Havel – A Life
By Michael Zantovsky
Atlantic books – £25.00
All my life I have simply believed that what is once done can never be undone and that, in fact, everything remains forever. In short, Being has a memory. And thus even my insignificance – as a bourgeois child, a laboratory assistant, a soldier, a stagehand, a playwright, a dissident, a prisoner, a resident, a pensioner, a public phenomenon, and a hermit, an alleged hero but secretly a bundle of nerves – will remain here forever, or rather not here, but somewhere. But not, however, elsewhere. Somewhere here.
In Saturday’s edition of The Guardian (June 27th), there was a very short extract of the indisputably crucial book that is Havel: A Life. It touches on the former playwright’s questionably feisty relationship with former Russian President, Mikhail Gorbachev: ”He thanked Gorbachev for his kind reception and understanding, remarked on his equally warm reception in the US, mentioned the gift of a pipe from a Native American chief, and then… produced the object. ”Mr President,” he said, ”it occurred to me that I should bring this pipe to Moscow and the two of us should smoke it together as a pipe of peace.” Gorbachev looked at it as if it were a hand grenade with the fuse off and stuttered: ”But I…I don’t smoke.””
As is often the case, said dry, jocular quotation, is indeed, a mere tiny tip of a rather gargantuan, serious literary iceberg. A revealing read in which Michael Zantovsky, one of Havel’s closest friends, bequeaths the reader with a veritable onslaught of inherently intellectual, profound, and on occasion, poignant evaluation. The sort of well informed, studied analysis, which luckily, really doesn’t hold back in any way whatsoever (”the conclusion that the truth has to be personally guaranteed to be really true is one that Havel is going to make again and again”).
Thus making for the nigh perfect biography of one of the most joyous, morally paramount political leaders of recent times.
To quote Madeleine Albright: ”Zantovsky’s biography of Havel is written with great understanding, candour and love – and provides us with expert analysis of not only politics but also Havel’s plays to boot.”
To be sure, Havel shares – rather than reveals.
Alludes to – rather than defines.
Qualities, which in this day and rather tiresome age of celebrity’n’cleavage induced conversation; not to mention instant, myopic gratification by way of Facebook and yer Twitter tsunami – I find altogether revivifying to say the least.
A more than pertinent example (and there are many), is Zantovsky’s rather considered description of Havel’s regal relationship with the love of his life, at the very outset of chapter six: ”Vaclav Havel was not yet seventeen when he met the woman of his life. He would later fall in love with Dagmar Veskrnova and marry her after Olga’s death, he would be enamoured at least twice in the time between, he would pursue rather indiscriminately, and be pursued by, other women, but she was his ‘one certainty,’ his companion, his conscience, his first reader, his staunchest defender and his fiercest critic for fifty years. Their relationship, which survived his mother’s resentment, hardships, crises, infidelities, persecution and prison, eventually came to defy standard categories and became a category of its own. The influence Olga had on Havel (and he on her) was so pervasive that it is plausible to speculate that he would have hardly become what he became without her.”
The same might be said of most great men and women.
But so far as the forty-six chapters of this acutely impressive work is concerned, it is the ultimate depth of clarity that does much to separate Havel from a plethora of badly written biographies.
Along with a Prologue and a detailed list of illustrations, it’s as equally enlightening as it is engaging. As such, I’m hard pressed to think of a better biography being published this year. Admittedly, this may well have a lot to do with the subject itself, although Michael Zantovsky, who clearly subscribes to the ideology: ”the fundamental key to man does not lie in his brain, but in his heart,” really has done his friend proud.