Letters to Olga June 1979September 1982
“I have always stressed the importance of convention in theater,” Václav Havel wrote in 1981. “I have often realized, and stressed, that where everything is allowed, nothing has the power to surprise.” Letters to Olga, the collection of letters Havel wrote to his wife while serving a four-and-one-half-year prison sentence at hard labor between 1979 and 1983, draws its own immense strength from the fact that almost nothing was allowed the writer. Havel’s weekly letter to his wife—the only form of writing permitted him—was ruled by the following singular poetics: it could not be more than four pages long; it had to be written in a legible hand, with nothing crossed out or corrected; there could be no quotation marks or foreign expressions in it; margins were required to be a specific width; and, as for subject matter, it could not touch on any of the actualities of prison life and had to confine itself to “family matters.” Whether the letter got through or not depended on the whim of an “absolutist and much feared, half-demented warden” (as Havel later described him to Karel Hvízdala ).
For many, probably most, writers, such conditions would not recommend themselves, but for Havel, the writer of absurdist dramas, they could not have been more propitious. They restored to him precisely what was intended to be taken from him: his occupation as a writer. They compelled him to function as an artist where, under less extreme conditions of censorship, he would probably have merely functioned as a good letter writer; they elicited from him a strange, unclassifiable, inadvertent masterpiece, a work that I believe will outlive his plays and essays.
For Havel, the half-demented warden was like one of those great, strict teachers who prod us into achievements we did not know we were capable of. He forced Havel into modes of writing that it would not have occurred to him to attempt if left to his own devices, most significantly the autobiographical mode. The proscription against describing prison life was not as uncomfortable for Havel as it might have been for another writer. As he was later to say to Hvízdala, commenting on his realization that he would probably never write about the prison experience, “I am not a narrative author; I can’t write stories, and always forget them anyway…. I’m no Hrabal.”
Havel’s initial solution to the problem of what to write about when you can’t write about the single glaring fact of your life was to follow his natural bent toward philosophical reflection. In his youth, he had come under the influence of phenomenology and existentialism via the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka (a student of Heidegger and Husserl) and he welcomed the opportunity to work on hard metaphysical problems in his letters. (The letters were being circulated among a group of friends and colleagues, and portions of them read more like papers for a Heidegger colloquium than like letters to a spouse. Early in …