids. The play was translated into English in 1922, and was being performed in the UK and America by 1923. Throughout the 1920s, Čapek worked in many writing genres, producing both fiction and non-fiction, but worked primarily as a journalist.[25] In the 1930s, Čapek's work focused on the threat of brutal national socialist and fascist dictatorships; by the mid-1930s, Čapek had become "an outspoken anti-fascist".[25] He also became a member of International PEN and established, and was the first president, of the Czechoslovak PEN Club.[10]

Late life and death

In 1935 Karel Čapek married actress Olga Scheinpflugová, after a long acquaintance.[13][34] In 1938 it became clear that the Western allies, namely France and the United Kingdom, would fail to fulfil the pre-war agreements, and they refused to defend Czechoslovakia against Nazi Germany. Although offered the chance to go to exile in England, Čapek refused to leave his country  – despite the fact that the Nazi Gestapo had named him "public enemy number two".[35] While repairing flood damage to his family's summer house in Stará Huť, he contracted a common cold.[30] As he had suffered all his life from spondyloarthritis and was also a heavy smoker, Karel Čapek died of pneumonia, on 25 December 1938.[33]

Surprisingly, the Gestapo was not aware of his death. Several months later, just after the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, Nazi agents came to the Čapek family house in Prague to arrest him.[11] Upon discovering that he had already been dead for some time, they arrested and interrogated his wife Olga.[36] His brother Josef was arrested in September and eventually died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945.[37] Karel Čapek and his wife are buried at the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague. The inscription on the tombstone reads: "Here would have been buried Josef Čapek, painter and poet. Grave far away."[35]


Karel Čapek's handwriting

Karel Čapek wrote with intelligence and humor on a wide variety of subjects. His works are known for their interesting and precise description of reality.[38] Čapek is renowned for his excellent work with the Czech language.[39][40] He is known as a science fiction author, who wrote before science fiction became widely recognized as a separate genre. Many of his works also discuss ethical aspects of industrial inventions and processes already anticipated in the first half of the 20th century. These include mass production, nuclear weapons and intelligent artificial beings such as robots or androids. His most productive years were during the The First Republic of Czechoslovakia (1918–1938).

Čapek also expressed fear of social disasters, dictatorship, violence, human stupidity, the unlimited power of corporations, and greed. Čapek tried to find hope, and the way out.

From the 1930s onward, Čapek's work became increasingly anti-fascist, anti-militarist, and critical of what he saw as "irrationalism".[41]

Ivan Klíma, in his biography of Čapek, notes his influence on modern Czech literature, as well as on the development of Czech as a written language. Čapek, along with contemporaries like Jaroslav Hašek, spawned part of the early 20th century revival in written Czech thanks to their decision to use the vernacular. Klíma writes, "It is thanks to Čapek that the written Czech language grew closer to the language people actually spoke".[17] Čapek was also a translator, and his translations of French poetry into the language inspired a new generation of Czech poets.[17]

His other books and plays include detective stories, novels, fairy tales and theatre plays, and even a book on gardening.[42] His most important works attempt to resolve problems of epistemology, to answer the question: "What is knowledge?" Examples include Tales from Two Pockets, and the first book of the trilogy of novels Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life.

After World War II, Čapek's work was only reluctantly accepted by the communist government of Czechoslovakia, because during his life he had refused to accept communism as a viable alternative. He was the first in a series of influential non-Marxist intellectuals who wrote a newspaper essay in a series called "Why I am not a Communist".[43]

In 2009 (70 years after his death), a book was published containing extensive correspondence by Karel Čapek, in which the writer discusses the subjects of pacifism and his conscientious objection to military service with lawyer Jindřich Groag from Brno. Until then, only a portion of these letters were known.[44]

Arthur Miller wrote in 1990:

"I read Karel Čapek for the first time when I was a college student long ago in the Thirties. There was no writer like him...prophetic assurance mixed with surrealistic humour and hard-edged social satire: a unique combination...he is a joy to read."[45]

Etymology of robot

R.U.R. theatrical poster, 1939

Karel Čapek introduced and made popular the frequently used international word robot, which first appeared in his play R.U.R. in 1920. While it is frequently thought that he was the originator of the word, he wrote a short letter in reference to an article in the Oxford English Dictionary etymology in which he named his brother, painter and writer Josef Čapek, as its actual inventor.[46] In an article in the Czech journal Lidové noviny in 1933, he also explained that he had originally wanted to call the creatures laboři (from Latin labor, work). However, he did not like the word, seeing it as too artificial, and sought advice from his brother Josef, who suggested roboti (robots in English).

The word robot comes from the word robota. The word robota means literally "corvée", "serf labor", and figuratively "drudgery" or "hard work" in Czech. It also means "work", "labor" in Slovak, archaic Czech, and many other Slavic languages (e.g. Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian, Polish, Macedonian, Ukrainian, etc.). It derives from the reconstructed Proto-Slavic word *robota, meaning "(slave) work." (Cf. the German word for work, Arbeit.)

An outline of Čapek's works



Other works

Travel books

Selected bibliography

See also


  1. Ort, Thomas (2013). Art and Life in Modernist Prague: Karel Capek and His Generation, 1911-1938. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-349-29532-6.
  2. Oxford English Dictionary: robot n2
  3. Hanley, Seán (2008). The New Right in the New Europe: Czech Transformation and Right-Wing. Routledge. p. 169. ISBN 978-0-415-34135-6.
  4. 1 2 Misterova, Ivona (2010). "Letters from England: Views on London and Londoners by Karel Capek, the Czech "Gentleman Stroller of London Streets". Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London. 8 (2). Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  5. Ort 2013, p. 3.
  6. "Nomination Database". The Official Web Site of the Nobel Prize. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  7. "Karel Čapek Medal for Translation from a Language of Limited Diffusion". International Federation of Translators. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  8. "Cena Karla Čapka (cena fandomu - Mlok)". DatabazeKnih.cz. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  9. "Czech PEN Club awards Karel Čapek Prize to Petr Šabach". Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic. 19 January 2016. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  10. 1 2 Derek Sayer, The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History. Princeton University Press, 2000 ISBN 069105052X, (p.22-3).
  11. 1 2 Strašíková, Lucie. "Čapek stihl zemřít dřív, než si pro něj přišlo gestapo". Česká televize (in Czech). Retrieved 4 June 2015.
  12. Ort 2013, p. 17.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "Life of Karel Čapek". Prism: UO Stories, University of Oregon. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  14. 1 2 Jana Ládyová (23 June 2016). "Božena Čapková, sběratelka, maminka slavných potomků" (in Czech). ŽENA-IN.cz. Retrieved 28 July 2016.
  15. Ort 2013, p. 19.
  16. Ort 2013, pp. 17-18.
  17. 1 2 3 Klíma, Ivan (2001). Karel Čapek: Life and Work. New Haven, CT: Catbird Press. pp. 191–199. ISBN 0-945774-53-2.
  18. "Helena Čapková" (in Czech). Město Hronov. Retrieved 28 July 2016.
  19. Čapek, Karel; Čapek, Josef (1982). "Předmluva autobiografická". Ze společné tvorby: Krakonošova zahrada, Zářivé hlubiny a jiné prózy, Lásky hra osudná, Ze života hmyzu, Adam stvořitel (in Czech). Československý spisovatel. p. 13.
  20. "Karel Čapek" (in Czech). Osobnosti.cz. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  21. Harkins, William (1990). "Introduction". In Čapek, Karel. Three Novels: Hordubal, Meteor, An Ordinary Life. Catbird Press. ISBN 0-945774-08-7.
  22. Tobranova-Kuhnnova, Sarka (1988). Believe in People: The essential Karel Capek. London: Faber and Faber. pp. xvii – xxxvi. ISBN 978-0-571-23162-1.
  23. Ort 2013, p. 21.
  24. Tracy A. Burns. "The artistic genius of Karel and Josef Čapek". Custom Travel Services s.r.o. (Ltd). Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  25. 1 2 3 James Sallis, Review of Karel Capek: Life and Work by Ivan Klima. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, (pp. 37–40).
  26. Liehm, Antonín J. (2016). Closely Watched Films: The Czechoslovak Experience. Routledge. ISBN 978-1138658059. (p. 56)
  27. Newsome, Geoffrey (2001). "Introduction". In Čapek, Karel. Letters from England. Continuum. ISBN 0 8264 8485 9. (p. 3)
  28. Šedivý, Ivan. "T. G. Masaryk: zrozen k mýtu" (in Czech). Dějiny a současnost. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  29. Talks with T. G. Masaryk at Google Books
  30. 1 2 "The Life of Karel Čapek". Památník Karla Čapka. 16 February 2015. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  31. Sarka Tobrmanova-Kuhnova, "Introduction," to Karel Čapek, "Believe in People: the essential Karel Čapek."London, Faber and Faber 2010, 2010, ISBN 9780571231621 (p.xxiv-xxv).
  32. "Josef Čapek" (in Czech). aktualne.cz. 9 June 2014. Retrieved 18 July 2016.
  33. 1 2 Nick Carey (12 January 2000). "Karel Čapek". Český rozhlas. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  34. Klíma 2001, pp. 200-206.
  35. 1 2 "Radio Prague - Mailbox". Český rozhlas. 3 March 2012. Retrieved 19 July 2016.
  36. "Olga Scheinpflugová" (in Czech). Osobnosti.cz. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  37. Adam Roberts, "Introduction", to RUR & War with the Newts. London, Gollancz, 2011, ISBN 0575099453 (p.vi).
  38. "Karel Čapek - pragmatista a ironik" (in Czech). Slovo a smysl (Word & Sense). Retrieved 18 July 2016.
  39. Jedlička, Alois (1991). "Jazykové a jazykovědné zájmy Karla Čapka". Naše řeč (in Czech). Czech Academy of Sciences. 74 (1): 6–15. Retrieved 18 July 2016.
  40. "Karel Čapek" (in Czech). aktualne.cz. 10 April 2014. Retrieved 18 July 2016.
  41. 1 2 3 Darko Suvin, "Capek, Karel" in Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers by Curtis C. Smith. St. James Press, 1986, ISBN 0-912289-27-9 (p.842-4).
  42. The Gardener's Year, illustrated by Josef Čapek. First published in Prague, 1929. English edition London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931
  43. K. Čapek, Why I am not a Communist? Přítomnost December 4, 1924.
  44. „Vojáku Vladimíre...“: Karel Čapek, Jindřich Groag a odpírači vojenské služby, Nakladatelství Zdeněk Bauer, Prague 2009.
  45. Miller, Arthur. "Foreword" to Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader, edited by Peter Kussi.Catbird Press, 1990, ISBN 0945774079 .
  46. Karel Capek – Who did actually invent the word "robot" and what does it mean? at capek.misto.cz
  47. The Gardener's Year at Google Books
  48. Apocryphal Tales at Google Books
  49. Dashenka, or the Life of a Puppy at Google Books
  50. Letters from Italy at Google Books
  51. Letters from England at Google Books
  52. Letters from Spain at Google Books
  53. Letters from Holland at Google Books
  54. Travels in the North at Google Books


Further reading

Čapek biographies in English
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Karel Čapek.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Karel Čapek
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/28/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.