Books: A life and a half

Claude Lanzmann’s memoir comes across as a most human account of an extraordinary human being.

Claude Lanzman (photo credit: Reuters)
Claude Lanzman
(photo credit: Reuters)
Claude Lanzmann has never minced words, and has never shirked from a challenge.
That, and far more, becomes glaringly apparent from his weighty and jam-packed autobiography, The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir.
Lanzmann is, of course, best known for his monumental 1985 documentary, Shoah, in which he took on all comers and, for around nine hours, interviewed Holocaust survivors and perpetrators alike, despite, on occasion, becoming visibly disturbed by what his interviewees had to tell him, and us. In fact, the documentary took 12 years to make and became the hallmark for the Jewish Frenchman’s oeuvre to date.
At first glance, The Patagonian Hare does not seem to be for the faint-hearted. For a start, it is over 500 pages long and, quite unusually for an autobiography, there are no photographs. The first couple of chapters drag the reader straight into the deep end of 86-year-old Lanzmann’s long and action-packed life, which is still very much going strong. We are unceremoniously introduced to the terrors instilled in the writer as a child when his nanny took him to see a movie that featured a guillotine execution scene, and Lanzmann wastes absolutely no time in wading into his knowledge and impressions of the Holocaust.
But there is more, so much more, to Lanzmann and his eight and a half decades of a richly lived life thus far. At the beginning of the book he informs the reader that he had considered jotting down his life story with a pen, but soon realized he would be better off dictating to a typist and seeing his words “immediately objectified” on the computer screen.
It was a wise and practical move, and allowed him to unleash the torrent of his life unabated. The uninterrupted nature of the outpouring makes for a smooth, not to say breathless, reading experience, and every sentence appears to be loaded with important descriptive details or facts.
That Lanzmann is highly educated, and a genuine intellectual, is clear from the outset, as befits a member of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s set and, indeed, the longtime lover of Sartre’s partner philosopher, writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir. There is also the not inconsequential matter of Lanzmann’s own philosophy studies and his tenure as a young, inexperienced but, at his own admission, highly popular professor at Berlin University shortly after World War II.
One might logically expect such a detailed – even over-detailed – account of a person’s life to leave the reader with a sense of having at least a modicum of intimate knowledge of, and possibly even a feeling of kinship with, the author, but that is by no means a foregone conclusion.
While Lanzmann is very generous with his personal disclosures, which include details of some of his sexual triumphs as well as his fumbling youthful explorations, you might not reach the end feeling as though you’ve shared a pint or two with the author in the local bar. The Patagonian Hare is not a tête-àtête excursion; it’s more a discharge of a myriad of life experiences of a very potent kind.
The enigmatic quality that surrounds Lanzmann is further accentuated by his ability, during his academic sojourn in Berlin, to relate to the Germans on an equal footing and without acrimony.
While he mentions that there were plenty of Nazis around at the time, he adopts a surprisingly forgiving stance toward basically anyone who does not overtly demonstrate aversion toward him because of his Semitic origins. It is possible that his generosity of spirit at the time comes down to the fact that he may have still been largely ignorant of the scale of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, although that seems unlikely.
But it must be said that Lanzmann is not an entirely humorless creature, and during the course of the book he displays an intermittent ability to tickle the reader’s funny bone. Some of the more enjoyable passages display humor of a selfeffacing nature.
One of the most abiding impressions of The Patagonian Hare is the author’s candor.
Lanzmann does not seem to balk at any challenge, however physically or emotionally daunting it may be. He also has an astonishing capacity for recalling incidents and episodes in amazing Technicolor detail. His account of his experiences as a passenger and as interim pilot in Israeli fighter jets, for example, conveys an image of something akin to a superhero. He is proud of his ability to withstand an immense amount of G-force, and notes the applause he received from IDF pilots when he returned to the airbase.
Then there are the shenanigans during Lanzmann’s 1958 trip, as part of a carefully vetted media group, to North Korea. Besides the intrigues of negotiating his way through the moors of the tightly controlled communist regime, we are also treated to an account of an impossible amorous encounter that is the stuff of a classic Cold War espionage thriller. One could easily see Paul Newman cast in the role of Lanzmann as he desperately tries to outwit his pursuers and land his sexy prey.
Israel, naturally, features strongly in the memoir. The aforementioned hair-raising Israel Air Force trip was undertaken as part of Lanzmann’s research for his tribute to the IDF, simply called Tsahal. Lanzmann also dips into the history of Israeli politics and, throughout, remains steadfast in his support of the country.
If there is any single attribute of the author to be drawn from this voluminous memoir, it is his indomitable spirit. He has been through more escapades, adventures, mortal dangers and exciting encounters than most could hope to imagine, let alone actually experience. It is the stuff of Hollywood, yet it is part of a life related. No one could compose such a tale without repudiation. But while certain passages may smack of hubris and chest puffing, at the end of the day, The Patagonian Hare comes across as a most human account of an extraordinary human being.
By the way, in case the reader ponders the strange title of the book, there are revealing references to the importance of the long-eared critter at various junctures of the book, and all becomes clear at the very end. Some of the book may be hard to take – some parts are extremely dark, while others are dense with factual and emotive descriptions – but I defy anyone to read the last passage and not feel uplifted.

The Patagonian Hare
By Claude Lanzmann
Atlantic Books
544 pages; $35