The Patagonian Hare: a Memoir

The Patagonian Hare: a Memoir
Claude Lanzmann
Atlantic Books, 628pp, £25

In Britain, Claude Lanzmann is known predominantly as the director of Shoah, the nine-and-a-half-hour monument to the memory of the Holocaust. But in France, his name evokes an era. He was a member of the resistance at 15, a central figure at Jean-Paul Sartre's magazine
Les Temps modernes, a lover of Simone de Beauvoir and an intimate of everyone who mattered in French left-wing political and philosophical life, from Gilles Deleuze to Frantz Fanon. You can see why this book has no index - it would be too long.

Mouvementé would be a French term to describe his life and this is a breathless book. The zest for adventure is compelling, the writing - beautifully translated by Frank Wynne - fluent and inventive ("the trepan of memory"), the character and topographical sketches dazzling, the action sequences enthralling. Intellectually and existentially, it is all marvellously - if sometimes worryingly - French.

In love and sex, triangulations abound. Escaping a dour, provincial life, as a philosophy student he lives in wartime Paris with his mother and her poet lover, who introduces him to the blessed Jean-Paul. His father and the poet take him to his first brothel together. Later, he enjoys a complex-free ménage à trois with de Beauvoir, while introducing his beautiful actress sister to Sartre and Deleuze, who become her lovers. (She later commits suicide.)

A gifted and prolific writer, he lives and breathes in Sartre's circle and for him no encomium is enough: "the quintessence of irrefutable intelligence", with his "sovereign liberty" and "intellectual good faith and ability to recognise his errors". (No comment.) With "Castor" - de Beauvoir - it is the same: "Truth was her business." Not in the case of Chairman Mao, whose dictatorship she denied, but this is Paris, so passons.

Is there a touch of Sartrean "bad faith" in the pre-Shoah Lanzmann? How "authentic" were his left-wing commitments? Less than his devotion to Israel, we learn. Asked whether he was French or Jewish, he replied, "My homeland is my film," but then his prose is florid with get-out clauses. Of Fanon, he writes: "It is impossible to object to a prophet's trance"; of himself, he says he is "obedient to the law of creation"; and on Sartre: "We were both hopeless romantics." Which gives them the sovereign liberty to elide the truth.

Our author takes pride in being coshed by the police in a demonstration against US germ warfare in Korea (something we know from released Soviet records never happened). A footnote about getting beaten up for the bene­-fit of the Sino-Soviet disinformation services would have been in order but that would be to poop his party. Later, in North Korea, he is prouder of his three meetings with Kim Il-sung than of his fleeting inquiry about dissidents and his account of an improbable romance with a North Korean nurse appears, shall we say, to be cinematically enhanced.

The bella figura of the engagé intellectual is what matters and he never waits for plaudits he can supply himself. An article on the Dalai Lama he finds in retrospect "profoundly empathetic". He is equally pleased with a piece sympathetic to the GDR.

His most authentic moment is his break with his maître à penser over the murderous infighting in post-liberation Algeria and its hostility to the Jewish state. Sartre, who justified the murder of Israeli athletes in Munich, reviled him drunkenly as a "queer".

Then comes his immersion in Shoah and everything changes. It is as if Lanzmann is rejuvenated, once again an intrepid maquisard. His hunt for surviving Jews and Nazis is relentless and physically courageous, driven not by philosophical fashion but a truly passionate intelligence. Here, the authenticity is numbing: at Treblinka, he meets a farmer to whom a guard offered a bloody jaw with gold teeth ripped from a freshly gassed Jew, in exchange for vodka. Compared to this final section, the rest of the book, however finely spun, is words.

Auschwitz and other camps were liberated and in his film Lanzmann reconstructed the horror. But the Gulag, or the laogai in China - who in 1950s and 1960s Paris wanted to know? (Albert Camus and Raymond Aron are ignored.) After all, there were no pictures. The Soviet Union was "the sky above my head", Lanzmann writes, and he cried when Stalin died. If photographs of the Gulag had existed, would the tears have come?

There are post hoc condemnations (the "excesses" of the Cultural Revolution, references to "the Chomsky faction") but surely Lanzmann has a duty to look back at what Les Temps modernes had to say at the time as unflinchingly as he looked at the Shoah. A politician must justify his actions in the light of history; a writer and cineaste, it appears, is permitted his modish enthusiasms.

A three-hour film was distilled from Shoah for French secondary schools. What will they ever see, I wonder, of the 100 million or so victims of the other totalitarianism? They died differently but are equally dead. But there you are, France is France, and on the Holocaust Lanzmann did his bit. "That justifies a life," was the judgement of Jean Daniel and I share it.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism