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