GROVE ATLANTIC in collaboration with the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation and Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association
Michael Žantovský on Václav Havel
In conversation with David Remnick
Bohemian National Hall
321 East 73rd Street
New York, NY 10021
November 11, 2014, 7:00 p.m.
David Remnick, The New Yorker editor, journalist and writer, discusses the definitive biography Havel: A Life, with its author Michael Žantovský, Václav Havel’s former press secretary and longtime friend.
“Václav Havel is one of the paramount moral and political leaders of our time, and Michael Žantovský 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
Václav Havel was one of the most prominent figures of the twentieth century: iconoclast and intellectual, renowned playwright turned political dissident, president of a united and then divided nation, and dedicated human rights activist. Written by Michael Žantovský—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 a 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 a 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.
Žantovský was one of Havel’s closest friends, having met in the democratic opposition under Communism. During Havel’s early years in office Žantovský 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, Žantovský presents a revelatory portrait—up close and personal—of this giant among men and the turbulent times through which he prevailed.
Michael Žantovský is the current Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James and president of the Aspen Institute Prague. He was among the founding members of the movement that coordinated the overthrow of the Communist regime. In January 1990 he became the spokesman, press secretary, and advisor to President Václav Havel. He was later the Czech ambassador to Washington and Tel Aviv. He has combined a career in politics and the foreign service with work as an author and translator into Czech of many contemporary British and American writers.
David Remnick is an American journalist, writer, and magazine editor. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his book Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. He has been editor of The New Yorker magazine since 1998. He has written many pieces for the magazine, including reporting from Eastern Europe and articles on Vaclav Havel and analysis of his presidency. He was named Editor of the Year by Advertising Age in 2000. In 2010 he published his sixth book, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.
Praise for Havel: A Life
“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 Žantovský to describe, interpret, and analyze this moral giant. Žantovský’s 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
“Michael Žantovský 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, Žantovský 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)
“Michael Žantovský’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. . . Žantovský has paid his friend the ultimate compliment of writing not a hagiography but a superbly nuanced biography which will never be equaled.” —WILLIAM SHAWCROSS