As France reels from nearly two months of strikes over President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms, another story is rocking the cultural and intellectual life of the nation.
The controversy centres on the 83-year-old writer Gabriel Matzneff, whose essays and novels describing his sexual relations with minors have been extolled by the high priests of French culture.
The drama unfolded in January 2020 when one of his victims Vanessa Springora, now the director of a prestigious publishing house in Paris, released her book Le Consentement (Consent), in which she recounts the predatory relationship Matzneff established with her in the mid-1980s, when he was 50 and she was 14.
At the time, Springora’s parents were going through a difficult divorce. Matzneff prepared a studied game of seduction. He wrote her letters, followed her and waited for her at the gate of her school. Eventually he took her to a hotel.
Springora realised she was one of many victims when she read some of his books, which were, she writes, “populated by other 15-year-old Lolitas”. In retrospect she realised “this man was no good. He was, in fact, what we are taught to fear from childhood, an ogre.”
Matzneff himself is unrepentant, accusing Springora of attempting to destroy him and claiming that Springora was one of the “passionate loves” of his life.
There is no question about the acts that have been committed. Matzneff has proudly recounted them ad nauseum: his sexual adventures with underage prostitutes in south-east Asia, his “love affairs” with delicate youngsters – these have constituted the material on which his celebrated literary career (one critic called him “the premier writer of his generation”) has been built.
In 1974 Matzneff published an essay advocating sex with minors – “Under 16 Years Old” – in which he wrote, “To sleep with a child, it’s a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure.”
This essay, along with his political activism, earned him a prominent role in the movement against the criminalisation of paedophilia in the 1970s, whose supporters included the intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
Springora’s book has led to an official inquiry into whether Matzneff has a criminal case to answer, and there have also been attempts to explain the reasons for his unquestioned celebrity. It is striking how many commentators have focused on 1968 to explain why “France” let Matzneff off the hook for so long.
Matzneff was not in France during the events of May 1968. But the uprisings of that year, their youthful rebellion against bourgeois morality and convention, are said to have excused all manner of libidinal excess – including not only tolerating but celebrating the paedophilia Matzneff so blatantly championed and practised.
There were some calls for free love and sexual exploration in those heady days, but May 1968 was mostly about worker and student protests against the economic and educational policies of Charles De Gaulle’s French Fifth Republic.
We have to look further back in history to account for the impunity Matzneff has enjoyed. The acclaim for his work was not universal. Throughout his career, especially after the publication of “Under 16 Years Old”, there were serious objections raised to his portrayals of sex with boys and girls under 16 (and as young as ten). Teachers and prominent psychoanalysts warned about the trauma sex with adults would cause young adolescents.
Condemnation also came from critics of the television programmes that touted Matzneff’s books, and in letters to the editors of prominent publications, such as Le Monde and Le Magazine Littéraire, that gave his books positive reviews.
But critics were silenced and ridiculed by a cultural establishment – a largely male group of publishers, academics, journalists and highbrow TV commentators – whose control of the media and of prizes accorded to literary figures was absolute. They welcomed Matzneff to their ranks and rallied to his defence.
When one of Matzneff’s former victims recounted her experience as an adolescent seeking an abortion (before its legalisation in France in 1975), a publisher refused to print it. The treatment accorded Denise Bombardier, a Canadian journalist who during a 1990 prime-time television roundtable dared to confront the author over his behaviour, as well as criticise the literary quality of one of his books, is similarly telling.
Bombardier was dismissed by Matzneff’s editor, Philippe Sollers, as “a bitch” whose problem was that she had been “badly fucked”. Another of Matzneff’s writer friends wondered why he hadn’t “slapped her in the face”. Long after the programme on which she had voiced her opinion, Bombardier would be referred to in these terms, as a warning to others (women especially) who might dissent from the consensus that Matzneff’s acolytes were building.
That consensus rests on a belief in a singular French tradition of open sexuality, taken to be the legacy of absolutism and aristocracy. There is a centuries-long mythology that vaunts the aesthetic and erotic culture of the nobility and insists that it is an enduring feature of French national identity.
The tradition was revived at the time of the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989 in a number of books and articles by an influential group of Parisians (the embodiment of the cultural establishment) clustered around Gallimard (Matzneff’s publisher), the journals Le Débat and L’Esprit, and the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur.
Although much of their writing focused on the relations between (adult) men and women and on the need for women to submit with “loving consent” to men’s overtures (anti-feminism was a major theme), the importance of seduction was at the centre of the argument.
Referred to by one of these writers as a “peculiar kind of equality”, seduction was about the play of difference in the field of sexual attraction. Seduction was an art, a game of honour, marked by “sly and frivolous gaiety”. Everyone could play the game (in that sense they were “equals”), but it always privileged men whose superior position defined the rules. That superiority, for the cultural establishment, was the possession of male literary genius, whose entitlement was considered to be boundless.
In accordance with this mythology, men’s sexual transgressions are referred to by their apologists as seductions. Think of the excuses offered about the former director of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged attack on a hotel maid in New York in 2011. It was not a matter of assault or rape, his supporters insisted, he was merely practising the art of seduction – misunderstood by those not of his nationality, culture, or class. And it is as a seducer that Matzneff, too, has been admired.
Unlike Strauss-Kahn (a mere politician), Matzneff was celebrated (and excused) as a literary genius. As President François Mitterrand described him in 1986: “This unrepentant seducer, who defines himself as a mix of Dorian Gray and Dracula, has always astonished me by his extreme taste for rigour and by the density of his thought. The spontaneity of his judgement, expressed in a limpid style, is allied with an insistence on truth that often leads him outside the boundaries of what is considered ordinary.”
Unlike most of his supporters (straight men and some straight women), Matzneff has gone further, realising his fantasies in the actual exploitation of children.
Until recently, the children were beside the point – they were taken to be legitimate objects of desire for this talented, literary man. It was his desire that was being satisfied; his satisfaction meant his “conquests” were satisfied too – that’s how seduction works.
The imagined desire of the other constituted (and justified) Matzneff’s desire, however much it was “outside the bounds of what is considered ordinary”. That’s what accounts for his explanation that these relationships were consensual. His satisfaction is the only definition of consent. In this way, the question of power is denied in the game of seduction.
Male desire unbound was Matzneff’s mode of operation; male desire unbound is the point of the myth of seduction; male desire unbound was what his admirers and enablers wanted to endorse. Their fantasy was of identification with him, not necessarily with his paedophilia, but with his sexual excesses – a sign of his genius.
The excuses offered now in the face of Springora’s book are meant to distract us from the insight about seduction and the power of male genius. The journalist and interviewer Bernard Pivot, on whose TV show Matzneff appeared several times, says regretfully that times have changed: in the 1970s and 1980s literature was more important than morality; now morality is more important than literature. “From the point of view of morality, it’s progress.”
This is a sly slap at the French #MeToo movement that has finally given a voice to women and other critics of excessive male indulgence and the power it continues to exercise. It is an attempt to continue to exercise that power in the name of the superiority of literature and of the artist/genius to whom no moral codes need apply.
In this, Pivot’s comment avoids acknowledging the fact that appeals to genius cannot any longer veil or forgive behaviour that ought to be condemned for its violations and predations – behaviour that should never have been deemed worthy of any association with art.
This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people