"Imagine discovering the rich, warm humanity of a Dickens or a Gogol,
and you have some idea of the impact of this selection from the work of
Czechoslovakia's foremost twentieth-century writer."
Karel Čapek (1890-1938) is generally considered the greatest Czech author of the first half of the 20th century. This volume includes a selection of Čapek's best plays, stories, columns, essays, and travel writing, all newly translated or modernized and corrected.
In his writings, Čapek searched for the root, or the radical center, of our contradictions and mysteries. From a paean to clumsy people and the discovery of a single footprint in an untrodden field of snow, to dramatic meditations on mortality and commitment, there is little that Karel Čapek did not examine in his uniquely humorous and searching way.
CONTENTS -- Plays (all in new translations): R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), The Makropulos Secret, The Mother, and Act II of From the Life of the Insects.
Prose: Stories from Tales from Two Pockets, Apocryphal Tales, and Cross Roads. Plus humorous and serious newspaper columns, excerpts from travel books and a book on gardening, and Čapek's introduction to At the Crossroads of Europe, a 1938 book published by PEN to show why Czechoslovakia should be supported by the West.
$14.95 paper, 416 pp., illus., ISBN 0-945774-07-9. Also available as an e-book.
Forgive me if I start off with something quite other than literature, something from the days when I was a small boy. Your city boy is a kind of super-boy, a born skeptic, lord of the streets; and it is quite natural that he have a huge contempt for hayseeds, nincompoops, bumpkins, and clodhoppers, as he calls country boys. Your country boy looks down with immense and justified contempt on city boys, for he is lord of the fields and forests; he knows all about horses and is on friendly terms with the beasts of the field; he can crack a whip and he has under his dominion all the treasures of the earth, from willow- switches to ripe poppy-heads. And even your boy from a small country town is by no means the least among worldly princes, for he includes in his circle more than any other mortal creature: he can watch all human activities at close quarters.
When I was a boy in a small country town I saw at home how a doctor's business is run, and at my grandfather's I could inspect the business of a miller and baker, which is especially fine and amusing. And at my uncle's I saw what a farmer has to do; but if I started on that I would never stop telling you all the things I learned. Our nearest neighbor was the painter who stenciled designs on walls, and that is a tremendously interesting job. Sometimes he used to let me mix the colors in their pots, and once, almost bursting with pride, I was allowed to smear a stencil pattern with his brush; it came out crooked, but otherwise most successfully. I'll never forget how that painter used to stride up and down the banks whistling, gloriously splashed with all the colors of the rainbow; and he stenciled in such miraculously straight lines, sometimes even painting something freehand — perhaps an amazingly well-nourished rose the color of stale liver, on the ceiling. It was my first revelation of the painter's art, and I lost my heart to it then and have been in love with it ever since. And then I used to go every day and have a look at how the innkeeper does his job, to see how they roll casks down into the cellar and how they draw beer and blow off the froth, and hear the wise tales the old gossips tell as they wipe froth from their whiskers with the backs of their hands.
Every day I would look in on neighbor cobbler and watch in silence how he cut leather and hammered it on his last and then put on the heel, and all manner of other things, for shoemaking is intricate and delicate work, and if you haven't seen leather in a cobbler's hands you know nothing about it at all, even if you do wear shoes of cordovan or even of celestial leather. Then there was neighbor hurdy-gurdy man, and I went to see him too, when he was at home, and was so surprised that he didn't play his hurdy- gurdy at home, but sat and stared at one corner of the room till I felt quite uncomfortable. There was the mournful stone-mason who carved crosses and strange, short, dumpy angels on gravestones; he'd tap away all day and never say a single word, and I'd stand watching for perhaps an hour while he chipped away at the unseeing eye of a weeping angel. And then, ha ha! yes! there was the wheelwright with his beautiful wood throwing off sparks and his yard full of hastening wheels, as Homer says; and a wheel, you know, is a wonder in itself. Then there was the smith in his black smithy: I burst with pride when I was allowed sometimes to work the bellows for him while, looking like a black Cyclops, he heated an iron bar red-hot and hammered it till it sent out a shower of sparks; and when he put a shoe on a horse it smelled of burnt horn, and the horse would turn his wise eyes on the smith as much as to say, "All right, go on, I won't make a fuss."
A little farther on lived Tonca, the prostitute; I didn't understand her business very well, and I used to pass her little house with an odd, dry feeling in my throat. Once I looked in through the window, but it was all empty — just striped feather-beds, and some consecrated pussy willows above the bed. I had a look at the mill owners' businesses, and watched them hurrying through their counting-houses, and collected foreign stamps out of their wastepaper baskets; and I watched the mill hands at the vats full of tow, and the weavers at the mysterious mechanical looms: I went into the red-hot hell of the jute-drying kilns and scorched myself beside the stokers at the boilers, wondering at their long shovels, which I could hardly lift. I would visit the butcher, eyeing him with interest to see if he would cut off a finger. I would have a look in at the shopkeeper as he weighed and measured; stop at the tinsmith's, and go into the carpenter's yard where everything was a-whirr and a-clatter. I went to the poorhouse to see what the poor do with themselves, and went with them to the fair in the city one Friday to learn how the business of begging was carried on.
Now, I have a profession of my own, and I work at it the livelong day. But even if I were to sit on the porch with my work I don't think a single boy would come — standing on one bare foot and rubbing his calf with the other — and watch my fingers to see how a writer's business is done. I don't say that it is a bad or useless profession: but it isn't one of the superlatively fine and striking ones, and the material used is of a strange sort — you don't even see it. But I'd like all the things I used to see to be in it: the ringing hammer-strokes of the smith and the colors of the whistling house painter, the patience of the tailor and the careful chipping of the stone-mason, the bustling of the baker, the humility of the poor, and all the lusty strength and skill which men of towering stature put into their work before the astonished and fascinated eyes of a child.