In France in the 1970s, in the name of sexual liberation, left-wing newspapers and intellectuals regularly defended paedophilia. An open letter supporting the decriminalisation of sex between minors and adults was published in Le Monde in 1977, signed by eminent psychoanalysts, philosophers and writers including Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Glucksmann, and Louis Aragon.
They argued against the detention of three men awaiting trial for sex with minors because the children were consenting, not “in any way” victims of violence. The organiser of the letter was Gabriel Matzneff, an author celebrated for his paedophilic novels.
One of his child victims was Vanessa Springora. They met in the 1980s when she was 13 and he was nearly 50; it is only now, more than 30 years later, that she has recovered sufficiently to expose the reality of abuse, stolen childhood and psychological destruction. Consent is a shocking memoir which, when it was published in France last year, caused a reckoning akin to the Me Too movement. Revealed in it was not just Matzneff’s ghastliness, but the complicity of the society that enabled him.
Springora, born in 1972, was the perfect victim, a bookish, solitary child belonging to the same quasi-aristocratic slice of intellectual Paris. She was abandoned by her father, who left home when she was five, leaving her yearning for love. The child’s sexual precocity was fuelled by her mother, a product of the 1968 student generation who believed it was forbidden to forbid. She drank too much and had sex in the same room her daughter was (pretending to be) asleep in. Springora grew up playing sex games with her cousins. Then came the fateful literary dinner where Matzneff — she refers to him by his initials only — was holding court. He caressed the sensual girl with his eyes and she was instantly infatuated.
He groomed her with love letters, sometimes twice a day. She had just turned 14 on their first secret meeting, when he took her to his apartment “for tea” and kissed her. “G behaved with exquisite delicacy . . . we were like two shy adolescents messing around in the back of a car,” she says. As in a fairy tale, Springora lets the narrative unfold with horrid inevitability. It is compellingly awful to read through modern eyes. How can the lamb be allowed to wander off with the ogre?
They began a full sexual relationship. She adored him. “How could I resist that wolfish smile, those laughing eyes, the long, slender, aristocratic fingers?” Matzneff, she later discovered, was also a predator of pre-pubescent Filipino boys. He portrayed himself in his novels as a benefactor, initiating young people into the joys of sex. His golden rule was that without pain or coercion, it was not rape.
Matzneff picked her up from school wearing sunglasses, they walked hand in hand. Later he rented a hotel room opposite the school where they spent afternoons in bed. He called her his “beautiful schoolgirl” and recounted the long history of illicit love affairs between young girls and middle-aged men in literature. Roman Polanski, he said, was persecuted by puritans.
Moral ambiguity laces the pages. When her mother discovered the secret relationship, she was “not thrilled”. She asked Springora if she knew he was a paedophile. (Her daughter didn’t even know what the word meant.) But flattered by Matzneff’s fame, the mother did nothing — merely the first in a long line of adults who failed the child. No one, apparently, was particularly bothered.
Worse than that, men from their milieu blamed the child. I confess to laughing aloud in places: Springora can be darkly hilarious. When she was hospitalised with rheumatic fever, a psychoanalyst comes. “Have you noticed something about the word ‘knee’? The way it rhymes with ‘me’ and ‘we’? So, would you agree if I said that you’re suffering pain in the joint between the ‘me’ and the ‘we’?”
Her father, learning of his daughter’s affair, calls her a little whore and says he’ll call the police but doesn’t. Plainly Matzneff felt untouchable. He carried a personal letter of praise from President Mitterrand in his pocket; as late as 1990 he was teased on intellectual TV chat shows about his predilections.
Such was his arrogance, she suggests he was responsible for writing anonymous letters to the police complaining of their underage affair, purely in order to heighten the drama for the plot of his next paedophilic novel. (The police failed to act.) This was because, as Vanessa came to realise, hers was a dual role — to provide sex and copy. She was a paedophile writer’s muse and meal ticket. The novels in which she was his fictionalised “heroine” were published when she was aged between 16 and 25, followed by volumes of his diaries, their letters, newspaper articles and television interviews in which he delighted in saying her first name. Later, outrageously, he sought to use her image in his biography and on his website.
As she approached her 15th birthday she was getting too old for him. He became controlling and unpleasant. She spotted him in the street with other girls — when confronted, he accused her of being a pedant and a feminist. When she left him, her mother said, sadly: “Poor thing, are you sure? He adores you!”
Vanessa meanwhile was heading for a breakdown. No one told her she could press charges or sue his publisher for identifying her in print. She spent many years in self-destructive darkness, unable to understand she was a victim. Therapy saved her life, and after numerous relationships ruined by her early experiences, her story has a happy ending with a nice partner and a child. She has also risen to become the head of the Juilliard publishing house.
In 2013, when Matzneff was awarded the prestigious Prix Renaudot, she finally felt able to act. She couldn’t afford to sue, and it was too late to bring criminal charges, so she did to him what he’d done to her — “to take the hunter to his own trap, to lock him in a book”.
Matzneff, lionised for decades by the French establishment, is at 84 said to be in hiding in Italy, his books withdrawn by his publisher. Patriarchal literary France is shamed. Consent, rapier-sharp, written with restraint, elegance and brevity — and beautifully translated — has done what it set out to do. I hope it helped her to write it.