The Patagonian Hare
‘Shoah’ film-maker’s memoir is an arrogant but compelling study of modern French intellectual history
By Claude Lanzmann, Atlantic Books, £25
'I have been told a thousand times by a thousand different people that I ought to write the story of my life, that it was rich, multi-faceted and unique, and it deserved to be told."
Thus, Claude Lanzmann sets the tone in the introduction to his 500-plus-page memoir, a tone of shameless immodesty, an avowed self-belief that somehow simultaneously suggests its opposite.
Lanzmann's long life - he is almost 90- has been lived in the company, and shadow, of some of the 20th century's most renowned intellectuals. He was Jean-Paul Sartre's colleague at Les Temps Modernes and Simone de Beauvoir's lover; a friend and admirer of Franz Fanon, Gilles Deleuze, Philippe Sollers, Michel Tournier and countless other figures in the pantheon of post-war French intellectual society. This memoir serves, in part, to restore him to the centre, rather than the periphery, of that world.
The book was dictated in its entirety and its consequent digressive style is part of its irritating but indubitable charm. It is so suffused with Lanzmann's personality that it is almost like being in the room with him. His tendency to self-aggrandisement is breathtaking: he describes himself as "gifted with a rare visual memory", a "visionary", "profoundly empathetic", is annoyed to "realise that my fame is not universal and has not reached the person I am speaking to". He also permits himself a strange and unwise digression on Jewish women's objection to being "sodomised". But the many moments of breathless arrogance are tempered by the recollections of his many remarkable experiences, from his youth in the French resistance and his experience teaching in post-war Berlin, to his long affair with "Castor" (as de Beauvoir was known), his membership of the first Western delegation to North Korea, and, of course, to the making of Shoah.
He enlivens every story with intricately recalled details, from the scent of a woman's perfume to a wonderful image of Chris Marker - director of the seminal film, La Jetée - in North Korea plastering his room with pages torn from American comics.
Lanzmann's relationship with Israel is critical but unwavering - an idealistic Zionism that has disappeared from the ideology of the European left. By his own admission, he has always been more idealistic than concrete but his observations can be intriguing, such as when he points out that IDF conscripts are not obliged to crop their hair, thus allowing a freedom of spirit unfamiliar to other conscript armies.
The great adventure of making Shoah, the film that changed the way we understand the Holocaust, winds through the book. His wartime experiences contributed to his determination to make this extraordinary film, as did his conviction that it could be done only according to his vision. Whether or not one agrees with his position, particularly regarding Polish bystander guilt, it is impossible not to respect both Lanzmann's commitment and the extraordinary originality of his cinematic vision.
The Patagonian Hare is testament to Lanzmann's passion for life, for art, for intellectual thought. The unwavering self-belief is disconcerting but such an appetite for life depends on a kind of fearlessness that perhaps can only be sustained by self-belief. In any case, he has no interest in winning his readers' affection. The life is his, and his book offers a tantalising taste of it.
Natasha Lehrer is a writer and translator based in Paris