The book: In Václav Havel (Reaktion Books), Kieran Williams ’89 uses Havel’s poems as a new lens through which to view the life of Czechoslovakia’s most famous dissident under Communist rule. Havel is internationally acclaimed for his plays, essays, and memoirs, and he also spent 13 years as president, first of Czechoslovakia and then of the newly formed Czech Republic.

Williams places Havel’s later plays in the context of his formative early years as a poet, drawing on details from Havel’s extensive correspondence and his private life from childhood onward. He also examines Havel’s rivalries with fellow poets-turned-playwrights who were only slightly older in age but vastly removed in terms of the political environment that swirled around the production of their earliest work. The final product is a multifaceted portrait of a figure celebrated for his artistic and political courage and his inner paradoxes.

The author: As an undergraduate, Kieran Williams ’89 studied Slavic languages and literature. He is visiting professor of politics at Drake University, Iowa, and is also the author of The Prague Spring and its Aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics, 1968–1970.

Opening lines: “Biography was a problem for Václav Havel. In childhood, his wealthy family background embarrassed him before poorer classmates; in adolescence, after the Communist Party seized power in Czechoslovakia, it blocked him from the education and profession he would have pursued. In his twenties, as a famous playwright, he started to tell the story of his life to satisfy a curious public, but he did so reluctantly, fearing that once a writer begins to regard himself as worthy of special attention he loses sight of the world in its true proportions.”

Reviews: David Danaher, professor of Slavic languages and literature at University of Wisconsin–Madison, says, “Williams has produced a vivid portrait of Havel as both human being and engaged intellectual. … [T]he book offers a biography of its subject like no other piece of scholarship has given us.”