Believe in People: the Essential Karel Capek

This companionable collection by perhaps the greatest Czech writer of the 20th century is, at first glance, so unsettlingly optimistic that it comes as no surprise to discover that its author loved fairy tales. Stick with it, however, and you find the wisdom of a lost age and a lost country: that ideal modern and western state that pre-war Czechoslovakia tried to be. The buildings are still there in Prague and other Czech cities. Gaze at them and read Karel Capek. It should make you sad.

Capek, born in 1890, was a novelist and playwright whose career almost exactly coincided with the 20 years of the first Czechoslovak Republic, destroyed by Hitler's push east.

The love he felt for that rationally conceived, open-minded, cosmopolitan country, free - as he saw it - from the old hierarchies and nationalisms, was expressed in an easy style that reached out to a broad public and propounded the virtues of self-help. This volume shows how the essence of Capek, as both artist and man, was to be found in the short, chatty pieces he wrote for the newspapers.

Describing his mindset before the First World War, he wrote that "what was at stake was a new Europeanship, and even more than that - a new relation to the world. To a collective, accelerated and constructible world." Capek was a secular idealist who believed society could be reconstructed along rational lines to make people happier. This was also roughly the ethos of the First Republic, and although political left and right clashed, it appeared to succeed remarkably. Hence the terrible pathos of an unsent letter Capek wrote to the participants in the Munich Conference of 1938 that allowed Hitler to have his way. "In what British or French interest was the conclusion reached that the healthy life of this small and relatively happy country must be vitally broken?"

Of that country, Capek writes: "It[s] was a creed of democracy and freedom . . . in the spirit of the republican and civilian west . . . [and against] the simplified war ideology . . . absolutism and militarism . . ." The pre-war optimism that Capek loved was embodied for him by Tomáš Masaryk, the philosopher who founded the First Republic and was its first president. Masaryk and Capek epitomised what the latter called "pen-and-spirit-minded people" - a phrase on which Capek's view of his role in life turned. He imagined himself as a linguist "disclosing the disorders, abuses, incoherences and impressions of expression [which] would lead to the recognition of similar flaws in social thinking". To take responsibility for freedom, besides teaching people to notice other people and things, also meant watching one's words and not being lazy or easily misled.

In the feuilleton, which is a serious-minded, sometimes didactic central European genre for which we in Britain have no equivalent, Capek was shaping the souls of his people - not teaching them things, he insisted, but communicating with them and showing them how to see. His idea of a successful piece was one that made the life of the railwayman or the shop manager or the housewife lighter, brighter and more satisfying (in days of less social mobility). The cultural impulse was "a certain drive not to embitter life for others unnecessarily . . . to re­vitalise somehow their trust, their smile, their human relationships . . . this I presume is a matter of adding value to life".

The housewife and her cleaning rituals were as interesting to him as the latest works of lit­erature. Representing a high culture that was coming under pressure from the new mass media of radio and film, he told his readers that high and popular were nothing in themselves. "Culture depends on how things - any thing - are used." He had the materialist sensibility of a boy born into a world of craftsmanship and a saintly kindness that must surely contribute to his enduring national status. When he is not feeling well, he searches in vain for "a book that conveys reality but isn't nasty to people".

As the pressure mounts from a Nazi Germany that is about to destroy Capek's world and his dreams, he calls with new urgency for "spiritual self-discipline". For Capek, the "spiritual" is still secular - it amounts to the right use of intelligence: "Intelligence has been created for overcoming obstacles and for the better advancement of life." If the old virtues of concentration and responsibility and working things out for oneself make for a decent European spiritual culture, how much more important are they in resisting tyranny. Reading Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and sensing its institutional escapism, Capek is already "ashamed of the future".

Šárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová's soaring, near-flawless translation of these pieces ensures a pleasant, as well as memorable, read. Her inclusion of some of Capek's private letters to his be­loved, the actress and writer Olga Scheinpflugová, a relationship that was overshadowed by illness as he battled a debilitating spinal disease, raises Capek's story to the level of tragedy. Here, you see the wide sweep of his intelligence in a personal light. As he writes: "I can disperse, not overcome myself."

Lesley Chamberlain is the author of "The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia" (Atlantic Books, £9.99)

Believe in People: the Essential Karel Capek
Karel Capek
Faber & Faber, 240pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit

Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis