Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Havel: A Life

by Michael Zantovsky

The definitive biography of Václav Havel—writer, dissident, and Czech president—that chronicles his journey from playwright to national leader, intimately recounted by his former press secretary and longtime friend.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 560
  • Publication Date October 13, 2015
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2428-9
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $20.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 560
  • Publication Date November 04, 2014
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2315-2
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $30.00

About The Book

A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice

Václav Havel was one of the most prominent figures of the twentieth century: iconoclast and intellectual, renowned artist turned political dissident, president of a united and then divided nation, and dedicated human rights activist. Written by Michael Zantovsky—Havel’s former press secretary, advisor, and longtime friend—Havel: A Life chronicles his extraordinary journey from the theatrical stage to the world stage.

Havel’s lifelong perspective as an outsider began with his privileged childhood in Prague and his family’s blacklisted status following the Communist coup of 1948. In his youth, this feeling of being isolated and outcast fueled his poetry and then later his career as an essayist and dramatist, writing absurdist plays as social commentary. His outspoken involvement during the Prague Spring led to the harsh censorship of his work, and his human rights activities earned him five years in prison.

Although Havel was a courageous visionary, he was also a man of great contradictions, wracked with doubt and self-criticism. But he always remained true to himself. His leadership of Charter 77, his unflagging belief in the power of the powerless, and his galvanizing personality catapulted Havel into a pivotal role as the leader of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Over the next thirteen years, he continued to break through international barriers as the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic.

Zantovsky was one of Havel’s closest friends, having met in the democratic opposition under Communism. During Havel’s early years in office Zantovsky was his press secretary, advisor, and political director, and their friendship endured until Havel’s death in 2011. A rare witness to this most extraordinary life, Zantovsky presents a revelatory portrait—up close and personal—of this giant among men and the turbulent times through which he prevailed.


“Havel was one of the most important intellectual-troublemaking statesmen of his time—a nonconformist, determined to live in truth, who questioned the system, his countrymen and himself constantly. No one is better suited than Michael Zantovsky to describe, interpret, and analyze this moral giant. While providing us with a brilliantly informed intellectual and political history, Zantovsky’s own background as a psychiatrist, journalist, participant in the Velvet Revolution, key advisor and friend allows him to present the fullest picture of this great and complicated man. Zantovsky’s masterful biography of Havel is written with great understanding, candor, and love—and provides us with expert analysis of not only politics but also Havel’s plays to boot.” —Madeleine Albright

“Václav Havel is one of the paramount moral and political leaders of our time, and Michael Zantovsky has produced his definitive biography. Smart and exciting, it captures his greatness. Based on a long and close relationship, access to private letters, and many interviews, this deeply personal tale is both inspiring and filled with lessons for our time.” —Walter Isaacson

“Zantovsky narrates the events of Havel’s life, from his privileged upbringing to his participation in the Charter 77 dissident circle to his variously triumphant and troubled presidency, and does so thoroughly and engagingly. . . . A rare biographical success: affectionate but balanced, comprehensive but also uncommonly intimate.” —Booklist (starred review)

“An honest and moving portrait.” —Guardian

“[A] candid portrait of a complex man and the history of a nation in the midst of an earth-shaking transition. It is satisfying reading about an important time in 20th century European history when one individual had the power to make momentous humanitarian changes.” —Missourian

“This lively biography will reintroduce a major figure in modern history and letters to a new generation.” —Spectator

“Michael Zantovsky revives the revolutionary Havel.” —Vanity Fair

“[An] intimate new biography . . . a splendid remembrance of Havel.” —Wall Street Journal

“Deeply sympathetic . . . an enthralling, sometimes thrilling, portrait of an infinitely varied character, a man of deep contradictions nurtured by equally deep convictions. . . . The biography of the year.” —Observer (a Book of the Year)

“[Zantovsky] tells the story with a great flair for detail, almost as though he had stood at Havel’s shoulder, taking notes. . . . Thanks to Zantovsky’s truthfulness, Havel emerges from this account as a great national leader whose greatness was inseparable from real humility and grace.” —Roger Scruton, Times (UK)

“A superb biography. . . . The volume not only brings Havel to life with unparalleled vividness. It also lays out the heart-breaking history of Czechoslovakia. . . . [Zantovsky] has managed to bring Havel alive in language that has the intimacy of a memoir yet is fully grounded in facts. . . . What this magisterial biography does so well is give us an even-handed portrait of a remarkable, flawed man.” —Roberta Silman, ArtsFuse

“A balanced, candid portrait . . . Zantovsky brings an intimate perspective to this impressive biography of a man and history of a beleaguered nation.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Vivid and intimate . . . This moving, perceptive chronicle succeeds in showing the many dimensions of a towering 20th-century figure.” —Publishers Weekly

“Michael Zantovsky’s biography of Václav Havel is a joy and an inspiration. Warm, wry, witty, it tells the life story of one of the most significant thinkers, writers, and politicians of our time. . . . Zantovsky has paid his friend the ultimate compliment of writing not a hagiography but a superbly nuanced biography which will never be equaled.” —William Shawcross

“Michael Zantovsky has written an intimate and penetrating story of the man who symbolizes the end of the Cold War and the building of freedom and reconciliation in Europe. Inspirational, moral, fun loving, theatrical, indecisive, conflicted and ultimately tragic, Havel had been the architect of the Velvet Revolution and was Czechoslovakia’s first post-cold war President. As Havel’s close friend and collaborator for nearly 30 years, Zantovsky helps us admire and understand this philosopher king whose summons ‘Power of the Powerless’ gave courage and hope to people around the globe.” —William H. Luers (U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia 1983-1986)


A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice


During Christmas, in the field across the road from their house, the police constructed a small watchtower on stilts, remotely resembling the Soviet moon walker device, the Lunochod, which is what Havel called it. There the police worked irregular shifts keeping an eye on the dangerous rebel.

Characteristically, Havel bore no grudge against his watchers, most of them local policemen and some of them clearly not happy about their monotonous and conspicuously absurd assignment. Prague, like any large city, provided a degree of anonymity to everyone, even the police. In a small place like Vlèice, the nearest village to Hrádeèek, people were aware of everything that was going on and mostly did not even pretend to be amused. Often, Havel would empathize with the policemen’s ordeal and go out of his way to make them feel at ease by engaging them in small talk that would compromise neither himself nor them. Trying to remain civil even in the face of this nuisance, he sometimes offered them coffee or tea, much to the disapproval of Olga who famously declared she would not give the police the name of their dog.

Other surprises were more bothersome. Although the authorities apparently much preferred Havel at his country place, where he could be more easily watched and isolated, they simultaneously tried to make his life there impossible by secretly sabotaging the central heating, water piping and plumbing in the house. In the end, there was little rationality in their behavior.