Karel Capek

Biography of Karel Capek

Karel Čapek (January 9, 1890 – December 25, 1938) was a Czech writer of the 20th century.

Born in 1890 in the Bohemian mountain village of Malé Svatoňovice to an overbearing, emotional mother and a distant yet adored father, Čapek was the youngest of three siblings. Čapek would maintain a close relationship with his brother Josef, living and writing with him throughout his adult life.

Čapek became enamored with the visual arts in his teenage years, especially Cubism. He studied in Prague at Charles University and at the Sorbonne in Paris. Exempted from military service due to the spinal problems that would haunt him his whole life, Čapek observed World War I from Prague. His political views were strongly affected by the war, and as a budding journalist he began to write on topics like nationalism and totalitarianism. Through social circles, the young writer developed close relationships with many of the political leaders of the nascent Czechoslovakian state. This included Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his son Jan, who would later become foreign secretary.

His early attempts at fiction were mostly plays written with brother Josef. Čapek's first international success was Rossum’s Universal Robots, a dystopian work about a bad day at a factory populated with sentient androids. The play was translated into English in 1922, and was being performed in the UK and America by 1923. Throughout the 1920s, Čapek worked in many writing genres, producing both fiction and non-fiction, but worked primarily as a journalist.

In the 1930s, Čapek's work focused on the threat of brutal national socialist and fascist dictatorships. His most productive years were during the The First Republic of Czechoslovakia (1918–1938). He wrote Talks with T. G. Masaryk – Masaryk was a Czech patriot, the first President of Czechoslovakia, and a regular guest at Čapek's "Friday Men" garden parties for leading Czech intellectuals. Čapek was also a member of Masaryk's Hrad political network. This extraordinary relationship between the writer and the political leader may be unique. He also became a member of International PEN and established, and was first president of, the Czechoslovak Pen Club.

Soon after 1938 it became clear that the Western allies (France, Great Britain) had failed to fulfill the agreements, and failed to defend Czechoslovakia against Adolf Hitler. Karel Čapek refused to leave his country – despite the fact that the Nazi Gestapo had named him Czechoslovakia's "public enemy number two." Though he suffered all his life from the condition spondyloarthritis, Karel Čapek died of double pneumonia on December 25, 1938 shortly after part of Czechoslovakia was annexed by Nazi Germany following the so-called Munich Agreement. Čapek is buried at the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague. His brother Josef Čapek, a painter and writer, died in the Nazi Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

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