Vanessa Springora’s “Consent” offers a devastating literary takedown of another powerful man. In her eloquent memoir, which has already triggered a cultural reckoning in France, the prominent French publisher describes an affair she had as a 14-year-old with a 50-year-old celebrated writer, Gabriel Matzneff. (In the book he is “G.,” but Springora has identified him in other accounts.) The story begins with a smart, bookish, overlooked child: “At the grand old age of 5, I am waiting for love.”
Springora’s prose, smoothlytranslated from the French by Natasha Lehrer, is spare and novelistic. She is a graceful stylist, though her story also burns with a sense of purpose, a clarifying force. Her ravishing descriptions of the restlessness and boredom of teenage life rival those of Françoise Sagan. In one scene, her father stands her up in a restaurant as she waits for hours, with waiters taking pity on her. This is just one manifestation of the paternal absence that leaves her vulnerable to a charismatic older man who writes her love letters. Soon she is cutting school, smoking in cafes, rudderless, essentially parentless. She writes, “I persisted in believing that this abnormal situation made me interesting.”
Springora simultaneously shows how Matzneff’s sexual attention feels like love to a child and how far it is from that. We see how the idea of love is dangerous, how it offers cover for violence and domination. Even years later, she struggles with how to look at the situation: “How is it possible to acknowledge having been abused, when it is impossible to deny having consented, having felt desire, for the very adult who was so eager to take advantage of you?”
Matzneff incorporated photographs and letters of the young girls he abused into his own books, which glorified these encounters as adventures. In Springora’s account one sees his effort to define and write over their interactions, his refusal of her experience. One day he even insists on writing her homework for her, an essay on a triumph, despite her protests. In the middle of an early sexual act, she writes, “something of my presence in the world dissolved.”
Her cool, precise account reveals his grand seductions as the brutal, petty, narcissistic fumblings that they were. Springora has said, “My goal actually was to lock him up in a book, to catch him in his own trap.” And in “Consent” the object becomes subject, the described becomes the describer. At one point, Springora calls him an “ogre,” reaching deep into the mythologies of childhood because that is the language she had at 14, in spite of his efforts to get her to read Proust, and her patina of louche teenage sophistication.
She writes of the years after the abuse: “I felt like a doll lacking all desire who had no idea how her own body worked, who had learned only one thing: how to be an instrument for other people’s games.” This tended to complicate her subsequent relationships; as she puts it in one of the saddest lines of the book, “No one wants a broken toy.”
The French publishing world was slow to distance itself from Matzneff, who had even written a book defending sex with children, but it seems that “Consent” brought some late-breaking moral clarity. (Emphasis on “some”: Reading an article on his exile to the south of Italy, one can’t help noticing that he seems to be shunned by society in a luxury hotel room overlooking the Mediterranean. Still, one imagines him sulking over his puttanesca because of Springora’s success.)