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.
‘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.’ – TLS
‘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 Havel’s 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) Havel’s, 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 Havel’s work is still untranslated, Kieran Williams has done us all a fantastic service. I suspect he’s 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
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.