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Britské listy

ISSN 1213-1792


Jan Čulík


Karel Dolejší


Michal Panoch, Jan Panoch

Grafický návrh:

Štěpán Kotrba

ISSN 1213-1792
deník o všem, o čem se v České republice příliš nemluví
9. 5. 2003

Shells fished out of the ocean of time

Karel Čapek, Letters from England, trans. Geoffrey Newsome, Brinkworth: Claridge Press Ltd, 2001; Jessie Mothersole, Czechoslovakia: The Land of An Unconquerable Ideal, London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1926.

In 1924, Karel Čapek published Anglické listy, (Letters from England), a book describing his impressions and experiences in Britain during a tour in that year, originally published as articles in the Czechoslovak daily newspaper, Lidové noviny. Čapek's letters crossed in the post with the impressions of a British woman making the reverse journey, travelling through Czechoslovakia sketching and writing, with the aim of producing a book on the country. Jessie Mothersole's Czechoslovakia: The Land of an Unconquerable Ideal came out in 1926. [1]

Necessarily, the books in tone and aim are different. Czechoslovakia was 6 years old when Mothersole first visited it: many British people (then, as now) had little knowledge about the country, and a great deal of her book is concerned with educating her reader about its history and culture. She loves Czechoslovakia and Czechoslovakians and wants her reader to share her enthusiasm. Britain, however, still equipped with Empire and power, hardly needed to be justified for its existence to the Czechoslovak population. So familiar was the idea of England (the common Czech confusion that England and Britain are coextensive informs the title of the book) that Čapek can open, in his `First Impressions', with a comparison of expectation and reality, of cliché and fact.

Čapek confirms many clichés: the weather is indeed that bad; Scotsmen do wear kilts (though not all the time); Englishmen are gentlemen; Scottish accents are impenetrable. He debunks the notion that Englishmen always wear check, but confirms that they are reserved to the point of absolute reticence yet unfailingly courteous; that the food is dreadful, beer warm and tea undrinkable. In the summer of 2001, Mladá Fronta Dnes published an article comparing the stereotypes of Britain with the truth: the same preconceptions were reiterated, almost 80 years on. It is, of course, more than possible that Čapek had a hand in forming or perpetuating these truisms. What is more surprising is that, despite the intervening years, certain observations in both books elicit a smile of recognition going beyond cliché. Čapek, on the Isle of Skye, visits a home to hear some Gaelic singing. Then `we all hold hands in a circle and sing something Scottish about parting or meeting again'(104). The first Czech experience of Auld Lang Syne? He comments that he doesn't believe Shakespeare drank `tannin tea' (145) and sees in London an overpopulated purgatory. Mothersole's delight over the prompt, comfortable and regular Czechoslovak railway system is something that most inhabitants of Britain can sympathise with almost 80 years later.

Čapek's honesty and acute observation means that the Britain depicted in his books is not all warm beer and cricket. He is alert to contradictions:

Where actually is the real England? There in those quiet and clean cottages among the frightfully old trees and traditions, in the homes of perfect, peaceable and gentle people or here in these gloomy waves, in the hammering docks, in Manchester, Poplar or Glasgow's Broomielaw? Very well, I admit that I don't understand: there in that England it is almost too perfect and beautiful; and here it is almost too...
(130; ellipsis Čapek's own)

His question is still unanswerable today. With his usual indirection and compassion, Čapek has a serious point.

Seen through the eye of such a sharp observer, the familiar can become strange. This is not the comic exoticism which strikes the British reader in another Czech work of the 1920s, Vítězslav Nezval's Edison, which speaks of orgies at Balmoral [2]. Rather, Britain through Čapek's eyes becomes a strange and eccentric place:

Lovers love one another gravely in parks, sternly and without a word. Drinkers drink in bars, each to himself. The average person travels home and reads his newspaper without looking to left or right. At home he has a fireplace, a small garden and the inviolable privacy of his family. Besides this, he cultivates sport and the weekend. (146)

Over such a length of time, however, there are obviously details which are striking because of their unfamiliarity. Čapek formed, in Britain, a loathing for the British Sunday: something which has today been driven to lurk only on the outermost margins of the country by secularisation. He would perhaps recognise a day of rest today only on the Isle of Lewis. The images of most Englishmen (and Welshwomen, apparently) walking the streets in clothcaps, and of Edinburgh streets webbed by washing slung between the houses, now seem quaint. Mothersole, eager to convince her reader of the ties binding Britain and Czechoslovakia, presents us with many fleeting and intriguing details: that the sword used to decapitate the 27 nobles in Staroměstské náměstí in 1620 was found in Edinburgh `in recent times'and sent back to Prague, or that Palacký, studying in what is now Slovakia, met an Irish jockey who introduced him to British historians who ultimately inspired his own work. What this Irish jockey was doing in a college in Slovakia Mothersole neglects to tell us, leaving a tantalising thread hanging.

It is not merely in details from history that Mothersole brings us to notice changes. She is, of course, describing a Czechoslovakia pre-paneláky [3]. In Bratislava she notes:

Just across the river [from the castle] is the beautiful Petržalka Park, where in early summer one can gather armfuls of lilies of the valley, and watch the little green frogs in the trees. (129)

Compare this to today's view of the enormous housing estate where half the population of Slovakia's capital now lives. Images of Užhorod (now within the territory of the Ukraine) evoke vanished communities:

We noticed many Jews, with long side-curls, at the shopdoors and in the crowds. The street-notices are written in Magyar, Russian, Czech and Hebrew, and all these tongues can be heard. (187)

Indeed, one of the strongest senses evoked by these two books is that of a tragic dramatic irony. Mothersole is overwhelmingly confident on Czech-German relations (`a policy of active and helpful co-operation with the Government will soon be adopted by the German deputies... they have no genuine grievance against the[m]' (90)). She is of the opinion that Czechs are temperamentally unsuited for Communism and that the `Bolsheviks' will never be overly popular. Each word Mothersole has for the Jewish quarters of the towns she visits bears onerous significance for us, viewed through the distorting lens of knowledge of what was to come. Her enthusiasm for Czechoslovakia is poignant, even more so in conjuction with Čapek's affection for the British character. He died, fourteen years later, in the popular imagination of heartbreak at his country's betrayal in Munich.

There is however a danger in this kind of historical nostalgia. The Czechoslovakia which Mothersole sees is inevitably partial. It is mainly rural: she has come seeking a form of pastoral romance, and this is what she finds. Our nostalgia for the First Republic, with the questionable benefit of hindsight, can mean that as readers we connive in her ellisions and silences. The Prague Čapek compares to London is cosmopolitan, continental, intellectual: a city Mothersole doesn't see. Čapek writes of Hyde Park and Speakers' Corner. Superficially, this is another anecdote about the lovable eccentricities of the English. As ever, there is something desperately serious couched in his playful language. His description of the various speakers he encounters (including a sheep) ends:

I could follow up on this with excellent reflections on democracy, the English character, the need for faith and other things; but I would rather leave the whole episode to its natural beauty. (44)

An amusing anecdote on the oddness of the English suddenly has at its back the experience of a country where, less than ten years previously, free speech was punishable by death. Even in the First Republic the censor was not idle. The magazine ReD [4] , for example, frequently printed blank pages with comments such as `thank you, mister censor'. The freedom to tout eccentricities to the public was a rare and enviable one.

Mothersole's book, however, is a very mild form of propaganda: a guide book disguised as a travelogue, with the luxurious advantage of the author's paintings for illustration of local colour. It is inevitable that such a text will be, in all senses, partial, even while pretending to documentary truth. Mothersole quotes with pride the comment made to her by Alice Masaryk:

I like the sound of this book, I think it is going to be an honest book... (112)

The emphasis is Mothersole's own, and hints at the tradition she believes herself to be working in: the grandest Czech tradition of the bearers of truth, from Hus to Masaryk himself (and on into our own day with Havel) [5]. This is the `unconquerable ideal' of which she writes in her subheading.

The somewhat troubling silences in Mothersole are not something of which Čapek can be accused. Attending the Empire Exhibition, he writes:

There are four million coloured people in the British Empire and at the British Empire exhibition the only trace of them is in a few advertising dummies, a few .. stallkeepers and several old relics... The British Empire Exhibition is huge and full-to-bursting. There is everything here, even a stuffed lion and the extinct emu. Only the spirit of four million people is missing... (66-7)

This testifies against a lazy habit of mind which forgives the complacent opinions of earlier periods under the banner of `they didn't or couldn't know any better'. Evidently, they could and some did.

If I have quoted throughout this essay far more from Čapek than from Mothersole, it is a perhaps forgiveable partiality: reading Čapek makes one want to transcribe whole passages. It is unfair to compare the two books on an aesthetic basis, since Mothersole's ambitions were other than literary. However, it is impossible to conclude this essay without some further comments on Čapek's style. He is fascinated with the variety not just of Britain but of the whole world, and this is reflected in his writing, expansive and associative. He often spirals off into lists of what he has seen in museums, ports, streets, taking great relish in the bizarre. His cityscapes, like cities themselves, are accumulations:

...if I heaped up words for another half an hour I wouldn't achieve the full number, confusion and expanse of what is called Liverpool. (129)

Whether writing in delight or disgust, he is always vivid and always captured by the telling detail: a glance, a breath, the flight of a bird. We have seen his delicacy when touching on matters serious: the words `portentous' and `bombastic' could never be applied here. `At the Natural History Museum', the contents of which he sees as `a fantastic abundance of beautiful, bizarre shells fished out of the timeless ocean' (46), is simply some of the best writing I have ever seen.

Though there is nothing so stylistically good in Mothersole, her book should still be read. To pick up and invert Čapek's lovely image, Mothersole's Czechoslovakia and Čapek's Letters from England can be seen as shells fished out of the ocean of time. They come from a world both strange and familiar. In marking the differences, we remember what shouldn't be forgotten. In marking continuity, we keep something of what has been lost vivid in the present.

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