Born in Lyon, France, in 1919, the legendary mountaineer Maurice Herzog was the leader of a 1950 expedition that was the first to conquer Annapurna, a peak that is part of the Himalayas in north central Nepal. Returning with frostbite that necessitated the amputation of his fingers and toes, Herzog wrote “Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak,” the classic 1951 account of his adventure.
“Annapurna” has sold millions of copies and is often termed the most influential book ever published on mountaineering, even if its grandiose style reportedly helped inspire “The Ascent of Rum Doodle” by W. E. Bowman, a 1956 British novel that parodied vainglorious mountain memoirists.
Decades later, Herzog’s account was challenged by critics, who claimed that it was self-serving and that it minimized the contributions of other members of his team. David Roberts’ “True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna” (2000) described Herzog, a former French Resistance fighter, as an adventurer thirsty for glory first and foremost and a mountaineer second. The eminent climber Gaston Rébuffat, who was part of Herzog’s expedition, told interviewers that Herzog’s book overlooked the contributions of his guide, Louis Lachenel, to the point of crediting to Herzog photos of Herzog taken at the mountain’s peak that had actually been taken by Lachenel.
To readers around the world unaware of such disputes, Herzog is still an icon, and to them, “A Hero,” written by his daughter Félicité and recently released in France, may rival the shock of a mountain avalanche. Félicité, a director of development at French nuclear energy conglomerate Areva, calls her book a novel although none of the names or, indeed, any of the facts have been changed to protect anyone. This summer, during an appearance at a Paris bookstore, Félicité Herzog referred to her book as an “autobiographical novel, but a novel all the same.” There may be an element of charity in classifying “A Hero” as a novel. It’s written in a freewheeling, vivacious prose style with a dollop of sarcastic gusto. For example, a typical ex-girlfriend of her father, a serial adulterer, is described here as “an adept of Big Hair” (with the words “Big Hair” in English).
In the novel, Félicité describes her ambitious father’s trajectory post-Annapurna: He was appointed France’s Minister of Youth and Sport from 1958 to 1963, in the government of Charles de Gaulle, and was later elected mayor of the alpine town of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. For a quarter-century starting in 1970, he served as a member of the International Olympic Committee. Still, for Félicité something about her father “wasn’t genuine.” An especially low point was when he praised the far right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen to her as “an exceptional, I’d even say marvelous, fellow.” Félicité retorted: “You find someone who called the extermination of the Jews a ‘mere detail’ of history… a marvelous fellow?” Her father responded by inviting her to a society dinner where Le Pen was an honored guest, and she watched with dismay as Herzog nodded approvingly while the politician held forth.
“My father wasn’t a father,” she writes. “Beyond the fabulous legend which he created for himself, which he fought to preserve every step of the way, he behaved as if he had no wish to hand anything down.”