Most memoirists are burdened with the question of how to make their relatively unexceptional lives interesting enough for public consumption – a question whose answers are generally sought in the quality or distinctiveness of the prose. Vanessa Springora may have been faced with the opposite problem: the raw elements of her story are so extraordinary that the material risks upstaging the form.
When her account of her relationship in the mid-Eighties with the French author Gabriel Matzneff – which took place when she was 14 and he 50 – was published in France in January 2020, it inaugurated what has been described as “a #MeToo moment for France’s literary circles”.
Yet Springora, who is now 48 and runs a French publishing house, recently expressed some reservations about its reception: “While it is true that my book has become integrated in the [#MeToo] wave around it, I try to remind people that this is first and foremost a piece of literature.” Reviewing the French edition in the TLS, Sarah Richmond wrestled with the memoir’s equivocal status: “For the most part, Le Consentement is composed as a work of literature… it is not merely an act of testimony but also (as the blurb tells us) ‘un récit magnifique’.”
The “récit magnifique” (epic story), the English translation of which is published this week, begins with Springora’s parents separating while six-year-old “V” is away at summer camp. (Springora refers to herself as “V” in the book, matching the initials she uses for Matzneff, “GM”, whom she never names in full.) The rare subsequent appearances of V’s father in her childhood are reliably painful or menacing, and his absence haunts the rest of the story.
[see also: France faces a reckoning over historic child sex abuse]
V “drown[s] the inconsolable sorrow” of her father’s abandonment by reading. She is a studious and “vaguely melancholy” child – “as is often the case with the children of divorced parents”, Springora adds, in the confident, if not always compelling, psychoanalytic register to which readers grow accustomed. By the time she is 13, the age at which she first encounters G, V is reclusive and feels physically unattractive.
V meets G at a dinner party to which her mother “dragged” her. G gazes at V throughout the meal; she is elated by the attentions of this “brilliant”, “entirely bald” and, apparently, “handsome” older man. Soon, G begins sending V love letters and following her in the street, attempting to engineer an “impromptu encounter”. Eventually, he sends a letter arranging a meeting. They take a bus for the short ride to G’s studio apartment. “I wasn’t afraid of G,” Springora writes; he kisses her “tenderly”, and they fool around “like two shy adolescents”. Her “heart swollen with an utterly unfamiliar joy, I left and went home”.
This is the first rendezvous of many, initially in G’s apartment and later in a hotel that a “benefactor” pays for G to stay in, opposite V’s school. They start sleeping together, though the relationship is not only clandestine sex and passionate letters; G takes V to the theatre and museums, and they “spend hours” “wandering the streets of Paris”. V’s mother was not “thrilled by the situation”. But after consulting friends and finding no one “particularly disturbed”, “in the face of my resolve, she came around”. When V tells her mother she is leaving G after a long sequence of disillusioning revelations confirming that she is not his sole love, as he professed, but one among several unfortunate victims, she responds: “Poor thing, are you sure? He adores you!”
What appears today as astounding neglect by the adults in V’s life derived in part, Springora explains, from the “liberal” cultural context. The permissive sensibility of her mother’s Parisian milieu of intellectuals and writers was formed by the unrest and protests of May 1968, and the ensuing social revolution against what the soixante-huitards regarded as the puritanism of conventional sexual mores, including the taboo against sex between adults and minors. As the French sociologist Pierre Verdrager explained in Forbidden Child: How Paedophilia Became Scandalous: “The identification of the potentially sexual nature of the relationship between adults and children was one of the ways of going against the bourgeois order.”
A movement defending paedophilia emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, with its own associations and journals. Matzneff became a spokesperson, drafting (initially anonymously) an open letter in Le Monde in 1977 arguing for the decriminalisation of sex between adults and minors, which was signed by the some of the most renowned intellectuals of the era, including Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Public opinion shifted in the 1990s, but not far enough – Matzneff, whose sexual relationships with adolescents are well-documented in his published work, was awarded the prestigious Prix Renaudot as recently as 2013.
In what sense, then, is Consent “a piece of literature”? Springora’s story is literary in the simple sense that writing features heavily. Key communications tend to be epistolary (the events described came before the internet and mobile phones): news of her parents’ divorce arrives at V’s summer camp by post; V first gets wind of G’s infidelity – and depravity – in a note passed by a classmate. Most obviously, there are G and V’s love letters, which are self-consciously literary: “We had been corresponding by letter… just like, I told myself naively, in the time of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”
The “naive” V, her imagination filled with the romances she read as a child, is susceptible to dramatising their predicament. The police’s “Juvenile Squad” launch an (extremely half-hearted) investigation into G after they receive anonymous letters divulging details of his relationship with V (which she later suspects were penned by G in order to confer “novelistic glamour” on their affair). V revels in imagining the couple’s persecution: “We’d have to hide, disappear… I’d have to scream across a courtroom, as they handcuffed my beloved, that I loved him more than anything. We would die in each other’s arms… Life with G was more than ever beginning to resemble a novel.”
In retrospect, these idle imaginative flights are an ominous precursor to the calculated literary uses to which G puts their relationship, both in his subsequent novels, “in which I was supposedly the heroine”, and in his published diaries, which include some of V’s letters. G’s sexual abuse of V is throughout shadowed by a literary violation: the sex is not simply bound up with his writing, it is in service of it – his predations appear in part to be motivated by the future novels for which they furnish the material.
“I was just a character now,” V reflects – a thought that foreshadows a “psychotic episode” she suffers after breaking off the relationship. Following an unhappy period plagued by panic attacks and depression, partying to stave off sadness, expulsion from school, and feeling unreal to herself after days of not eating or sleeping, she asks a “bearded professor” at the hospital where she ends up: “I’m not. . . fiction?”
Allusions to fairy tales are one way that Springora’s memoir signals its literary ambition. Before meeting G, V feels she “lacks the slightest physical allure”; a boy tells her she looks like a toad. After being “caressed” by G’s gaze, “his voice “insinuat[ing] himself inside me like a spell”, she decides she looks “quite pretty”; “Overnight I had turned into a goddess.” Later, the “spell” beginning to lift, V realises G is an “ogre” – “the fairy tale was over”.
There is psychological truth in this description of the transforming effect of feeling adored, and its reversal, but the fairy tale analogy may also be apt in other ways. In one striking passage, Springora writes that “the situation would have been very different” if an older man “yielded just this once to his love for a teenage girl”. What is painful and despicable is “the fact that G had repeated the same story a hundred times already”. Springora’s stylised, folkloric narrative befits Matzneff’s formulaic perversion.
[see also: Annie Ernaux and the brutal art of memoir]
The self-dramatising instincts of the young V are compounded by the almost ostentatious storytelling of Springora the adult author. The memoir is built from discrete episodes – remembered scenes – that are either literary or sexual, often both. The marshalling of experience into a montage of telling incident is a feature of most storytelling, but it is so rigorous and heightened here that it can feel that selectivity and order – two of the principles that distinguish life from literature, and make literature out of life – are being fetishised.
The ruthless literary economy also issues in a psychoanalytic neatness that at times becomes lifeless: “A father, conspicuous only by his absence… A pronounced taste for reading. A certain sexual precocity… an enormous need to be seen. All the necessary elements were now in place,” Springora writes at the close of part one (of six, with titles such as “The Prey”, “The Stranglehold”).
A connection between V’s absent father and her vulnerability to G’s predations is drawn repeatedly and sometimes heavy-handedly – G “threw me a smile, which I confused for a paternal smile, because it was the smile of a man, and I no longer had a father”. This is self-knowledge, not self-revelation, the calcified wisdom acquired some time long ago, during Springora’s “years of the talking cure”. Consent is a driven, efficient memoir, and the story of Springora’s recovery from Matzneff’s multifaceted abuse is also the story of her discovery of the will to write about it, and so of the making of its author. Yet to write about literature is not necessarily to produce it.
The contrast with Annie Ernaux’s decisively literary A Girl’s Story, another short memoir about a first, traumatic sexual encounter, written decades later, is illuminating. Self-revelation in memoir is not only revelation of the “self” who is the memoir’s subject, but the “self” who is the memoir’s author. Part of the literary intensity of Ernaux’s memoir comes from the reader’s observation of the writer engaged in her unflinching, scrupulous delving into painful memories. Springora’s story, however, can seem almost fossilised; we rarely feel the riveting presence of the adult author “working through” the material.
The jury may be out on whether Consent is “first and foremost a piece of literature”; as testimony, however, its status is unequivocal. In February 2020, the New York Times reported that “prosecutors in Paris announced that after ‘analysing’ [the memoir’s] contents, they had opened an investigation into the case”. Matzneff, now 84, is due to stand trial in September in France, charged with promoting the sexual abuse of children.
Translated by Natasha Lehrer
HarperVia, 208pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth