When Vanessa Springora first met the French writer Gabriel Matzneff at a dinner party in 1986, she liked the sound of his name. She was only there because her mother, who worked in publishing, couldn’t afford a babysitter. Springora, who was thirteen, spent much of the evening reading Eugénie Grandet and feeling Matzneff’s gaze on her cheek like a warm hand, though his smile reminded her of a ‘large golden wildcat’. Within a few days, she was receiving syrupy letters from Matzneff, sometimes two a day, written in turquoise ink. He addressed her with the formal ‘vous’, which pleased Springora because it made her feel grown up, though, as it turned out, what pleased him was the fact that she was not. She eventually agreed to meet Matzneff at a bus stop on the Left Bank. It was a curious choice – why not a café? – but she went along anyway and took the bus with him to his apartment, a chambre de bonne with nowhere to sit but the bed. They kissed. Springora was ‘dazed with love’, feeling she had been ‘chosen’ by this famous writer. On her second visit, they had sex.
Whether ‘sex’ is the right word for what happened looms over Consent (HarperCollins, £10.99), Springora’s account of their almost two-year relationship, which began after she turned fourteen and Matzneff was 49. It was published in French last year; the new English translation calls it a ‘memoir’, though the original récit (‘story’) better captures Consent’s place in a long tradition of autofictional writing on abuse and the age gap, of which Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and Christine Angot’s Incest are the most famous examples. In the narrative, Springora refers to Matzneff using the initial ‘G.’ – though it is unmistakably him – while she refers to herself sometimes as ‘V.’, which has the opposite effect of making her seem like a character. This isn’t to say that what she recounts is untrue, only that something happens in the gap between an experience and its remembering.
Her childhood memories flare like warnings. There was the time at school, aged six, when she followed a classmate into the bathroom cubicle to ‘help’ him and summer holidays when she and a family friend stroked and kissed each other as their families slept. ‘Sexual precocity’, she calls it, though it might as easily be called natural curiosity. And then there was her absent father, ‘no more than a current of air’ in her life, blowing in from business trips every now and then. She remembers him for what he left behind: ‘a tie, wristwatch, shirt, Dupont lighter’, the scent of vetiver in the bathroom. She recalls a time her father almost strangled her mother because she had spilled a glass of red wine. Her mother left him, taking Springora with her, though they had occasional dinners with him in expensive Parisian restaurants. When he failed to turn up she would sit alone at the table for hours.
During the early days with Matzneff, Springora ‘felt adored as never before’, lying on his bed surrounded by books, feeling the particular weight of his body, watching him shave: ‘It was as if those activities were, for the first time, part of my world, for too long restricted to feminine rituals.’ Matzneff took her to the theatre and to museums, on walks through the Jardin du Luxembourg. He picked her up from school dressed in a Russian military coat and dark glasses – a poor disguise, given that everyone in Saint-Germain-des-Prés knew him, or at least knew of him. Matzneff promised to break up with his other ‘mistresses’ and to stop writing insalubrious novels. ‘Thanks to him,’ Springora writes, she ‘existed’.
‘Are you aware he’s a paedophile?’ was her mother’s first question. There was screaming, the threat of boarding school. Springora would rather die than leave Matzneff. If he was a paedophile, why had they gone to dinner with him? Her mother made her see a psychoanalyst, who felt that Springora’s aching knees (genoux) indicated a blockage between herself (je) and others (nous). Her father threw a chair against a wall – his only involvement in the matter. Eventually Springora’s mother conceded: she made ‘a pact with G. He had to swear that he would never make me suffer.’ The mother’s failure to protect her daughter is one of the book’s refrains:
Perhaps she thought I was stronger and more mature than I was. Perhaps she was too alone to act differently. Perhaps she needed a man by her side … to stand up to this anomaly … someone to take charge … As shocking and abnormal as it might seem, perhaps G. was for her, subconsciously, the ideal paternal substitute, the father she had been unable to give me.
Springora feels the sexual radicalism of post-1968 France marked the world she inhabited: it remained ‘forbidden to forbid’. In a section that slides into polemic, she quotes the open letters that circulated in the 1970s calling for the decriminalisation of intergenerational sexual relations on the grounds that children should also be able to choose with whom they had sex. The petitions published in Le Monde and Libération were variously signed by Matzneff, Barthes, Beauvoir, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, Sartre, Foucault and Althusser – though not by Duras. Most of the signatories eventually recanted and apologised, though one gets the sense that Springora, understandably, can’t forgive them. This may also be why she leaves out some of the context: in these petitions, the no doubt disturbing demands to decriminalise sex with those under fifteen had equal billing with calls for universal access to abortion and contraception, to remove references to homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ from the penal code, and to equalise the age of consent for gay sex, which was set at eighteen until 1982. These discussions also intersected, though not always happily, with fervent anti-rape campaigns among feminists.
Matzneff capitalised on the moment. In 1974 he published Les Moins de Seize Ans (‘The Under-Sixteens’), about the particular way boys and girls can ‘please’. ‘Though the scandal was extremely damaging,’ Springora writes, ‘the book gave his literary career a boost.’ Afterwards, Matzneff published novels, essays and diaries, ‘with the precision of a metronome, one book a year’, about seducing teenage girls and even younger Filipino boys. At one point, Matzneff is denounced to the police. A letter signed ‘W.’, claiming to be ‘a friend of the girl’s mother’, tracked his movements with Springora: ‘The specific showing of a movie we’d been to. The day and time I’d arrived at his apartment, and my return to my mother’s apartment two hours later.’ Matzneff wore bigger sunglasses, took to walking with a cane, hid all his correspondence with Springora at his lawyer’s office and decamped to a hotel room. There were more letters and then more interviews with the police, but nothing came of it. G. was convinced he had got off ‘thanks to his irresistible charm’.
At the hotel, things started to come undone. He was controlling towards Springora and himself: for her, makeup, concerts, smoking, chocolate and talking on the telephone were banned; for him, twice a year, there was ‘a specialist Swiss clinic where he ate only salad and grains’. The endless rumours about their relationship brought on self-loathing, and Springora pretty much stopped going to school. ‘I was afraid of people’s glances, afraid of bumping into someone I knew … I clung to the walls, took ridiculous detours along the least populated streets.’ One day when Matzneff was in the bathroom, Springora read a page from his diary in which he’d recorded picking up a ‘Nathalie’ from school and spending ‘a delicious, divine time together’. She could hardly breathe. ‘The words detached themselves from the page.’ She walked to the balcony and lifted a leg over the balustrade to jump. Matzneff stopped her. He claimed it was material for a future novel.
Springora watched as her own life was written into a plot. ‘His diary became my worst enemy.’ After every fight, Matzneff would scuttle off to write it all down. ‘His entire intellect revolved around satisfying his desires and then transposing them into one of his books.’ An ‘unsettling idea’ arrived in her mind: had Matzneff been the one to write those letters to the police? It was the kind of cheap twist he relished, giving ‘the beginnings of our love affair a dangerous, novelistic glamour; we were alone against the world, united in the face of revulsion of decent, law-abiding people.’ Then another unsettling idea: when Matzneff had insisted that he and Springora correspond by letter, was he amassing exculpatory proof?
Despite the book’s title, Springora never fully reckons with ideas of consent. (There is also little about the sex itself.) In an epigraph, she includes a definition taken from the Trésor de la langue française without any mention of rape, or even of sex. In current French law, rape is defined not by the absence of consent (as in the UK) but as sexual penetration committed on someone ‘by violence, coercion, threat or surprise’. This means that although it is illegal for an adult to have sexual contact with anyone under fifteen in France, sex with a child is not always considered rape. To bring such a charge, the prosecution has to prove there were also threats or physical violence – as if the wrong of rape were only that it can hurt a person’s body.
Late in the book, Springora asks: ‘How is it possible to acknowledge having been abused when it’s impossible to deny having consented, having felt desire, for the very adult who was so eager to take advantage of you?’ Those who have experienced sexual abuse as children or teenagers sometimes describe this as the most unbearable, unassimilable part of their experience: they said yes, they asked for it, they desired it, they orgasmed. Matzneff’s speeches about the long history of illicit love between adults and children, and the sexual ‘exercises’ he set for her, defined what it was possible for her to want from her first experiences of sex. ‘I absorbed his lessons with gratitude,’ she writes.
At almost sixteen, Springora left Matzneff, having come to realise that their relationship wasn’t the ‘sublime aberration’ he made it out to be: there had been many girls before her. She soon moved in with a new boyfriend, a 22-year-old law student who gave her the confidence to ignore Matzneff’s incessant letters and calls. She sometimes found pleasure in sex, but more often she was embarrassed that she was good at it. She changed schools, but quickly fell into a depression and dropped out. The breakdown came ‘without warning’. One day, while walking in a public garden, Springora no longer felt herself to be real: ‘I was nothing but a powdery cluster of photons.’ She was a ‘parable’. This time, analysis saved her. But her fluency in psychoanalytic concepts and the weight given to her absent father have the effect of making the grooming seem an inevitability, as if Matzneff weren’t fully responsible.
Springora eventually passed her baccalaureate, went to the Sorbonne and got a job in publishing. (She is now director of Éditions Julliard, the publisher which brought out Matzneff’s Les Moins de Seize Ans nearly fifty years ago.) What made her recovery so much harder was not just that the world of publishing is ‘the size of a pocket handkerchief’ and motored by gossip, but that she had to endure the yearly appearance of Matzneff’s books, in which she sometimes featured as a character. He put a photo of Springora on his website captioned ‘V.’, reprinted her letters in his books and repeatedly tried to make contact with her.
Writing seems to have helped Springora to consign these memories to the past. She sometimes speaks over her younger self’s understanding of events with sudden ferocity. Her mother has read the book and Springora hints that there has been some degree of reconciliation between them. The book ‘ends’, as these books tend to, with disclosure becoming reclamation. But the publication of Consent has done something else: Matzneff, now 84, fled to Italy. His books were withdrawn from sale, the Gallimard offices were raided and an investigation into child sex abuse was opened by the Paris police. He will stand trial in September on a separate charge of promoting paedophilia.
In January another book appeared, Camille Kouchner’s La Familia grande (Seuil, €18). It documents the sexual abuse of Kouchner’s brother by their stepfather, Olivier Duhamel, the head of the foundation that oversees Sciences Po. Duhamel, who denies all wrongdoing, immediately resigned his positions and an investigation was launched. Alain Finkielkraut was fired from a TV job for suggesting that the sex may have been consensual, and others followed in a similar fashion. Thousands of stories of abuse have since accumulated under the hashtag #MeTooInceste, and the cumulative effect of the Matzneff and Duhamel ‘affaires’ has forced the government to propose a law to screen schoolchildren for signs of sexual abuse, to increase the statute of limitations on such cases and to introduce an age of ‘non-consent’.
In February, Matzneff published a short book called Vanessavirus, his ‘swan song’. He says he has prostate cancer and didn’t want to die without first ‘whispering a few more words in Vanessa’s ear’. No publisher would accept the manuscript so Matzneff crowdfunded the print run and offered copies to just two hundred ‘subscribers’. Each copy cost €100, or €650 for the deluxe edition, which also buys you a dedication from the author. Springora’s response? A cool ‘no comment.’