For all his distinguished achievements, and his advanced age (he is 87), Claude Lanzmann still attracts a fair amount of criticism on the Parisian literary scene. On television and radio he has a high-handed style and a hectoring voice, and is never slow to berate interviewers, who are quickly turned into antagonists. On the back of these performances he is most often accused of arrogance and a preening self-regard, along with a tendency to rewrite events with himself as the star attraction.
The most recent example was Lanzmann's attack on Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes, an epic of the Holocaust written from the point of view of a high-ranking Nazi, which Lanzmann described as "a poisonous flower of evil", His authority came not only from the fact he is Jewish, a former member of the French Resistance and long-standing (although not uncritical) admirer of Israel, but mainly because he was the director of Shoah – the nine-and-a-half hour assemblage of documentary material from the Holocaust which is the nearest thing we have to a full eye-witness account. The fact that on meeting Littell, Lanzmann completely changed his mind about Les Bienveillantes was entirely in keeping with his sharp but capricious personality.
Strangely enough, after a lifetime at the heart of Parisian intellectual life, this is Lanzmann's first book. This is not to say that he hasn't been busy until now. He smuggled guns and raided Nazi billets in Paris before he was out of his teens. He went on to study philosophy at the Sorbonne, finding himself almost immediately in the glamorous orbit of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, working as an editor for Sartre's journal Les Temps Modernes and partying hard at the terrasses of Saint-Germain-dès-Prés.
It was not long before the friendship with De Beauvoir turned into a raging affair. The relationship was intense, physical as well as intellectual. We learn little new about her from the account, but a great deal about Lanzmann's political crises during the making of Shoah, endlessly discussed with De Beauvoir in her apartment on the rue Schoelcher.
Intriguingly, at the same time as he was breathing the rarefied air of the Sartre-Beauvoir circles, Lanzmann also had a close friendship with the press mogul Pierre Lazareff, the visionary editor who effectively shaped post-war popular culture in France with his series low-to-middlebrow magazines on television, sport and fashion. As a result of his friendhip Lanzmann found himself with a regular column in Elle, the prototype French women's magazine which mixed fashion tips and serious reportage in a new and non-patronising way.
Lazareff was also a pioneer of French television in the 1960s, which is how Lanzmann found himself with a career as presenter on Dim Dam Dom, a cultural magazine programme aimed at women. Dim Dam Dom ran until the early 1970s, mixing heavyweights such as Marguerite Duras alongside Françoise Hardy or Les Beatles. During this period, Lanzmann was a noted drageur, a seducer of women who enjoyed mingling with the Parisian showbiz élite.
But he can be serious and dark. The Patagonian Hare is composed in a strange and elliptical fashion, partly – one assumes – because it was dictated to a friend rather than written. The first three chapters focus on Lanzmann's lifelong obsession with death, and the "various ways that it is meted out". He does simply mean the Holocaust, but also firing squads, guillotines, garottes: the defining features of French intellectual and political history, he indicates, are not simply ideas and arguments, but also – that most mysterious French paradox - the shift between intellectual violence and real violence.
Lanzmann moves backwards and forwards in time – gossipy, self-aggrandising, name-dropping but never less than entertaining and occasionally compelling. The strange title of the book, he explains, refers his sighting of a hare in Patagonia, a marvellous, almost supernatural sight which represents for him the elusive magical quality of life. In the same space, he recalls the hares which were able to slip beneath the barbed wire at Birkenau – a singular animal which somehow conveys beauty and hope.
This is a book about life opposed to the nearness of death. That is, he indicates, what his film Shoah is about. The most moving, even devastating, parts are not about death but those who survived with love in their hearts for those they lost or left behind. They tell their stories moved by death, but never hating life. From this point of view, it is easy to understand why Lanzmann responded with such instinctive dislike to Les Bienveillantes – which entirely ignores the reality of what it is to be a human and to be suffering.
The real value of this book is similarly its humanity. For all his reading of Hegel or Marx, conversations with Philippe Sollers or Sartre, Lanzmann wears his learning lightly. He is always interested in a meal, a journey, a drink or a woman's scent as well as a dialectical critique.
Much of this book for this reason reads to English eyes like the caricature of the Left Bank intellectual. However, as the 21st century takes a new and frightening shape, it is well to remember the strange heroism of men like Lanzmann, who opposed the darkest forces of the 20th century with an unmitigated belief in freedom, and not just freedom of belief.
Andrew Hussey is director of the University of London Institute in Paris