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A Czech’s Eye View of England

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Letters from England by Karel Capek

Having enjoyed “War with the Newts” so much, I remembered that I had lurking on the shelves somewhere Capek’s book “Letters from England”. If I recall correctly, I picked this up from the reduced shelf of the late lamented Claude Cox Books, because it sounded lovely and had pretty little pictures. It’s old and fragile and a bit foxed, but what a delight to read!

letters

Capek visited England in 1924 (and also Scotland and Wales, but not Ireland), and his book takes the form of impressions of his visit, the people, the country and the customs, along with some lovely little pen and ink sketches. There is a certain archness about some of it, as if he’s deliberately writing as a simple foreign visitor, but underneath this style are some pithy observations and some very sly humour.

So Capek copes with London streets and traffic, museums, famous people, the countryside, Oxford and Cambridge; he visits Scotland and seems to take to it; he passes through Wales and then heads back to the Lake District; and he observes the people of Britain with a curious, interested European eye.

A self portrait of the artist/author!

A self-portrait of the artist/author!

The drawings are a delight, and Capek’s comments funny and thoughtful. I think I can best give you a flavour of it with some quotes and a couple of the pictures!

On English Clubs:

Our tradition is not based upon such old and especially such comfortable arm-chairs. As it has nowhere to sit, it hangs in the air. I thought of that when I was taking my ease in one of these historical arm-chairs; I had a somewhat historical feeling, but was otherwise quite cosy, and I took a peep at the other historical personalities, who were partly hanging on the walls, partly sitting in the club chairs and reading Punch or Who’s Who. Nobody spoke, and this produced a truly dignified effect: we in our country ought to have such places where silence is preserved. An old gentleman shuffled along on two sticks across the room, and nobody maliciously told him he was looking first-rate. Another buried himself in a newspaper (I could not see his face) without feeling a passionate need to talk to somebody else about politics. A man from the Continent gives himself an air of importance by talking; an Englishman by holding his tongue.

club

An English Club

On Scotland:

If I were a poet…I would to-day write a short but beautiful poem. It would be about the Scottish lakes, the Scottish wind would be wafted through it, and the daily Scottish rain would bedew it; it would contain something about blue waves, gorse, bracken and wistful pathways; in it I should not mention that these wistful pathways are entirely begirt with a fence (perhaps to prevent enchantresses from going to dance there). I must say in crude prose how beautiful it is here; a blue and violet-coloured lake between bare hills…

Edinburgh roofs

Edinburgh roofs

On English cooking:

English cooking is of two kinds: good and average. Good English cooking is simply French cooking; the average cooking in the average hotel for the average Englishman explains to a large extent the English bleakness and taciturnity. Nobody can beam and warble while chewing pressed beef smeared with diabolical mustard. Nobody can exult aloud while ungluing from his teeth a quivering tapioca pudding. A man becomes terribly serious if he is given salmon bedaubed with pink dextrin; and if for breakfast, for lunch and for supper hs has something which, when alive, is a fish, and in the melancholy condition of edibility is called fried sole; if three times a day he has soaked his stomach with a black brew of tea, and if he has drunk his fill of bleak light beer, it he has partaken of universal sauces, preserved vegetables, custard and mutton – well, he has perhaps exhausted all the bodily enjoyments of the average Englishman and he begins to comprehend his reticence, solemnity and austere morals.

Kapek’s “Letters from England” were a joy to read – funny, profound and very engaging – and very highly recommended!

Man’s Inhumanity to Man (and everything else…)

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War with the Newts by Karel Capek

And now for a complete change of style! What I love about being an omnivorous and contrary reader is switching from genre to genre – I do get bored reading the same thing all the time! Though I’m not quite sure what drew me to this book at the moment, I’ve had “War with the Newts” sitting on my shelves for a while (alongside a number of other Central European Classics) but I’ve been drawn towards sci-fi recently, and this is sci-fi in the Wellsian sense i.e. dealing with scientific effects of things on earth, which always appeals to me.

newts

Author Karel Capek is well-known for a number of things, as his Wikipedia entry reminds us: Karel Čapek (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, 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. Although primarily known for his work in science fiction, Čapek also wrote several politically charged works dealing with the social turmoil of his time. Having helped create the Czechoslovak PEN Club as a key part of the International PEN Club, he campaigned in favor of free expression and utterly despised the rise of fascism in Europe. Were it not for his untimely death (of natural causes) taking place as Nazi Germany began its takeover of Czechoslovakia, he would likely have been found and executed by the Gestapo. In the aftermath of World War II, his legacy as a literary figure has been well established.

So, we wouldn’t have the word robots without Capek, which is quite something to think about! Anyway, on to the book.

“War with the Newts” opens near Sumatra, where Captain van Toch is searching for pearls with the assistance of local divers. However, there is one particular bay that the natives won’t visit owing to rumours of strange devils. When van Toch finally visits, he discovers giant newts living there who only come out at night and do a particular dance. Befriending the newts, van Toch manages to persuade them to bring him pearls, and so begins the exploitation of another species by man.

It’s not long before the newts have become full-blown slaves, with the setting up of syndicates to transport them around the globe and make use of them. As the pearl market crashes, the newts instead are used as labourers, building dams, underwater work and even moving earth and sand around to make new land for humans. Their treatment is like any other exploited group – kept segregated, cruelly treated and casually dispensed with if no longer required.

However, humans have of course underestimated the intelligence of the newts. Some show signs of learning speech, although this is dismissed as copycatting, and tensions begin to arise between the two species. The greedy humans are in denial about the newts and what they can do, and in the third section of the book regular conflicts break out between the two species. The newts need coastline to live around, and their population is expanding at a phenomenal rate; the humans have been building more land and reducing the coastlines. A clash is inevitable and the newts begin to undermine the whole fabric of the landmasses as the two sides reach a final conflict.

capek

After that the German Press began to take an eager interest in the Baltic Newt. Special stress was laid on the fact that it was just in response to the German milieu that this Newt had developed into a divergent and higher racial type, indisputable superior to all the other Salamanders. With contempt they described the degenerate Mediterranean Newts, stunted both physically and morally, the savage tropical Newts, and altogether the low, barbarian and bestial Salamanders of other nations. From the Giant Salamander to the German Super-Newt, thus ran the winged phrase of the time.

WWTN is very obviously an allegorical work and in fact Capek draws explicit parallels with slavery at points in the book. It’s also extremely satirical, poking fun at all the problems in Europe at the time (Fascism, Nazis, colonialism), the segregation issues in America, the increasing arms race and humanity’s greed and cruelty. There is even some wonderful sarcasm directed at the triviality of Hollywood and celebrity which is still relevant today. Nothing is so self-deluding as a human being – van Toch being one of the worst examples, going on and on about how he loves the newts and is their friend, while exploiting them thoroughly. At least the later slave-masters have no pretensions to caring about the newts.

The book is also very cleverly constructed, mixing chapters of narrative with passages from so-called scientific journals, newspaper cuttings collected by one of the pivotal characters, retrospective essays and a very intriguing metafictional final chapter! It’s also very funny, with some lovely little digs at even the smallest and silliest of human characteristics.

It was a newspaper man’s dog-days when nothing, absolutely nothing happens, when there are no politics, and not even a European crisis; and yet even at this time of the year newspaper readers lying in the coma of boredom on the banks of rivers, or in the rare shade of trees, demoralized by the heat, nature, country peace, and as a whole by the healthy and simple life of the holidays, hope with daily disappointment that at least in the papers there will be something new and refreshing, some murder, war, an earthquake – in short, something; and if there isn’t, they crumple up the papers and peevishly declare that there’s nothing in the papers, just Nothing at all, and the whole they’re not worth reading, and they won’t take them any longer.

But even though the satire is often broad, WWTN brings into sharp focus the ongoing issues we have as human beings on this earth. We’re still fighting amongst ourselves, exploiting other nations, and bringing the world one step closer to catastrophe with our hatred and intolerance of anything different to us. There are still plenty of lessons to be learned from this excellent and intelligent book.

Incoming! ….plus a new collection begins….

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Well, by my standards, it’s been quite a quiet week for book acquisitions – which is probably a good thing, really…

The Cheyney on the left came from an online source – I’m not exactly sure why, except for the fact that the cover is wonderful, and it is apparently set around Pevensey which I’ve just been reading about in another book (there will be a review later this week)! The Ransome and the Innes came from the Samaritans Book Cave – I’ve never got round to reading “Swallows and Amazons” so this year will be the one I do. And any Innes is usually worth picking up!

As for the new collection – well, I’m a sucker for book lists and the like, and while I was flaneuring across the InterWeb this week I stumbled upon a list of “Roth’s Writers from the Other Europe”, which had some fascinating titles on it. Excitingly enough, I have four of the books listed (and have read one of them) so this rather encourages me to check out some of the other ones….

Somehow (and I can’t recall how – that’s the nature of online wandering!) I came across another little collection of Central European Classics, which had been put out by Penguin a couple of years ago in lovely bright colours. I guess they bombed a bit (which is a great shame), because I can’t see that they ever put out any more and they’re only now available second-hand. So a couple have made their way to the Ramblings:

I’m quite surprised I haven’t noticed these before, because I’ve been keen on reading Capek for a while. However, I’ve found them now – there’s only ten – and they’re mostly not expensive. Oh dear – I can hear the bookshelves groaning in anticipation!

As for my current reading – the very spiky and wonderful “The Surprise of Cremona” by Edith Templeton. And there was a surprise in store when I looked her up online – I recognised one of her book covers and realised I have picked up this:

templeton

in a charity shop and it was hidden in my stacks. Truly I need to sort these books out and get them into some sort of order and actually make a (very big) list of what I have to read!!

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