Illustration by David Smith
When Byron advised a friend who was about to write an essay about another poet, "Don't just praise him, praise him well," he was proving himself alert to the English critical tendency to smile and purse the lips at the same time. While "our" writers and artists, if they belong to the mutually lubricating, award-awarding in-group of literary London, regularly deem each other to be national treasures, those from elsewhere are likely to endure a rough passage on their way through critical Border Controllers. Claude Lanzmann is only the latest Frenchman to be put in his place on this side of the Channel. Bernard-Henri Lévy is the usual target of choice. Like Lanzmann, whose autobiography, The Patagonian Hare (Atlantic Books, £25), has just leapt ashore in England, BHL displays combative determination to home in on the world's hotspots. The most recent is Libya where, on his account at least, he inspired and animated the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi. The mantle of André Malraux falls easily around the shoulders of a certain kind of French intellectual.
Lanzmann is old enough to be BHL's father, but he shares his well-advertised passion for women, controversy, and the limelight. My friend Philippe Labro, a best-selling novelist in France, recently asked Lanzmann (now in his 87th year) whether he had any remaining ambition. Lanzmann said, "Certainly: to sell more copies than you!" The Patagonian Hare has been designed to outstrip (and outweigh) all rivals. Its leaps and bounds are the more vigorous by virtue of the fact that the text was more performed than written. To save time, the enemy that closes on us with age, Lanzmann dictated his life-story to a pair of devoted amanuenses.
The result is something like the saga of a latter-day Châteaubriand. Lanzmann has been almost everywhere and known almost everyone, especially the crowd that drives, politically, on the left. As a schoolboy, he was a fighting member of the French Resistance, then a prodigious young journalist, and quite soon the lover of many women, Sartre's Necessary Other, Simone de Beauvoir, among them. Now he is the presiding editor of Sartre's house mag, Les Temps Modernes. However, if he had not been the creator of Shoah, the nine-and-a-half hour film which — 40 years after the end of the war — brought individual perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust, and their memories, to the world's screens, how many people outside Paris would ever have heard of him? As Jean Daniel (editor of the Guardian-like Nouvel Observateur) said to its creator after seeing Shoah, "Cela justifie une vie." Daniel also said, on reflection, that the film was unfair to the Poles. Was it? No reader of Anna Bikont's devastating 2002 Le Crime et le Silence (which cries out for an English translation) will accuse Lanzmann of overstatement. The Poles remain determined to have been persecuted by the Jews, in whose murder so many were actively complicit.