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The French have long made a habit of complaining about the backward puritanism of American sexual mores, and plenty of Americans, aspiring to continental sophistication, have stood ready to back them up when it comes to matters like making a place for the prime minister’s girlfriend at his funeral. Lately, however, Gallic attitudes have been looking a bit ragged. Vanessa Springora’s memoir, Consent, electrified the French literary world when she published it a year ago. An account of an affair she had at the age of 14 with the acclaimed author Gabriel Matzneff, who was then 50, Consent became a bestseller. It also forced prominent French intellectuals to confront their culpability in Matzneff’s long, open history of sexual relations with children, male and female. Now available in an English translation by Natasha Lehrer, Consent is both a captivating story in its own right and an account of how the pride of French culture—its worldliness and its respect for the arts, in particular—made it corrupt and craven in the presence of a predator.
With the acute instincts of the experienced pedophile, Matzneff instantly identified Springora as easy prey. Her father, an elegant, temperamental martinet, was controlling when he wasn’t completely absent. Her mother took a job in book publishing after divorcing him and moved in circles where Matzneff was an admired figure. The author encountered mother and daughter at a Parisian dinner party in the mid-1980s, and Springora suggests that her mother at first flattered herself that Matzneff was interested in her.
But Matzneff was no Humbert Humbert, obliged to craftily insinuate himself into Lolita’s life by wooing and wedding her mother. He was public about his desires. In 1974 he had published an essay, “Under 16 Years Old,” in which he maintained that “to sleep with a child, it’s a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure.” In 1977 he had drafted an open letter calling for the release of three men detained for having sexual relations with boys aged 13 and 14. He was overt in his published diaries about his interest in very young girls and about the 11-year-old boy prostitutes he exploited when traveling abroad. Instead of serving as leads for vice cops and red flags to the parents of any young person unfortunate enough to cross his path, Matzneff’s revelations were regarded with amused tolerance. On the television talk show Apostrophes, where Matzneff was a frequent guest, the host, Bernard Pivot, teased him about his preference for high school students and “kittens.” (The aptly named Pivot has since expressed his regret for condoning the writer’s behavior.)
Matzneff bombarded Springora with adoring letters, begging her to meet with him. While such documents might sound incriminating, Springora believes the correspondence served a strategic purpose. A letter “composed with passionate lyricism” makes its recipient feel “duty-bound to respond” and, as the relationship progresses, to “show herself to be worthy” of such attentions. Then the girl’s own letters would become proof that she consented to the affair. Roland Barthes, were he still alive, could write an essay about the role of letters in Springora’s story: from Matzneff’s status as a man of letters who refused to communicate by telephone, to the fan mail from a former French president that he carried around in his wallet, to the letters he used to seduce the insecure 14-year-old, to the notes he continued to pester her with after she left him, to his practice of publishing the love letters she wrote to him—without her permission—as part of his diaries.
And then there’s that open letter arguing for the decriminalization of sex between minors and adults, written by Matzneff but signed by such prominent French intellectuals as Gilles Deleuze, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Barthes himself. Even in the 1970s, vanishingly few American writers would have agreed to support such a cause. In France, however, leftist thinkers have for generations conceived of themselves as the mortal enemies of the petite bourgeoisie, whose twin pillars were property and propriety, a stifling ideal of respectability in compliance with the Catholic Church. Any transgression against this oppressive morality, any willingness to be branded as sexually depraved, has been viewed as a blow for freedom. This explains why the existentialists were intrigued by the Marquis de Sade, even if they didn’t wholeheartedly embrace him.
This child’s notion of freedom, focused entirely on rebelling against authority and neglecting the truly free individual’s obligation not to impinge on the freedom of others, had a profound impact on the attitudes of artsy French people. Although Springora’s mother initially objected to her daughter’s relationship with Matzneff, she was herself a product of these cultural forces. “The fight against any curb on desire, any kind of repression, was the watchword of the era,” Springora writes of her mother’s youth in the time of the May 1968 uprisings. Springora herself was adamant about her own desires at the time. Matzneff loved her and she loved him and he was the man she was determined to lose her virginity to; to deny this misbegotten passion would be to oppress Springora herself, as her mother saw it. Eventually, their relationship, which lasted two years, became an open secret, and Matzneff was often a guest for dinner at Springora’s mother’s house.
Matzneff parroted the usual litany of pedophile excuses and justifications, explaining that past cultures, like the Ancient Greeks, considered the sexual “initiation” of children by adult men to be a noble practice, and dismissing objections to such abuse as mere prudery. He also exploited the French tendency to regard turbulent, embattled passion, however selfish and performative, as the ultimate form of love. This was a romantic ideal inculcated in Springora by the many, many French novels she read and loved. “Today, I view books with suspicion,” she writes. “I know they can be poison.” This distrust is mostly directed at the way Matzneff has depicted her in his own books, but it also describes the literary tropes that helped him groom her to become his victim.
A few months into their relationship, the police began to receive anonymous letters accusing Matzneff, correctly, of committing a crime by having sex with a child below the age of 15. The police did not appear to take the accusations seriously and—according to Matzneff, at least—told him, “We receive hundreds of letters denouncing high-profile people every day, you understand, Monsieur.” Letters again! The writer of these missives claimed to be a friend of Springora’s mother and reported the couple’s movements in surprising detail. Only after leaving him did it occur to Springora that Matzneff himself might have written them. “Their frequency and their intrusiveness,” she writes, “conferred on the beginnings of our love affair a dangerous, novelistic glamour: we were alone against the world, united in the face of the revulsion of decent, law-abiding people.” This also served to isolate Springora from others, a quintessential abuser’s gambit. He moved into a hotel in order to evade surprise visits from the police, and she spent most of her time there with him, rarely attending school yet never attracting the concern of any of the adults in her life. When she complained to a noted literary critic about her situation, he told her Matzneff was a great writer and that “it is an immense honor to have been chosen by him. Your role is to accompany him on the path.”
But if books helped snare Springora, they also helped to open her eyes and set her free. She surreptitiously read some of Matzneff’s works that he’d held back, claiming they were not fit for her tender sensibility. In them she found his troubling history with boy prostitutes in Africa and Asia, and a parade of indistinguishable girls. He’d told her their affair was “unique and sublime,” but “in the context of G.’s life, I now knew that his desire for me had been repeated an infinite number of times, was pathetically banal, and revealed a neurosis that took the form of an uncontrollable addiction.” She felt complicit, somehow, in the abuse of the nameless, faraway boys. Finally, she left him, had a nervous breakdown and a series of unsatisfactory relationships, and eventually found “a man with whom I felt completely secure.” She now runs a publishing house in Paris.
There are scenes in Consent that feel incorrigibly French. Snooping in his diary, Springora discovered that Matzneff was cheating on her with another underage girl and she “hoisted a leg over the window balustrade and prepared to jump.” (Matzneff pulled her back into the hotel room.) She speculates that if he had been a 50-year-old man who’d previously only been involved with women his own age, who, “in spite of knowing it was morally questionable, had succumbed to my youth, fallen madly in love, and yielded just this once to his love for a teenage girl,” then in that case, “I admit, our extraordinary passion might have been sublime.” No! Yet despite such moments, Springora is not, for the most part, all about the drama. Her memoir has something steely in its heart, and it departs from the typical American memoir of childhood abuse in exhilarating ways.
Where an American memoirist might emphasize the trauma she’d endured under the influence of this imperious older man, Springora is not particularly interested in her status as a victim or in finding an official psychiatric diagnosis to define them both, an authoritative superstructure to establish control over their shared narrative. She’s not content with merely reclaiming her own story, the story Matzneff stole, along with her childhood. She’s gunning for his story, too. “For many years I paced around my cage,” she writes, “my dreams filled with murder and revenge. Until the day when the solution finally presented itself to me, like something that was completely obvious: Why not ensnare the hunter in his own trap, ambush him within the pages of a book?”
In Consent, Springora is not sorrowful and suffering; she’s pissed off. She’s sarcastic and derisive on the mystique surrounding Matzneff’s alleged genius. She demolishes what remains of his literary reputation by illustrating that it’s an edifice built of lies and vanity, with himself the Mary Sue at the center. “The aim of G.’s literary process,” she observes, “was to distort reality to flatter himself. It was never about revealing even a scrap of truth about himself. Or if it was, it was always cloaked with too much narcissism to lay claim to any genuine honesty.” In one of his few unguarded moments, she managed to secure one scrap of candor from him: the admission that as a child he, too, had been molested. That essential confession has not appeared in any of Matzneff’s books, but here it is in hers. In a highly gratifying scene, Springora describes meeting up with another of Matzneff’s former victims to compare notes. Together, the two women confirm that the writer is a terrible lover, “mechanical,” “repetitive,” and boring. Half the time he can’t even get it up. If, as Matzneff claims and Springora herself seems to concur, “I will never be relegated to V.’s past, nor she to mine,” she will at least make him pay for it, and while this vengeance might not be therapeutically healthy, I couldn’t resist cheering her on.
Furthermore, Consent and the enthusiastic response to it from readers has snapped the French authorities out of their complacency, at least where Matzneff is concerned. The month after Springora’s book was published in France, he was sued in a Paris court for promoting the sexual abuse of children by an anti-pedophilia organization accusing him of hampering their work. French prosecutors raided his publisher’s office in search of evidence to support criminal charges. Matzneff, hiding out in a hotel in Italy, has been stripped of various grants and honors and dumped by three of his publishers. But Matzneff apparently will not go down without a fight. He just announced plans to publish a response to Consent. It doesn’t matter. It’s Springora who’s masterfully claimed the last word.