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 Čapek (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). Janáček adapted The Makropulos Case (1922) for the libretto of his 1926 opera, and Punch declared Čapek’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 Čapek’s work? Not many, I’d wager. The chief datum that the multitude possesses about Čapek is that he coined the term ‘robot’. That is nearly correct. The word – from an old Czech word for ‘labour’ – does appear in