Most of [Czech author Karel] Čapek’s commentators consider The Gardener’s Year a minor work, but as Verlyn Klinkenborg remarks in the introduction to the Modern Library English edition of 2002, “most students of Čapek believe gardening is a subset of life, whereas gardeners, including Čapek, understand that life is a subset of gardening.”
–Robert Pogue Harrison
My first meaningful exposure to the work of Čapek came through Leoš Janáček’s amazing 1925 opera, The Makropulos Affair, which is based on Čapek’s play of the same name. I suppose you could call it a science fiction opera: a young woman becomes the laboratory rat of her alchemist father, who is tasked by Emporer Rudolf II to devise a formula that will extend his life by three centuries. When given the potion, the daughter at first drops into a coma. However, when she wakes up, she truly has been transformed into being able to live another 300 years. In living through those extra years she becomes increasingly detached from her original humanity as she is forced to leave one mortal husband after another and loved ones fade around her. At the end of the opera, even though she is in possession of her father’s formula for the elixir that would allow her to keep extending her life, she refuses to concoct the drink and chooses humanity–and death.
It’s a powerful tale with echoes all the way back to the Odyssey, where Odysseus declines eternal life in favor of his known, mortal one, back in Ithaca with the family and friends he knows and loves. Also, Čapek, ever rooted in the earth and distrustful of the quick, shallow pleasures of “progress,” uses the play to express his dis-ease with where unthinking application of the technologies that were exploding around him would lead the human race.
I bring all this up because I’ve been reading Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, by Robert Pogue Harrison. One of the chapters is devoted to Čapek and his work, The Gardener’s Year. The quote at the beginning of this post comes from that chapter, as does this second by Čapek himself, in an extended quote:
I tell you, to tame a couple of rods of soil is a great victory… And if you have no appreciation for this strange beauty, let fate bestow upon you a couple of rods of clay–clay like lead, squelching and primeval clay out of which coldness oozes; which yields under the spade like chewing-gum, which bakes in the sun and gets sour in the shade; ill-tempered, unmalleable, greasy, and sticky like plasters of Paris, slippery like a snake, and dry like a brick, impermeable like tin, and heavy like lead. And now smash it with a pick-axe, cut it with a spade, break it with a hammer, turn it over and labour, cursing aloud and lamenting.
Then you will understand the animosity and callousness of dead and sterile matter which ever did defend itself, and still does, against becoming a soil of life; and you will realize what a terrible fight life must have undergone, inch by inch, to root in the soil of the earth, whether that life be called vegetation or man.
All this may sound a little dense and difficult going, but others of Harrison’s quotes from Čapek’s work show it to be incredibly funny at the same time. I have plenty of books lined up that I need to read, but this one is moving to the front of the queue.