#100PENMembers No.23: Karel Čapek

The Prague PEN centre was one of the most active and successful in Europe from 1923 to 1938 and the globally prestigious playwright and novelist Karel Čapek was at the heart of this success.

The Club received a great deal of support from the Czechoslovakian government and boasted as members prominent Czech political and cultural figures, including the new Czech President, Tomáš Masaryk and his successor Edvard Beneš. In 1938 the International PEN Congress was held in Prague. 

Karel Čapek

When Dawson Scott wrote to him to ask him to create a Prague Centre in 1923,  Čapek was basking in his recent successes on the international theatre scene. His dystopian play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920), which he wrote with his brother Josef, had been translated into thirty languages by 1923, premiered in New York in 1922 and in London in April 1923. R. U. R. is famous for its coining of the word robot, from the Czech word robota meaning work and robotnik meaning worker, a linguistic transposition that has had a lasting impact on the English language. 

He replied to Dawson Scott by commending her on ‘such a sympathetic and useful idea’, the Prague centre was established that year and the following year PEN invited him to London in 1924, where they organised a lavish lunch at Gatti’s restaurant to honour Čapek, with over a hundred guests. Čapek, speaking in halting English, charmingly reflected on the role of writers in creating ‘unity’ in the world: they had ‘the right and the mission to help and to promote mutual understanding among human beings.’

Two years after the Gatti lunch, however, Čapek was forced to deal with literary and linguistic disunity in the new Czechoslovakian state that had been created in the post-war settlement. He confronted the desire of German speaking writers in Prague to found a separate German-language PEN centre. Čapek wrote in anguished terms to Ould insisting that having two Prague centres, ‘one for authors writing in Czech the other for authors writing in German’ would undermine one of the chief purposes of the P.E.N. Club which is, as he put it, ‘to promote the bringing together of the different nationalities.’  

There were two kinds of nationalism at work here. One aspired to represent the new territorial Czech sovereignty created after the war; the other was grounded in an imagined polity rooted in linguistic identity. While this was a particularly vexed question in Prague, where the dominant literary language was German, the issue was not confined to Czechoslovakia. The conflict between these different understandings of internationalism was one of the main preoccupations of International PEN in the mid to late 1920s. 

Čapek would continue to play a formative role in the Prague PEN centre, and internationally. He agreed to become International PEN President in 1936 before ill health prevented him from taking up the post. Three months before the Munich Settlement of 30thSeptember 1938 in which the International Community agreed to German demands to annex the Sudetenland frontier areas of Czechoslovakia, the International PEN Congress was held in Prague. 

It had been touch and go whether the Congress would go ahead, but to Čapek and the other Czech writers, the event was an essential final opportunity to publicise the Czech cause in the face of increasing Nazi aggression. Writers such as English PEN President Storm Jameson, who attended the conference, describe their discomfort at visiting Czechoslovakia when the Allies had, she felt, betrayed Czechoslovakia in the agreement at Munich.

The Czech Centre – which received a good deal of funding from the Czech government – laid on lavish meals and characteristically warm hospitality but events were haunted by tensions around Czechoslovakia’s future and the role that the Allies and even writers from Allied countries might play in helping them in the event of future Nazi onslaught. Jameson fictionalises events at the Congress in her novel Europe to Let (1940), describing how ‘excited by plum brandy, the writers were swearing to defend Czechoslovakia.’ She feared that their promises were empty and their power to save the Czechs, limited.

When Nazi tanks rolled into Prague a year later, Čapek was number two on their list of public enemies who needed to be located. They swiftly tracked him down to his house but were surprised, when they arrived, to discover that he was already dead, having expired rather suddenly of pneumonia on 25thDecember 1938. They promptly took his wife, Olga, instead.