Jacket Image

Enlarge Image

200 × 130 × 19 mm
240 pages
45 illustrations
01 Aug 2016
Critical Lives

Václav Havel Kieran Williams

Václav Havel claimed to want a quiet life dedicated to writing, but he lived exactly the opposite: as the most famous dissident in Czechoslovakia under Communist rule, he spent many years in jail as a political prisoner and, after leading a revolutionary movement in 1989, thirteen years as president and twenty as one of the most respected intellectuals on the world stage. Throughout this eventful story ran themes that Havel himself established as a young man composing poetry in the 1950s. This biography is the first to pay close attention to Havel’s poetry and to place his later work as a writer of plays, essays, prison letters and presidential speeches in the context of his poetic beginnings, his formative stylistic and philosophical influences, and his lifelong rivalry with slightly older poets who turned, as he did, to other genres.

Kieran Williams connects the plays for which Havel is best known to his contemporaneous development as a writer of profound essays on the arts, on his country’s social and political predicament and on the modern condition. The plays are also viewed in the context of Havel’s sometimes dramatic private life and his ambivalence about being the scion of a Prague family that valued public service, patriotism and cosmopolitan tastes. Through a reading of Havel’s complete works in Czech, including first drafts of his plays and his voluminous correspondence, Williams produces a rounded picture of a man of courage and paradoxes.

‘In this exhaustively researched and detail-rich book, Williams has produced a vivid portrait of Havel as both human being and engaged intellectual. With a series of invaluable chapters tracing Havels intellectual development from childhood to old age, the book offers a biography of its subject like no other piece of scholarship has given us. An interdisciplinary mix of poetics, philosophy, politics, cultural history, and conventional biography, it is as delightfully readable as it is authoritative. Williams writing prompts us to want to read (or reread) Havels, which is just what a great critical biography should do. It is biographizing that matters.’ — David Danaher, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature, University of Wisconsin-Madison

‘Václav Havel: dramatist, dissident, politician, prisoner, president, lover but if you want to know Havel the writer, this is the Life for you. No other biographer has covered his output so thoroughly and since most of Havels work is still untranslated, Kieran Williams has done us all a fantastic service. I suspect hes read every item in the sturdy green volumes whose publication was overseen by Havel himself, and selected not just the famous essays but a kaleidoscope of poems, reviews, letters, criticisms, plays, speeches . . . documentation vividly evoking those interesting times when Havel played a major role in transforming Europe.’ — Barbara Day, author of The Velvet Philosophers

‘Havel’s life shows him wrestling to match art with civic responsibility. During and after communism, in adversity and triumph, the task almost overwhelmed him. What Williams shows, quietly and movingly, is how this not so distinguished poet, this enthusiastic reader of books on philosophy and the occult, kept working for social and political improvement, not for glory, but to put his soul in order . . . Kieran Williams, a linguistic insider, has sharp observations to make on the texts, while eschewing judgement on the quality of the artistic oeuvre’ — Times Literary Supplement

‘Williams’s biography of Václav Havel is less a conventional narrative of his life and influence, though it does touch on all the key moments, than a search for the deeper forces which gave rise to his thought and actions. Williams sees Havel as a figure who was always consumed by a poetic instinct to unsettle and disturb, to continually force others to step outside of their ordinary routines . . . the sheer wealth of information and immersion in primary sources make this book an essential companion for any scholar who wishes to take Havel seriously as a thinker, artist and political actor’ — Slavonic and East European Review

‘Informed by a range of sources in both Czech and English, Václav Havel is a highly readable, intelligent and insightful study of one of the most prominent intellectuals and politicians in modern Czech history’ — Journal of European Studies

‘For Havel, politics was applied morality, yet his plays depicted a world without values, concludes Williams. His biography is a clear, concise and persuasive account of the life, work and achievements of a major European personality whose impact, with all its problematic aspects, has helped to shape the twentieth century’ — Slavonica

‘The book as a whole is a compelling contribution to scholarly writing on Havel. Its strength lies in his precise selection of archival sources, which allows him to offer a nuanced analysis of Havel’s life and work. Williams nicely balances well-known facts with recondite information and pictures not usually found in Havel biographies . . . While Williams is obviously keen on Havel, he does not succumb to his aura. He does not avoid appraisal and realistically comments on his subject’s dramatic private life without dwelling on scandals, thus offering a picture of Havel with all his paradoxes. His book is the finest product of the series Critical Lives, whose goal is to present the life and work of leading cultural figures of the modern period. Overall, this exceptionally engaging book is an excellent example of a modern biography. It is a must-read for anyone interested in Havel and in Czech history and literature of the twentieth century in general’ — Modern Language Review

‘[an] impressive biography . . . Williams is at his best offering thoughtful, detailed analyses of Havel’s published and unpublished works, teasing out influences and themes across times . . . Williams’s book, while clear-eyed about his subject’s imperfections, remains a sustained and successful effort to demand that we remember Havel’s attempt to live as he wrote. The biography also demands that we remember Havel as a poet and essayist first, and as a dissident turned president second . . . Williams’s biography neatly combines a tight, lucid overview of an important subject with well-considered analysis . . . a remarkable feat.’ — Journal of Modern History

Show all

Kieran Williams is Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Drake University, Iowa, and previously was a Senior Lecturer in Politics at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His books include The Prague Spring and its aftermath: Czechoslovak politics, 1968-1970.

Note on the Text


1. ‘Every Soul is a Certain Architecture’ (1936–52)

2. Poetry’s False Start (1952–7)

3. Intro to Theatre and Političnost (1957–69)

4. To Hrádeček and Dissent (1970–79)

5. From Trial to Castle (1979–89)

6. The Presidential Great Work (1990–2003)

7. Exiting (2003–11)


Select Bibliography


Photo Acknowledgments