“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 Hvízdala1 ).

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 the correspondence Havel actually formed the intention of publishing the essayist segments of his letters, and he wrote them with that object in mind.) But presently the warden, perhaps growing suspicious that “existence-in-the-world” and “thrownness” were code terms for dissident mischief, or simply getting bored, sent word down that Havel was to stop writing his philosophic meditations and to write only about himself. This edict had momentous literary consequences.

At first, Havel fretted about the impossible task he had been set. “It is neither my nature nor my habit to concern myself seriously and out loud with myself,” he wrote to Olga.

My aversion to “disrobing in public” was a factor in my decision to stop writing poetry and start writing plays, a genre in which the persona of the author is best concealed, since in drama he speaks only through the mouths of others, and his work, therefore, is about as objectified as it can get.

Havel goes on to ponder the problem of self-description:

When a person describes himself, it is as though he were not merely saying that he is a certain way, but that he is consciously so, and that in fact (though he claims the opposite) that is how he wishes to be…. In describing oneself, one is already somehow stylizing oneself. Of course, being aware of the accursed fact does not encourage one to try it.

Havel finds an ingenious and elegant solution to the problem of writing about himself: he proposes to write about his moods—“eight bad moods and seven good ones.” In this way, he sneaks into autobiography through the back door, as it were, eluding the self-censorship at the main entrance, and maintaining the objectifying stance toward himself of the playwright and essayist.

The self-portrait that emerges from the letters about the fifteen moods is striking in its evocativeness: we feel we have met this man before, or someone like him. Finally we realize who he is: a character out of nineteenth-century Russian literature. Havel has stylized himself along the lines of a Levin, an Alyosha, a Laevsky. He employs the devices of realism—absent from his minimalist absurdist plays—to render a character in whom touching, ordinary humanness and extraordinary capacity for moral thought are uniquely fused. This character has recently, improbably, been transplanted to the stage of world politics, where its like has probably never been seen before.


In a tribute to Havel published in the January 29 issue of The New Republic, Milan Kundera struggles with the problem presented to skeptical minds by the phenomenon of Havel. “I have always been especially allergic to the remark attributed (wrongly, I think) to Goethe: ‘A life should resemble a work of art.’ It is because life is formless and does not resemble a work of art that man needs art,” Kundera writes. He goes on to allow that there are rare cases where “comparing a life to a work of art is justified,” and he counts Havel’s life as “one gradual, continuous process [that] gives the impression of a perfect compositional unity.” But I think that Kundera errs in excepting Havel’s life from the general formlessness that gives art its necessity. He mistakes Havel’s narrative of his life for the life itself, paying him the tribute we sometimes pay our great novelists and playwrights when we believe in the existence of their characters and count what has happened to these characters among the real occurrences of life. The great characters of literature cause us to look at ourselves in ways we don’t ordinarily do; they cause us to ask ourselves some of the same questions they have been urgently asking themselves. The hero of Letters to Olga produces this effect on the reader, causing even so astute a reader as Kundera to believe that he exists outside the pages of the book (and of its sequel: Havel’s speeches, interviews, and public appearances). A closer look at Havel’s narrative of his life—like all close looks at all narratives—heightens our sense of its subjective and wrought character.

A leading motif of Havel’s narrative is the motif of good fortune. Havel sees himself as lucky, as someone who was dealt a good hand at birth and whose luck has always held. Everything that has happened to him, however bad it may seem at first, turns out for the best in the end; his misfortunes are blessings in disguise. This cheerful way of imagining his history was already in place ten years before the writing of Letters to Olga. In the spring of 1968, speaking to Antonin J. Liehm2 of the hardships that he and his family suffered after the Communist Putsch of 1948 (Havel’s father was a wealthy entrepreneur whose money and property were confiscated and whose sons were barred from Gymnasium and university), Havel characterizes them not only as “a most valuable bit of education for which I shall always be grateful both to my bourgeois ancestry as well as to the new regime” but as the prerequisite to becoming a writer:

If it hadn’t been for February [Havel tells Liehm] I would probably have graduated from the English Gymnasium, gone on to study philosophy at the university, attended Professor Cerný’s lectures on comparative literature, and after graduation I would have ridden around in an imported sports car without having done the least thing to deserve it. In short, I would have been a cross between an educated man—far more educated than I am now—and a member of the jeunesse dorée. I doubt, however, that I would have become a writer.

In Letters to Olga, Havel fleshes out the vision of his life as a series of lucky escapes from comfortable mediocrity (through the agency of adversity) with an account of his childhood during the Second World War in a Moravian village, where, in a kind of foreshadowing of the trouble he was to have with the Communist regime, he was ostracized by the village children for his wealth and privileges; he was also made miserable for being fat. Havel traces his feeling of being “in a fundamental and essential way a little bit ‘outside the order of the world’ ” to this early actual experience of not belonging, and connects the self-doubt he perpetually feels to this formative bad period. At the same time, he writes, the feeling of being an outsider has been “a life-long wellspring of energy directed at continually improving my self-definition” and “a decisive force behind everything worthwhile I have managed to accomplish.” Havel further notes that his perks as “a gentleman’s son” paradoxically made an egalitarian of him by instilling in him a feeling of shame for having more than others without deserving to. Giving the paradox yet another turn, he credits his high-bourgeois background with providing a guide for extricating himself from hopeless situations (among them the hopeless situation of being the son of a bourgeois in a new Communist society), citing as invaluable elements of the middle-class entrepreneurial legacy “the ability to take risks, the courage to start all over again from nothing, the ever-vital hope and élan to begin new enterprises.” Havel writes about all this with such authority that one never stops to think that being rich and fat doesn’t necessarily lead to being socially aware, gifted, and good.


Being sentenced to prison is the culminating “blessing” of Havel’s narrative of good fortune. Before serving the sentence, while in detention in a Prague jail, Havel writes to Olga of his eagerness to begin his new life and—allowing that “this is a little like the hopes with which Dostoevsky’s heroes go off to prison”—weaves a fantasy of self-renewal that is also a little like the hopes with which people go off to writing colonies and weight-reducing ranches. He wants to find his way back to a mellower, less tense, and less earnest version of himself. “In recent years I have been living a strange, unnatural, exclusive, and somewhat ‘greenhouse’ existence,” he writes of his life as a famous dissident. “Now this will change. I will be one of many tiny, helpless ants…. I will be one of a multitude, and no one will expect anything of me or pay any special attention to me.” And “I don’t want to change myself. I want to be myself in a better way.” And “I’d like to return at the age of forty-eight not as an irascible old man—which in some ways I’ve already become—but rather as the cheerful fellow I once was.”

He also grandly plans to improve his English, learn German, study the Bible, and write two plays during his prison term. At the prison camp, where he is put to work at cruelly taxing physical labor, making heavy steel mesh with a spot welder, he soon concedes the absurdity of his daydreams. “In many ways…prison life is incomparably harder than anything I have ever experienced before,” he writes, and “My aim now is far more modest: to return as unscarred by the experience as possible, which means, much as I went in.” But eventually, in a letter reflecting on where he is after serving three years of the sentence, he picks up the thread of the original optimistic narrative. “All things considered, it seems increasingly clear that my prison term is merely a necessary and inevitable phase of my life,” one which provides “the chance to prove—to myself, to those around me, and to God—that I am not a lightweight as many may have seen me, that I stand behind what I do, that I mean it seriously, and that I can take the consequences.” In his last letter before release (he was let out a few months early because of a serious illness) he tells Olga that “it’s strange, but I may well be happier now than at any time in recent years.”

But Havel is too intelligent and too self-aware a man—and too modern a writer—to draw his self-portrait only in terms of his sense of being lucky and acquitting himself well. He also portrays himself as a man who is so tormented by guilt that the only alleviation for his torment is to be in prison, receiving his just punishment. Something Havel did gnaws at him and will not give him peace. Now, three years into the sentence, in a letter of July 25, 1982, Havel makes his “confession.”

By now he has been transferred out of the half-demented warden’s labor camp into a camp whose warden is evidently more lenient or, at any rate, more willing to accept Heideggerian philosophy as a “family matter,” and he is once again wrestling—week by week, four-page letter by four-page letter—with the question of what it all means. Whether or not one is able to follow Havel’s dense and difficult meditation (I sometimes could not follow it, and often would not) one is aware of the brilliance of the writer’s timing in making his revelation in its woolly midst.

Five years earlier, in 1977, when Havel was arrested for the first time—for his Charter 77 activities—he sent the public prosecutor a request for release which, he says, he formulated

in a way that at the time seemed extremely tactical and cunning: while saying nothing I did not believe or that wasn’t true, I simply “over-looked” the fact that truth lies not only in what is said, but also in who says it, and to whom, why, how and under what circumstances it is expressed. Thanks to this minor “oversight” (more precisely, this minor self-deception), what I said came dangerously close—by chance, as it were—to what the authorities wanted to hear.

Four months later, in May, when Havel was released, the authorities took the “weapon that amounted to a heaven-sent gift,” “voluntarily and quite pointlessly” handed to them, and (with appropriate “recastings,” “additions,” and “widespread publicity”) used it to make it appear that he had given in under pressure and betrayed the Charter movement to save his own skin. Havel continues.

All my worst fears were more than fully realized: I came out of prison discredited, to confront a world that seemed to me one enormous, supremely justified rebuke. No one knows what I went through in that darkest period of my life…. There were weeks, months, years, in fact, of silent desperation, self-castigation, shame, inner humiliation, reproach and uncomprehending questioning. For a while I escaped from a world I felt too embarrassed to face into gloomy isolation, taking masochistic delight in endless orgies of self-blame. And then for a while I fled this inner hell into frantic activity through which I tried to drown out my anguish and at the same time, to “rehabilitate” myself somehow. Naturally, I felt how tense and unnatural my behavior was, but I still couldn’t shake that sensation. I felt best of all, relatively speaking, in prison: when I was locked up a second time [in 1978], I caught my breath a little.

In recalling the years of anguished self-reproach, Havel writes: “The central question I came back to again and again was this: How could it have happened? How could I have done something so transparently dubious?” He reviews the psychological explanations that presented themselves, none of which satisfied him or assuaged his guilt, because, as he now realizes, his self-examination

was essentially only a desperate attempt to hide from myself the hard fact that the failure was mine—exclusively, essentially and fully mine—that is, was a failure of precisely that “I of my I” which then professes such astonishment at that failure, which tries to explain it away at all costs, inconspicuously shift its roots to the “non-I,” put some distance between itself and the failure and thereby free itself. This dividing of my self…into an alien, prior and incomprehensible “I” that failed, and a living, present, genuine “I,” genuinely mine, which does not understand and condemns the former “I” (bitter because it must bear the consequences of the former’s actions)—all that was simply an unacknowledged attempt to lie my way out of my responsibility for myself and shift it onto someone else, as it were.

Now, three years into his third incarceration, Havel is able to look at the incident with equanimity and see it as a culminating illumination of his life:

I have my failure to thank for the fact that for the first time in my life I stood—if I may be allowed such a comparison—directly in the study of the Lord God himself: never before had I looked into his face or heard his reproachful voice from such proximity, never had I stood before him in such profound embarrassment, so humiliated and confused, never before had I been so deeply ashamed or felt so powerfully how unseemly anything I could say in my own defense would be. And the most interesting thing about that confrontation, which in an utterly new way revealed my responsibility as responsibility “toward,” was this: if my request had ended up in the chief prosecutor’s wastebasket and I had come out of prison a hero, I might never have experienced it at all!

What had Havel actually written in his request for release? From everything we know about this courageous and transcendentally decent man we have reason to think that it could not have been so bad and that he was being much harder on himself than the case merited. However, nowhere in his long discussion of the incident (it entirely occupies two successive letters) does he tell us what the fatal statement was that gave the authorities their weapon and him his eventual epiphany. We have here a narrative of the progress of a soul in deep crisis—but a narrative that omits the “fact” on which the crisis is poised. Although censorship by the prison authorities was an ever-present concern of Havel’s, the omission could also have a philosophical motive, one arising from Havel’s acute sensitivity to the problem of factuality: his awareness that “the truth lies not only in what is said but also in who says it, and to whom, why, how, and under what circumstances.” His experience with the prosecutor has made a kind of deconstructionist of him. He knows too much now about the fallacy of literal meaning to repeat the mistake he made in his request for release. As his enemies read it in too bad a light, we, his admirers, might read it in too good a light—one that would considerably blunt the force of, if not render nonsensical, his eloquent discourse on taking responsibility for failure. “What failure?” we might ask. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Why are you carrying on so?”3

Havel had not planned to publish the letters in the form in which they have come to us. He had intended to publish only the essayist passages, omitting the personal portions—what he called “the matter-of-fact passages meant for Olga.” But in preparing the letters for publication in 1984, Havel’s friend Jan Lopatka decided to ignore Havel’s instructions and to retain much of the personal material. This decision, like the censor’s contribution, had important literary consequences. Havel himself immediately saw the merit of Lopatka’s idea, which (as he tells Hvízdala)

makes it clear that the book is a book of letters from prison, not essays written in the peace and quiet of my study. The existential background of these meditations is uncovered and made present.

Paradoxically, it is this background of the matter-of-fact that gives the book its poetry, its quality of madeness and stylization, reminiscent of Havel’s own well-made, stylized plays. The meditations are laid out on a grid of repetitions, recurrences, rituals: the weekly letter, Olga’s trimonthly visit to the prison, the package she is allowed to bring of some unspecified but exact weight and size. Over and over, as in the refrain of a ballad, Havel returns to these points of connection to the outer world, to which Olga is the sole link, and permits us a remarkably intimate glimpse into his relationship with this all-too-important Other.

By another accident of fate (a sort of twin to the one that dealt him the half-demented warden as his muse), Olga, the one person in the world with whom Havel is allowed to correspond, proves to be a terrible correspondent. She writes erratically, grudgingly, laconically, unspontaneously, ungrammatically, without specificity. In his early letters, Havel is beside himself with frustration over Olga’s uncommunicativeness. “Is it really impossible to write to me more often?” he asks. “Is it really such a problem to write to me every week?” “You must admit that a single page in six weeks is hardly enough.” “I’ve finally got another little letter from you.”

Olga’s unresponsiveness, which would have been hard on any prisoner, may have been even more difficult for Havel, the banned writer who had been writing for years for unknown and largely unheard-from audiences in the West. But gradually Havel, with his characteristic talent for wresting spiritual benefit from negative experience, accepts Olga as she is, rather than as he would prefer her to be, offering to the reader an elating vision of the accommodation possible between people of differing temperaments and capacities but similar good will and steadfastness. Paul Wilson, in his excellent introduction (to his exemplary translation), quotes some comments that Havel made to Hvízdala about Olga:

Olga and I are very different. I’m a child of the middle class and ever the diffident intellectual. Olga’s a working-class girl, very much her own person, sober, unsentimental, and she can even be somewhat mouthy and obnoxious; in other words, as we say, you can’t get her drunk on a bun. I grew up in the loving and firm embrace of a dominant mother, and I needed an energetic woman beside me to turn to for advice and yet still be someone I could be in awe of…. In Olga, I found exactly what I needed: someone who could respond to my own mental instability, to offer sober criticism of my wilder ideas, provide private support for my public adventures. All my life, I’ve consulted with her in everything I do (the wags claim I even require her agreement to the sins through which I hurt her, and that I seek her advice in the problems my occasional emotional centrifugality bring me).

Havel also tells Hvízdala that “Olga and I have not professed love for each other for at least two hundred years, but we both feel that we are probably inseparable,” and that Olga is the “main hero” of his book of prison letters, “though admittedly she’s a hidden one.” All this is present in the letters themselves: the dialectic of overestimation and resentment, tenderness and coldness, closeness and detachment, the sense of a relationship that is marked by idiosyncrasy, authenticity, and contradiction. What one marvels at when one marvels at the phenomenon of Havel is not that a writer has become president of Czechoslovakia but that a man who is not afraid of his own ambivalence has succeeded in public life.

Earlier I connected Havel to Russian literature. The Russian novelists knew in the most uncanny way how complicated we all are, how we don’t add up; Havel has created his public persona in the spirit of these writers. He seems so human (in contrast to the simulacrum of a human being that the usual politician appears to be) because his knowledge of himself as a unique mixture of good and bad impulses is so manifest.

In Letters to Olga we come even closer to this man who lets us come so close, and we receive confirmation and elaboration of the impressions of him we have formed from his essays, speeches, and television appearances. The absurdist plays, permeated by a kind of weary pessimism, form an exception to this unified body of self-expression. They have a ponderous, schematic, even somewhat naive quality.4 From Letters to Olga we may gather how much more potent the optimistic view is for Havel’s imagination. His is a comic vision. “I am not interested in why man commits evil,” he writes in one of his philosophical meditations. “I want to know why he does good (here and there), or at least feels that he ought to.” In the age of Auschwitz, this is an arresting preference, particularly for a man who has himself been persecuted most of his life by a harsh totalitarian state and who as he writes is being punished in a hard-labor camp for speaking out against its abuses. Those of us who do not share Havel’s optimism about the human prospect must do him the honor of acknowledging that when he speaks of man’s ability to triumph over adversity he speaks from a position of authority that, if we’re lucky, we ourselves will never be in.

This Issue

June 14, 1990