Love and death go hand in hand in the life of journalist and filmmaker Lanzmann, who at 84 delivers his first book (originally published in France in 2009): a beautifully written memoir driven by both the writer’s passion for living and his memories of lost friends.
Raised as a secular Jew in a family with deep communist sympathies—and an unusual parental arrangement that included his mother’s lover—the author served in the French Resistance and narrowly missed capture by the Nazis. As an adult, he went where the action was, culturally and romantically. He became editor of Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal Le Temps Modernes (a position he still holds more than 50 years later) and had an intense seven-year affair with Sartre’s lover, Simone de Beauvoir, who was happy to take him on as her “sixth man.” Faithfulness wasn’t anyone’s game then, and Lanzmann seemed to seduce nearly every woman he ever met. He also became deeply immersed in his own Jewish heritage and documentary filmmaking, ultimately resulting in his nine-hour magnum opus Shoah. Readers who have seen that great film will be especially interested in the last 100 pages, where he describes the making of it in exciting detail. Lanzmann is hardly a modest witness to his life, variously describing himself as a man of “phenomenal” endurance, a “fearless skier” and a “visionary,” but he’s equally generous to the memory of others. He renders beautiful if often painful memories of the departed: his beautiful and troubled sister, actress Evelyne Rey (one of Sartre’s many conquests), philosopher Gilles Deleuze, radical Frantz Fanon and his wife, Josie (all but Fanon, who died of leukemia, committed suicide). Lanzmann’s life has been a precarious balance between rich and poor, right and left, joy and fragility.
“I am neither indifferent to, nor weary of, this world; had I a hundred lives, I know I would not tire of it,” he writes. Intelligent readers will find it hard to argue.