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A year or so ago, I discovered the work of Czech author Karel Capek who died on the eve of World War II. He was very popular in Eastern Europe and is barely known in the West. Most famous for his science fiction masterpiece War with the Newts (the salamanders, not the repulsive Republican politicians), he was also one of the first authors to popularize the term "robot".
In addition to his better-known science fiction, he also wrote a series of novellas called Apocryphal Tales - well-written, witty perspectives on famous literary and biblical works. In "Romeo and Juliet", a young British nobleman, Sir Oliver Mendeville, travels through Italy, is caught in a rainstorm, and finds refuge in a Franciscan rectory. Over dinner with Padre Ippolito, they start discussing Verona. The young Englishman mentions Juliet Capulet - "You see, we have a play about her . . . by a man called Shakespeare. A beautiful play. Do you know it, Padre?"
The priest responds:
The Juliet I knew married Count Paris, and they had eight children. A virtuous and exemplary wife, young sir, may God grant you one like her. True, there was a rumor that she had lost her head earlier over some young crapulone - Eh, signore, hasn’t something of the sort been said about everyone? Youth, as we know, is headstrong and foolish
After a remarkably entertaining argument about what "really" happened to the "real" Romeo and Juliet, the young nobleman exclaims: "Please don’t be angry, Father . . . but it is a thousand times more beautiful in the English play."
The wise old priest responded to the romantic young Englishman:
More beautiful! I don’t know what you think is beautiful about two young people taking their own lives. It would have been a waste and a shame, young man. Believe me, what is more beautiful is that Juliet married and had eight children . . .
A great love? I think that is when two people are able to get along together throughout the whole of their lives . . . devotedly and faithfully . . .
Padre Ippolito's words, beautiful in their truth, came to my mind on a recent trip to Connecticut. Standing outside the St. John the Evangelist Basilica in downtown Stamford, I saw an elderly married couple in their eighties going to confession, holding hands for support on the slippery sidewalk. The dignity, caring, and respect in that relationship showed a love infinitely greater than the mawkish sham peddled by Hollywood and popular "culture". Behind the frail exterior of such older couples is a true and faithful devotion against which the diabolical force of divorce would never prevail. Young people, running like mad on Valentine's Day to buy flowers and candy, which will be discarded in days and forgotten in weeks, should pause to admire and contemplate.
Then there is the nauseating nonsense of people marrying "their best friends"; the constant public displays of affection, which border on lewdness; the newly found "wisdom" that a couple must, yes, must, live together before marriage; and the ridiculous custom of renewing wedding vows (as if something meant to be eternal can be renewed) . . . Not to say that romantic love is not important. On the contrary, it is arguably one of the pillars of Western civilization, in stark contrast to the Islamic and Oriental worlds. But Hallmark and Hollywood provide no good example of what love should be. Instead, young people should follow the example of the older married couples we all know, walking down the hard road of life hand in hand, celebrating their 50th wedding anniversaries surrounded by college-age grandkids.
Thank you, Mr. Girin. This is quite a nice meditation and excellent reflection. Delightful to read such things in these times. You are a courageous writer.
Mr. Girin--Mazel tov! You've discovered Karel Capek. Moreover, you've started the acquaintance with some true gems in his ouevre. Try also or next the stories collected in Crossroads. There's also a good literary biography of him, Karel Capek, Life and Work, by Ivan Klima. I've still to read any of his novels, but I'm acquainted with his plays, The Makropulos Secret (the basis of Janacek's fascinating and creepy opera, The Makropulos Affair) and R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots, which was an international hit during the 1920s and has been the basis of many stage, radio, and TV adaptations down to the present. The word robot was, as you write, popularized by the play, for which it was coined by Capek's brother (and often collaborator), Josef. Although, from what I've so far ascertained, he doesn't seem to have been especially religious, Capek obviously was morally well-informed, as the story you describe reveals. More or less a leftist, he spurned communism because its "morality is not a morality of help." (Perhaps I'll be driving away some by saying that Capek's views seem to me to uncannily anticipate those of Pope Francis.) He deserves to be as well known as his contemporary fellow Czech, Franz Kafka, not least because he writes a similar kind of story (in Czech, though, not German) toward vastly more gracious ends. BTW, for anyone who wants to know--as I did--his surname is pronounced in two syllables as if in English it were spelled "Chopek".
Eugene, Capek is a wonderfully entertaining and wise writer. Even in his least works, he has an incomparable charm. The founder of Chronicles, Leopold Tyrmand loved his wonderful little book The Gardener's Year. As a boy, I fell for both RUR and The War with the Newts. Later, reading up for a trip to Prague, I read some of the more agrarian works, like the novel Hordubal. Capek was an admirer of Chesterton and the two exchanged a number of letters. Going to Prague, I was rather disappointed that all the locals could talk about was Kafka, a non-Czech who wrote in German, while the more imaginative genius, Capek, was virtually unknown. Fortunately, the conference I was attending was in a horrible communist convention center that was located just a block or two away from the cemetery where Capek was buried.
Dr. Fleming, was the convention center in Zizkov, the part of Prague known as "Red Zizkov"? I was in Prague in August 2008 and all the locals talked about was Kafka and Hasek.
Great piece, Mr. Girin. Capek also wrote the wonderful "Nine Fairy Tales: and One More Thrown in for Good Measure". Very amusing and highly recommended.
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