Literary roundup: robots and the posthumous wit and force of Vladimir Nabokov

On January 25, 1921 Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) had its official premiere at the National Theater in Prague (The first performances took place in early January in a regional theater in Hradec Králové). Besides being the writer’s most successful work it added the word robot to our international vocabulary. The play was performed in New York the following year and at London’s Garrick Theatre in 1923. (From Today in Literature)

Čapek later recalled that it was actually his brother Josef Čapek, the painter, who actually came up with the idea for the word. Josef Čapek also designed the costumes for the play.

Robots have obviously become a commonplace in science-fiction books and films and increasingly as well in real life. There are even instances of robots being the focus of works that fall outside the science-fiction genre such as Spike Jonze’s fantastic 2010 short film “I’m Here,” which played at the Prague Short Film Festival in January (you can watch the film on its site or on YouTube here).

“I am terrified by the responsibility for the idea that machines may replace humans in the future, and that in their cogwheels may emerge something like life, love or revolt,” Karel Čapek wrote in Czech daily Lidové noviny in 1935.

Nabokov on Finnegan’s Wake

The 10 Best Put-Downs in Literary History includes Vladimir Nabokov’s withering assessment of Joyce’s last novel among other ruthless shots by the likes of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Hemingway and Faulkner (the last two trading insults).

“Ulysses towers over the rest of Joyce’s writings, and in comparison to its noble originality and unique lucidity of thought and style the unfortunate Finnegans Wake is nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room, most aggravating to the insomniac I am. Moreover, I always detested regional literature full of quaint old-timers and imitated pronunciation. Finnegans Wake’s façade disguises a very conventional and drab tenement house, and only the infrequent snatches of heavenly intonations redeem it from utter insipidity. I know I am going to be excommunicated for this pronouncement.”
–Vladimir Nabokov, interview 1967

A text of the entire interview is available here (though impossible to read online).

Speaking of Nabokov, biographer of the writer Brian Boyd has just published a collection of writings on Nabokov entitled “Stalking Nabokov.”

“I have tried many times to stop writing about him,” Boyd says in a Washington Times article, “but…he keeps on setting me new assignments, making me offers I cannot refuse.”

Photo – 1) Color silkscreen poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of R.U.R. in the late ’30s, 2)Film poster for the Soviet film R.U.R. from 1935, 3) Photo from a 1922 production of the play

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