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2015 | 22 | 3-4 | 474-502

Article title

Úspěchy a neúspěchy v nejednoznačných konstelacích : pět biografií Václava Havla



Title variants

Hits and misses in cloudy constellations : five biographies of Václav Havel

Languages of publication



a3_Bývalý politik a diplomat, překladatel a nyní ředitel Knihovny Václava Havla Michael Žantovský ve své biografii, která vyšla zároveň anglicky (Havel: a Life. London, Atlantic Books 2014), zachycuje podle autora Havlovu osobnost mnohem vrstevnatěji a vyváženěji než předešlí autoři. S využitím původní profese psychologa i důvěrné znalosti Havla se Žantovskému podařilo, oč jeho předchůdci, zaujatí spíše politikou, příliš neusilovali: ve vzájemném vztahování konkrétních společenských a politických situací na jedné straně a základních Havlových životních a uměleckých přesvědčení i intelektuálních dispozic na straně druhé nabídnout biografické vysvětlení programu Havlovy politiky.
b1_This review article is concerned with the most important recent books about the life and works of Václav Havel (1936-2011) as a key figure of Czechoslovak and Czech history in the last fifty or so years. The books under review are Eda Kriseová, Václav Havel: Jediný autorizovaný životopis (Prague: Práh, 2014; published in English as Vaclav Havel: The Authorized Biography, trans. Caleb Crain), Martin C. Putna, Václav Havel: Duchovní portrét v rámu české kultury 20. století (V. H.: A spiritual portrait in the context of twentieth-century Czech culture. Prague: Knihovna Václava Havla, 2011), Daniel Kaiser, Disident: Václav Havel 1936-1989 (Prague and Litomyšl: Paseka, 2009) and Prezident: Václav Havel (Prague and Litomyšl: Paseka, 2014), Jiří Suk, Politika jako absurdní drama: Václav Havel v letech 1975-1989 (Politics as theatre of the absurd: V. H. from 1975 to 1989. Prague and Litomyšl: Paseka, 2013), and Michael Žantovský, Havel (Prague: Argo, 2014). Havelka seeks to identify not only the strength and weaknesses of these biographies, but also the discontinuities and continuities of Havel’s thinking, the successes and failures of his politics, and the many dimensions of his personality, which the authors have to various degrees succeeded in conveying. First of all, he summarizes the publications and puts them into the context of criticism of Havel’s thinking and politics since the 1960s, and especially from the 1990s onward, which has been articulated from different, often contradictory, intellectual and political positions. He then moves on to the books under review. Eda Kriseová, a writer, dissident, and later a colleague of Havel’s at Prague Castle, calls her biography (essentially a re-edition of the 1991 publication) a ‘dissident romance’. She portrays Havel as a positive hero of times past and as a model for the present.
b2_ Whereas in the early 1990s, according to Havelka, her biography largely fulfilled its purpose, which was quickly to familiarize the reader with Havel and his ideas, considering the needs of the times, it now seems too personal and superficial. In his biography of Havel, the literary historian Martin C. Putna, who for some time was also the director of the Václav Havel Library in Prague, thoroughly and sometimes inventively explores the spiritual roots, inspirations, and connections of Havel’s thinking and attitudes. This enables Putna to make some interesting links between family tradition and national culture, and between purely individual horizons and efforts and influence on a large part of society. He builds grand interpretations in his interpretations, and presents them in a readable way, but his portrait, according to the reviewer, remains too one-sided and fails to show Havel’s personality in something at least approaching its entirety, from which it be would then be possible to convincingly explain a number of aspects of his decision-making and conduct. The two volumes of the biography by the journalist Daniel Kaiser are, in comparison with the other works, the largest, in terms of what they cover, but, according to the reviewer, they are the least straightforward. Kaiser primarily concentrates on politics, which seems rather one dimensional, and his efforts to achieve objective completeness and be above the fray, together with his endeavour not to omit anything important or interesting, collide with his own implicit political convictions. In the process, he tends simply to describe events and arrange them, disrupting the narrative with the repetition of some worn-out journalistic platitudes. Nevertheless, he makes good use of some hitherto neglected or unknown material. The book by the historian Jiří Suk is not a biography in the true sense of the word.
b3_ Rather, it is a penetrating work of history and political science, which does not over simplify, but instead presents a telling and compelling picture of a politician in the maelstrom of history. Among the strong points of Suk’s interpretations is the fact that he structures meanings, often with the help of his own meta-historical concepts. He puts his findings into new contexts, and usefully takes into account previously neglected material about the dissidents, which he has found in the files of the State Security Services (Státní bezpečnosti - StB). In his biography, published in Czech, English (Havel: A Life. London: Atlantic Books, 2014), and other languages, the former translator, politician, diplomat, and now director of the Václav Havel Library, Michael Žantovský depicts, according to the reviewer, Havel’s personality in much more contoured and balanced way than the previously discussed authors have done. Drawing on his previous experience as a psychologist, together with an intimate personal knowledge of Havel, Žantovský has achieved what his predecessors, who were by and large more interested in politics, did not even really attempt to do - namely, to relate concrete social and political situations to Havel’s fundamental convictions about life and art and his intellectual disposition, in order to offer a biographical explanation of Havel’s political programme.











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  • Soudobé dějiny, redakce, Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR, v.v.i., Vlašská 9, 118 40 Praha 1, Czech Republic


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Publication order reference


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