Karel Čapek: Novelist, playwright – and travel writer

Karel Čapek, photo: public domain

Karel Čapek was a leading Czech interwar novelist, playwright and journalist and is perhaps most remembered for works of science fiction such as The War with the Newts and R.U.R., which gave the world the word “robot”. But did you know that Čapek was also a travel writer? His pieces from around Europe are the focus of the book In Search of a Shared Expression by Mirna Solic, a lecturer at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Glasgow. I spoke to her on the phone from Scotland.

Karel Čapek,  photo: public domain

Obviously Čapek is known as a novelist, a playwright and a journalist, but your book focuses on him as a travel writer. How much travel writing did he do?

“Actually, he did quite a lot of travel writing.

“As I stated in my book, his main opus – which as you mentioned is fiction and plays and everything which is known internationally – was done mainly from 1914 to 1938 and his travel writing also stretches throughout that period.

Mirna Solic,  photo: Archive of University of Glasgow
“He brought his travel narrative to Italy. He was in England and Scotland and, interestingly enough, he talks about England and Scotland separately.

“Then there are travel books from Spain and Holland and he also went to Scandinavian countries.

“But if you look at his opus more closely, then you will find that there are also many travel elements in his main novels and plays.

“So the travel writing is basically, I think, all across his opus.”

Was his travel writing mainly coming out as books? Or as articles in Czech newspapers or magazines?

“He first started publishing his travel pieces in Czech newspapers, because he worked for Lidové noviny.

“Then later on he published these as travel books.

“For instance, when he travelled to England and to Scotland he travelled at the invitation of PEN.

“And he published articles and then later on these were published as a separate book.”

What sense do the books give us as to what kind of a traveller he was? Because I know he was in poor health for a lot of his life.

“I think Čapek reflected a lot on Czechoslovakia from being abroad.”

“He was. I actually read some correspondence between him and Olga Scheinpflugová, his wife.

“When he went to Italy he wrote a lot to her about his Italian experience and he actually mentions that he went to Italy to work on his other books.

“He was quite… I don’t want to say depressed, but mentally he was really unwell and going to Italy was something that gave him another perspective.

“I can’t really comment on how difficult it was for him physically, but I think for him going abroad was also really to gain some perspective on life and also on the conditions in his own country.

“So I think he reflected a lot on Czechoslovakia also from being abroad.”

What was his aim with his travel writing? Was he kind of didactic, trying to teach the readers something, or was he entertaining them?

“I think it was both. It was very didactic, because at that time what he was actually searching for – and this is I’m writing about in my book – was the so-called primitive undercurrent.

Photo: Charles University / Mimo řady
“Because that was the time of the avant-garde movement, of avant-garde inspiration for what was known as primitivism.

“So many West European writers were travelling to distant countries and destinations.

“That was some sort of response to the first world war, because they were, so to say, searching for home.

“But for Čapek, I think, because he was so much engaged with this idea of the First Czechoslovak Republic, for him it was really about going to other European countries and seeing what it was that Czechoslovakia shared with them, in terms of art, in terms of literature, in terms of cultural origins, so to say, and cultural identity.

“So it was didactic.

“But it was also, I would say, aesthetic, because his travel pieces are very poetic.

“He also did a lot of illustrations, which I find incredibly interesting.

“These illustrations should also be treated as part of the travel narrative.”

He was also a keen amateur photographer. Are any photos of the photos from his travels still with us? Or were they used at that time?

“Unfortunately not.

“When I was in the archives a long time ago, in the early 2000s, I actually found some of his photographs from his travels.

“But they are mainly related to his travels to Scandinavia, because he was there with his wife, Olga Scheinpflugová – they went on honeymoon there.

Karel Čapek and Olga Scheinpflugová in Norway,  photo: MZV ČR
“There were some photos from then but unfortunately no, he didn’t use any of them in his travel pieces – only illustrations which he drew.”

You say in your book that his travel writing was “innovative and unique”. In what sense was it those things?

“It was very much unique because he merged very much visual art and also text.

“As I said, he drew a lot of illustrations. And when you look at the illustrations, they correspond to the text very much or even challenge the text.

“So they make the text experimental, which again is very much in accordance with the avant-garde poetics of the period.

“Then when you look at the scholarship about travel writing, not really many people do it with illustrations, because they’re always considered something obvious, something which is supposed to be there, something maybe childish or childlike.

“But the text itself is quite, I would say, poetical, many times fragmented.

“There are also many interactions between the visual and the textual part.

“In this way I think what Čapek is doing is following the Western European poetics of the period and what many other travel writers were doing as well.

“They were combining the visual arts and the textual element. So the tradition of travel writing, so to say.”

One fact that absolutely jumped out at me in the book was that the Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry “generously funded” Čapek’s travels. Why did they do that?

“I didn’t do a lot of research about that.

“I think Andrea Orzoff, who is a Czech scholar and historian from Oxford, did something about it.

“I think it was because at the time the First Czechoslovak Republic had emerged after the first world war and it was a time when the Czechs and Slovaks got some sense of their own national identity.

“The first Czechoslovak government was really trying to position Czechoslovakia on the map of Europe, not only in political terms but also in cultural terms.”

“So I think if you wanted to promote your country abroad then you should also promote your culture, you should also promote your literature and arts in general.

“There were many exhibitions abroad which were actually funded, partially or fully, by the Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry.

“So I think this is why Čapek was also generously supported on his travels by the Czechoslovak government.”

So it was a kind of cultural diplomacy that he was engaged in?

“Absolutely. This was a time of cultural diplomacy.

“I think the first Czechoslovak government was really trying to position Czechoslovakia on the map of Europe, not only in political terms but also in cultural terms.

“So the Czechs and Slovaks had to show what they had and what it was that they actually shared with Europe.

“When Čapek travelled, as I said, he was really looking for these artistic undercurrents.

“Even, for instance, when he goes to Spain he notices the cultural heritage from the time of the Habsburg monarchy and he says, This is something which I saw in my own country, this is something that we share – so we all belong to the big community of nations.”

What sense do you get from his travel writing of his own relationship to Europe?

“I think he would be very much against Brexit [laughs], if he lived in the 21st century.

“When people talk about him, scholars and readers alike, then we all like to talk about Čapek in terms of him being an anti-fascist, which he definitely was.

“All of his works have a very strong political message.

“But I actually think he appreciated European cultures very much.

“When Čapek goes to Spain he notices the cultural heritage from the time of the Habsburg monarchy and he says, This is something which I saw in my own country, this is something that we share.”

“He appreciated European literatures very much, and he was trying to show that Czech culture and literature is also European – because of its language and because of its heritage, it can be the same as any other developed European country.

“So that was a big, big, big appreciation.

“And it’s quite interesting, if you read his travels to Scandinavia, he was actually going there to find out what it is that makes the so-called Germanic race anti-fascist.

“It was his reaction to the second world war, which was on the horizon, and he was looking for the positive traits of all European cultures and nations.”

Does he write anything concrete about specific encounters with, I guess then emerging, fascism?

“He actually mentions fascist marches in Italy. He sees people in black uniforms and he ridicules that.

“Then when he goes to Scandinavia he has some remarks about the purpose of his travels.

“Now I can’t really quote it verbatim, but he is actually saying that he is going there really to find out what is it that makes this Germanic race great – not fascism, but all other things.

“So this anti-fascist message is implied in his travel writings as well.”

“I think Čapek would be very much against Brexit, if he lived in the 21st century.”

“An anti-fascist message is implied in his travel writings as well.”

As well as his books of travel writing from around the continent and the UK, there was also a book of his travel writing from Czechoslovakia that came out after his death. Can you tell us anything about that collection?

“That is quite interesting. He was travelling a lot through Czechoslovakia, and in particular Slovakia, and he wrote short travel pieces which I think were published in the newspapers but then later on they were posthumously published as a collection.

“An anti-fascist message is implied in his travel writings as well.”

“And when you read them and you compare then with the main travel opus it is quite visible that he has actually constructed these Czechoslovak landscapes and people and everything he saw according to what he saw in other European countries.

“So there are many similarities, for instance, between the description of Scotland and the description of the Tatras in Slovakia.

“There are many references to visual arts which are almost the same, just like in his main travel writing opus.

“But then that collection was also edited and I think at the time it was also used in the context of the rehabilitation of Čapek as a socialist writer, somebody who really loved his country.

“That is also, I think, a very important dimension of the reception of his travel opus after the second world war.”

And of course he couldn’t argue, because he’d been dead for 15 years or something.

“Exactly [laughs].”

How well does this writing stand up? How interesting is it to read today, 90 or so years after it was written?

“I still think it is quite relevant. His travel pieces are still being published.

Karel Čapek with Dashenka | Photo: Archive of Czech Radio
“I think the latest edition of his travels to England and Scotland was published just a few years back.

“Our students also like it very much and we’ve had some essays written about his travel writing, and his work in general.

“Because we do it a comparative way – which means we do not teach Czech literature only but we do Czech literature and culture within European and global literatures and cultures –then it actually becomes very relevant and interesting.

“You can make comparisons, you can draw links between different influences, different cultural traditions and different cultural heritages.

“And in this way I feel that Čapek’s work is still relevant today, because – as you know – many things that he wrote at that time are still relevant now.

“For instance, The War with the Newts, which is also I would say based partially on a travel writing tradition, the British colonial tradition, is still very relevant today, especially the story of invasion, which comes from the travel writing tradition.”