IN his autobiography Lucky Poet (1943), Hugh MacDiarmid mentions the memoirs of Berta Szeps, My Life and History (1939), which charts the cultural and political life of Vienna through her own experiences from the 19th century to the beginning of the Second World War. She recalls an evening with the great French composer Ravel. “Ravel and the Comtesse de Noailles were deep in conversation,” and she overhears their words: Ravel said: “I say, although I am an internationalist, that art must be national. I am writing purely French music. I want to go on writing purely French music.”

“Yes,” answered the Comtesse de Noailles, “but it does not lie within your power to exclude the super-national element from your work. It does not lie within the powers of any creative artist to omit from his work that which belongs to mankind in common …”

This recollects Tchaikovsky, writing in a letter (March 5, 1878) to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck: “The Russian element that is generally present in my music, meaning the melody and harmonisation related to the Russian folksong, is especially due to the fact I grew up in a remote area and was, since earliest childhood, saturated with the indescribable magic of genuine Russian folk music and the fact that I passionately love the Russian element in all its manifestations – in a word, that I am a Russian in the truest sense of the word …”

And that recognition of particularity complements what “belongs to mankind in common” and is essential to it.

Perhaps the value behind these notes is best summed up by Karel Capek in the opening chapter of his last book, Travels in the North, published in the same year as Berta Szeps’s Memoirs. He begins “The Journey North” like this: “This journey began a long time ago in the days of my early youth; where are those times when we used to sail out from Göteborg on the Vega, or from Vardo with the Fram! ‘In front of us was the quiet, open seas’; yes, those were the beautiful days. But life is unaccountable, and adventurous; it is only a matter of chance that I have not become an Arctic explorer.

“And yet in those days, amidst the eternal ice, there was an unknown land waiting to be discovered, 89°30’ North; it had a volcano on it which warmed my island to ripen the oranges, the fruit of the mangoes, and of other plants still only partially known; and an unknown but highly civilised race of people dwelt there, living on sea-cows’ milk. Perhaps no-one will ever discover that island now.”

This is a real journey, on actual ships, but it’s also a voyage of the imagination. Capek imagines another journey “North” with the co-ordinates of great writers and thinkers, and what they mean: these are the “harbours and stations”: Søren Kierkegaard, August Strindberg, Knut Hamsun, Henrik Ibsen and others.

“It’s no use, some day you have to go and have a look, at least at some of those places in the world where you are at home; and then you marvel, and waver in double amazement; that you have already seen it before, or that you couldn’t imagine it at all.

“That is the strange thing about great literature: that it is the most national thing that a nation possesses, and at the same time it speaks with a tongue which is comprehensible and intimately familiar to everyone. No diplomacy, and no League of Nations is so universal as literature; but people do not attach enough weight to it; and so they can always still hate one another, or be like foreigners to each other.”

This was Capek’s last book, published in Czech in 1936, in English in 1939. Keep those dates in mind when we read the conclusion to this first chapter, where he tells us of “still another journey North”: “People talk such a lot nowadays of nations and races; at least you ought to have a look at them. For my part, for instance, I went to have a glimpse of pure-blooded Germans;

I have brought away the impression that it is a splendid, and brave race, which loves freedom, and peace, makes a point of personal dignity, will not allow itself to be ordered about too much, and has not the slightest need of someone to lead it.

“When you set out on a pilgrimage of knowledge about different nations, do have a look at those that are happier and mentally adult. I went to have a look at the midnight part of Europe; and thank God, it’s not so bad with her yet.”

In the 1930s, when he was writing this, was he being ironic or gentle and hopeful? The Spanish Civil War began in 1936 and the rise of fascism internationally was palpable.

TRAVELS in the North takes us through Denmark, Sweden, Norway as far as the Arctic Circle, then returns to Sweden and the South: “A grey cold dawn is beginning to break; it is something like as if one were to open a damp morning paper, and read in it what had happened again with the world.

“For such a time we have read no news; and nothing has happened, only a couple of weeks of eternity have passed away, the Norwegian mountains reflected in the waters of the fjords, the Swedish forests closed in above our heads, and the gentle herds gazed at us with peaceful, saintly eyes.

“The first ugly, and inhuman news, not until then will come the real end of the journey. (Yes, here it is: it just had to be that horrid misfortune of Spain! God, why does one love so much all the nations that one has seen!)”

He ends his book thinking back to his last travels: “My word, it was a good boat, and a good journey.”

Capek died on Christmas Day 1938, the year before this last book was published in English. And in these days of increasing foreclosure of the international world, the intrinsic optimism of curiosity and the very possibility of travel, the example Capek gave us in his earlier books of what was so lovable about “all the nations”, in his various accounts of Italy, Spain, Holland, England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, is vital. We shall return to it.