FEBRUARY 17, 2021
WHEN AN ACCOUNT OF sexual abuse makes headline news in relation to a French public figure, I brace myself for international coverage that turns a story of trauma into a story about France. Beyond the trust such coverage seems to place in testing cultural clichés, I am wary of an argument that equates an act of sexual violence with a nation’s putative views about sex. When Vanessa Springora’s memoir Le Consentement was published last year in France, several reviews in English-language publications made superficial connections between the behavior of the alleged perpetrator and France’s supposed independence in sexual mores and conventions.
That is no fault of the book itself, which is a lucid and nuanced nonfiction account of the emotional and societal ramifications of the sexual relationship Springora had, some 35 years ago, with celebrated writer Gabriel Matzneff, when he was 50 and she was 14 — a relationship that isolated her from her peers and left her psychologically scarred into her adult years. Reading Springora’s elegant story, two questions emerge that are, however, contextually specific. One is the definition of consent in a legal system where an age of consent is not specifically established and where, therefore, the charge of statutory rape does not exist. The other has to do with the power of literature, if not to excuse, then at least to blur the reality of the actions described in the text. How else can we explain the public championing of a writer who — for many years, in journals, letters, and autobiographical novels — boasted about his sexual predilection for minors?
Most people in France under 30 had never heard of Gabriel Matzneff before 2019, when Le Consentement began to receive advance coverage in the press. (The book was published in January 2020 and has just been released in the States, in an elegant English translation by Natasha Lehrer.) In the book, Springora describes first meeting Matzneff in 1986, when she was 13, at a literary dinner she attended with her mother, whom she describes as “a feminist of the May ’68 generation.” Matzneff initiates the relationship by sending Springora a number of passionate letters and later instigating what is ostensibly a chance encounter in her neighborhood. Springora, who describes herself as the child of divorce who longed for an absent father figure, is flattered by this attention. She eventually agrees to meet, and their relationship becomes sexual soon after she turns 14. Her mother initially objects, calling Matzneff a “pedophile,” but eventually tolerates what her daughter describes as a relationship of mutual love. Springora meets the writer every day after school. She describes how invasive Matzneff immediately becomes of both her body and her psyche, which he turns into material for his books. One day, he forces her to let him complete a creative writing exercise she has been assigned, reminding her that he is the only writer in the room. “And so the dispossession began,” she writes.
It is true that the publication of Le Consentement threw France into a crisis of conscience. The book sheds light on the French literary world’s complicity in tolerating Matzneff’s relationships with minors, which were an open secret. Matzneff, now 84, has published dozens of novels and essay collections, as well as 15 volumes of his Journal. Springora is now 48 and the head of the Julliard publishing house — the same company that originally published Matzneff’s controversial booklength essay “Les Moins de seize ans” (“Under Sixteen Years Old”) in 1974, a manifesto advocating for sexual relationships between adults and “persons age ten to sixteen” on the grounds of youth emancipation. The book established Matzneff as a literary provocateur and brought him celebrity, at a time when his rich prose style jarred with the minimalist mood established by the Nouveau Roman. His Journal, in which he published parts of his private correspondence with some of his underage lovers without their consent, was acquired by Gallimard in 1990. Nearly everyone in his milieu seemed to overlook the fact that the acts he described were predatory, and in some cases illegal. Why? Because, under the generous umbrella of “literature,” there was always room to assume that most of Matzneff’s work was derived from his imagination, whether labeled as fiction, nonfiction, or, as was often the case, a mix of both.
Through Springora’s story, two eras in French history are placed in dialogue, the post-1968 years and the #MeToo era. The spring of ’68 is highlighted as a turning point because of the social and cultural uprising France experienced on a national scale, sparked by factory workers striking for better pay, and culminating in large student protests against the established order. A liberalization of the country’s sexual morality, which had been rooted in traditional Catholic values, was one of the core ideals promoted by the students who took part in these protests. Inspired by radical youth culture, France began, throughout the 1970s, to celebrate many forms of sexual freedom. In Consent, Springora reflects that the permissiveness exemplified by her mother, who was 18 in 1968, was aligned with the era’s motto, “Il est interdit d’interdire” (It is forbidden to forbid). If, as Springora writes, Matzneff “used his vocation as a writer as an alibi to justify his addiction,” then Springora’s mother, in turn, felt validated by the author’s presence in their family’s close circle. “In our bohemian world of artists and intellectuals,” Springora writes, “deviations from conventional morality were viewed with a certain level of tolerance, even admiration.”
Of course, sexual liberation in the 1960s was not, strictly speaking, a French phenomenon. But the publication of Springora’s book has brought many critics to reflect that, in France, the labeling of sexual abuse was often seen as a kind of sexual repression. This is how, in 1977, some of the country’s intellectual idols — including Roland Barthes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Gilles Deleuze, among others — found themselves signing a petition to demand that three men accused of having had sexual relations with 13- and 14-year-old children be discharged from prison. Years later, Matzneff claimed authorship of this petition, which had been published in Le Monde.
Consent does not reveal much about Matzneff that was not already known. Indeed, its story is precisely about how much was known that was considered a private matter rather than a societal problem. After the police received an anonymous letter denouncing his relationship with Springora, Matzneff was summoned to the local gendarmerie. The officers treated the resulting interrogation as a mere formality and soon released him. “We receive hundreds of letters denouncing high-profile people every day, you understand, Monsieur,” a policewoman told him. In Springora’s account, the degree of his impunity is manifested by his paranoiac response, as he proceeds to compare the moral crackdown on pedophiles to another form of the “Spanish Inquisition.”
Importantly, the book now provides the voice of one of Matzneff’s victims, long held silent. Springora was prompted to write her memoir by the renewed public recognition of Matzneff, after he won the prestigious Prix Renaudot for nonfiction in 2013, at a time when he had passed from the spotlight. “If it is illegal for an adult to have a sexual relationship with a minor who is under the age of fifteen,” she writes, “why is it tolerated when it is perpetrated by a representative of the artistic elite — a photographer, writer, filmmaker, or painter?”
Springora’s measured and persuasive account recreates the tone of her young self’s emotional ambivalence, even while her present-day narrator condemns years of collective inertia in tackling the problem of child sexual abuse. Though she is appalled by what she gradually learns about Matzneff’s sexual behavior (mostly by reading volumes of his Journal behind his back), the young Springora experiences all the conventional emotions of romantic passion, from hope to denial. “When, later on, the different therapists I saw did all they could to explain to me that I’d been the victim of a sexual predator, even then it seemed to me that this wasn’t the ‘middle way’ either,” she writes. “I wasn’t yet done with ambivalence.” The dissonance of these two emotional realities will speak to trauma survivors everywhere.
The title of the book is key, because Springora’s story highlights a lingering paradox in French law: while sexual relationships with minors under 15 are illegal and subject to prosecution, the absence of a legal age of consent in the Code Penal makes it possible for those accused of such offenses to argue that their victims were consenting. In other words, these crimes, while punishable, are not automatically considered to be rape. Predators such as Matzneff have argued that it is overt violence — physical compulsion — that constitutes the crime, not the sexual relation in itself. Among other things, Springora accuses the author of publishing their private correspondence (love letters she had written to him between the ages of 13 and 15) without her consent, in an attempt to build a speculative case to prove the consensual nature of his many affairs with minors.
Since 2017, France’s Gender Equality Minister, Marlène Schiappa, has been campaigning for the age of consent to be legally established at 15, after a case that year in which a judge had ruled that a girl of 11 had been consenting to a sexual relationship with a 28-year-old man, and acquitted the accused of rape charges. Three weeks after the publication of Le Consentement, a group of 30 representatives in the Assemblée nationale introduced a proposal for the age of consent be set at 15, citing Springora’s book: “How is it possible to acknowledge having been abused,” reads the passage quoted in the proposal, “when it’s impossible to deny having consented, having felt desire, for the very adult who was so eager to take advantage of you?”
The repression of pedophilia raises its own set of issues, not all of which fall under the debates raised by #MeToo, in France or internationally. But it is important to note that Le Consentement was published at a moment when attention was shifting from the perpetrator’s perspective to that of the victim. Some critics have noted that France had a pre-#MeToo political awakening when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, after assaulting a cleaning staff member at a New York hotel in 2011, was forced out of his position as the managing director of the International Monetary Fund. This certainly was a pivotal moment, not least because Strauss-Kahn was then effectively removed from the 2012 presidential race, in which he had been predicted to run as a candidate. A case involving a prominent politician was one thing, but when it comes to artists, moral judgment can seem more difficult. That, at least, is the thesis of Springora’s book: an aura of impunity surrounds the creators of celebrated works of art that enables them to act as if they belong to a separate social caste. “Were any other person to publish on social media a description of having sex with a child in the Philippines or brag about his collection of fourteen-year-old mistresses, he would find himself dealing with the police and be instantly considered a criminal,” she writes. “Does literature really excuse everything?”
In between the lines, Consent is a story about privilege. In the 1990s, a number of complex cases of serial child sexual abuse made the news in France, to public horror, contributing to a lasting change of opinion about the limits of sexual freedom. But these cases focused on crimes committed by lower-middle-class people living in remote areas of the country, and it took many more years before stories such as Springora’s would come out to incriminate elite Parisian circles. Since the publication of Springora’s book, other victims of Matzneff’s have come forward, including the British journalist Francesca Gee, whose memoir of her own relationship with the author, which started when she was 15, could not find a publisher in 2004. The editors at Grasset, who have now published Le Consentement, had turned it down, saying that the public mood was “not ready yet.”
While other protagonists of the #MeToo movement have turned to social media or to the press to bring public attention to personal stories of abuse, Springora chose the same literary form that her abuser had mastered, the memoir — or, as it is called in France, the roman autobiographique, a term that highlights the constructed nature of any life story, especially one that brings a key episode into close focus. More recently, Camille Kouchner, a prominent lawyer and the daughter of former Health Minister Bernard Kouchner, used this form to break the taboo on discussions of incest: in La Familia grande (2021), she recounts that her twin brother was the victim of abuse committed by their stepfather, Olivier Duhamel, a prominent political analyst, when he was still a teenager. Her book, which does not directly name Duhamel (though it leaves no doubt as to his identity), is less about denunciation than it is about the painful weight of a secret that destroyed a high-profile Parisian family. A week after its publication, La Familia grande has already created a new variant of the familiar hashtag: #MeTooInceste has been appearing on social media, as more and more survivors have begun to break their silence.
This sudden eruption of public testimony about sexual abuse has caught the French literary establishment off guard, in some cases provoking reactionary responses. Strikingly, Springora’s work, with its nuanced ambivalence, shows the value she continues to place in literature, which gives experience a mode of expression in which every voice has its place and where moral judgment is not always the ultimate arbiter. In a passage that might leave her American readers somewhat baffled, she argues that, had Matzneff fallen in love with her for who she was, rather than because of a compulsion he felt toward pubescent bodies, she would view their relationship somewhat differently today. “Love has no age limit,” she writes. “That was not the issue.” Regardless, her account makes one of the strongest points yet in the French #MeToo debate: those who once advocated for sexual liberation would now be well advised to accept the liberation of survivors’ voices, too.
Elsa Court is a French-born, London-based writer and academic. She is the author of The American Roadside in Émigré Literature, Film, and Photography 1955-85 (Palgrave, 2020), which examines the social spaces created in the margins of American mobility and the fascination these held for postwar European authors and theorists. Court is the Fiction Editor at Review 31 and she teaches English Literature and French Theory at Queen Mary, University of London.