Jacques Barzun once observed that Walter Bagehot was ‘”well-known” without being known well’. Something similar, I suspect, might be said of the great Czech writer Karel Capek (1890-1938). The Insect Play (1921), co-authored with his brother Josef, is a classic in the library of anti-totalitarian satire, as is the proto sci-fi fantasy War with the Newts (1936). Janácek adapted The Makropulos Case (1922) for the libretto of his 1926 opera, and Punch declared Capek’s travel book Letters from England (1925) ‘the best book about our race since the Germania of Tacitus’. And yet how many Anglophone readers really know Capek’s work? Not many, I’d wager. The chief datum that the multitude possesses about Capek is that he coined the term ‘robot’. That is nearly correct. The word – from an old Czech word for ‘labour’ – does appear in his play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1920). But ‘robot’ was actually coined by Josef (Karel was toying with ‘laborator’, a clearly inferior alternative). The true story of Capek’s most famous linguistic benefaction is told in a paragraph-long newspaper column called ‘About the Word Robot’ (1933). You’ll find it, and scores of other charming vignettes, observations, expostulations, comments, remarks and (alas) love letters, in Believe in People, an eminently likeable book that lives up to its subtitle: read this journalistic miscellany and you really will come close to ‘The Essential Karel Capek’.
more from Roger Kimball at Literary Review here.