In 'The Patagonian Hare', Claude Lanzmann Writes with Picturesque Clarity

by Elisabeth Woronzoff

6 August 2012

Claude Lanzmann’s memoir demonstrates that life is mediated by seemingly opposing and conflicting forces. But in order to live, one must ultimately find stability and adhere to the truth.
cover art

The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir

Claude Lanzmann

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
US: Mar 2012

“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, multifaceted and unique, and it deserved to be told. I agreed” (x). Thankfully so.

Claude Lanzmann’s memoir The Patagonian Hare, is an honest and charming account of an incredible life. Lanzmann fills the pages with anecdotes recalling significant moments in his life that prepared him to create one of history’s greatest films, Shoah. He describes his youth as a French Jew actively engaged as a Resistance fighter who smuggled guns and raided Nazi billets, his work as a journalist gaining international recognition, his dabbling in aviation, Marxism and how he garnered the friendships and respect of leading French intellectuals. Lanzmann writes with picturesque clarity and the tone is amiable, thereby often evoking the feeling of audible storytelling.

The Patagonian Hare is imbued with memories of death and dying. Lanzmann begins his memoir by describing his obsession with the guillotine, yet reminding readers that “I love life madly, love it all the more now that I am that close to leaving it…” (17). In spite of its emphasis on death, the memoir is not one of bereavement but rather one that chronicles the search for a balance between living and dying. When writing about Shoah, Lanzmann has a moment of clarity when he realizes “that the subject of the film would be death itself, death rather than survival” (419).

Clearly, you cannot have death without life as a future cannot exist without a past, and Lanzmann contends that it is his life and the events that he bore witness to that prepared him to create Shoah. But more importantly, his life taught him to stand aside while the testimonies of the survivors revealed and reverberated the voices of the dead. For Lanzmann, the 12 years it took to create Shoah was a period of self-effacement and an examination of consciousness. Thus, it is this awareness that brings a type of power to Shoah that is also rendered in The Patagonian Hare.

Yet Lanzmann’s self-reflection is inconsistent. Early in his memoir he deplores gambling but fondly remembers the time he donned a priest costume in order to walk door to door to pocket the alms. This could simply be attributed to nostalgia for youthful indiscretion. However, these inconsistencies span into Lanzmann’s adult life.  He maintains his stance as an uncompromising defender of human rights and an active fighter against the death penalty, it is curious as to why he is not more critical of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. Lanzmann strives for awareness, yet his championing of the Israeli cause lacks any knowledge of Israel’s possible wrongdoings. It seems that Lanzmann has forgotten his youth working for the Resistance and fighting against totalitarian regimes.

Without doubt Lanzmann led a remarkable life. Additionally, his existence crossed paths with other individuals who have become extraordinary cultural and historical figures. For instance, Lanzmann is currently the chief editor of Les Temps Modernes, initially begun by Jean-Paul Sartre and co-founded by Simone de Beauvoir, who at one point was Lanzmann’s lover and later a close friend. Sartre circulated on the periphery of Lanzmann’s early life. For example, Lanzmann’s school friend served as Sartre’s secretary and Lanzmann voraciously read all of Sartre’s works. But it was only later that Lanzmann established an intellectual intimacy with him.

In another example, Lanzmann recalls Gilles Deleuze as a bright older student who Lanzmann dubbed “a born philosopher” (125). Throughout the text, Lanzmann casually inserts the names of prominent individuals who bolstered his talent and provided lifetime friendships. It must be noted that he is not simply namedropping, and to understand his contemporaries as accessories exalting his status is a misreading. Rather, it’s important to widen ones’ lens to truly catch a glimpse of Lanzmann’s intellectual and cultural milieu. Such eminent contemporaries can on occasion elicit resentment in the reader, only because many would wish to have a few words in passing with Sartre and de Beauvoir, never mind a lifelong companionship. Unfortunately, Lanzmann does not include any detailed descriptions of his conversations with his contemporaries undoubtedly maintaining the privacy of their intimate relationships.

Lanzmann requires his readers to be patient. He takes his time developing each chapter, meticulously including details and miniscule tangents. But rather than rendering the narrative tedious, these insights shape the story and demonstrate Lanzmann’s keen eye for observation. In a particularly touching memory Lanzmann recalls his grandfather’s ability to bring joy into his world: “I laughed uncontrollably; the only way I could stifle my hilarity was to bury my face in my grandfather’s hair, which smelt of freshly baked bread; it impregnates my nostrils still” (82). Details such as these bring a playful vivacity to the entire memoir. In the early pages Lanzmann implores that he will tell the truth throughout the memoir, and clearly his truth is at one with his memories.

Lanzmann also includes short connections between his life and works of art, fiction, and cinema that he finds particularly significant. For instance, he compares Deleuze’s relationship with Lanzmann’s sister Evelyn to the Howard Hawk’s film noir, Scarface, as both are “pure cinema” (157). In another moment Lanzmann recalls a painful moment when a classmate likened him to Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. These moments not only demonstrate Lanzmann’s self-reflection but also the moments when culture impacts our identity and facilitates the development of our own self-narratives.

Lanzmann’s recollection of being likened to Shylock is an important point in the memoir. He writes that his classmate “hissed between clenched teeth, ‘you’re another little Jew, aren’t you?” (77), to which Lanzmann responded “no, I’m not a Jew” (77). Such cultural denial ultimately causes a type of death and this is a frequent trope throughout the text. From eluding the Gestapo, to tales of his mother denying her ethnicity, to Lanzmann publicly supporting and defending Israeli’s political maneuvers, he contends that to deny one’s identity causes falsehoods and the eradication of self. As Lanzmann writes “assimilation is another form of annihilation, a triumph of forgetting” (91).

The title Patagonian Hare is derived from an incident in which Lanzmann nearly killed a hare while driving in Patagonia. This episode prompted him to recall the hares that crawled under the barbed wire at Birkenau. Thereby, Lanzmann embodies the symbol of the hare as the emblem of freedom and survival. The Patagonian Hare submerges readers into Lanzmann’s history and demonstrates that life is mediated by seemingly opposing and conflicting forces: such as harnessing the energy to maintain an obsession over death and pursue an extraordinary and exultant life. But in order to live, one must ultimately find stability and adhere to the truth.

The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir


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