Vanessa Springora’s memoir, Consent, became an instant, international literary sensation when it was published in France. Her beautifully written, intimate and powerful description of her relationship in the mid-1980s with the French author Gabriel Matzneff, when she was fourteen and he fifty, is a beautifully written universal #MeToo story of power, manipulation, trauma, resilience and healing. Award-winning translator, Natasha Lehrer, captures Springora’s changes in pace and in tone, the voices and the silences, the literary milieu then and now with a sensitive ear and lexical deftness.
Libertarian Attitudes and Culture on Trial
The first public testimonies against sexual abuse and incest in France date from 1986 when Eva Thomas spoke publicly on TV channel Antenne 2 about being raped by her father at the age of fifteen. Her book, The Rape of Silence, came out in 2000. In 2011, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the man nicknamed the Great Seducer, was arrested in New York on charges of sexually assaulting Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel worker.
As more and more women around the world spoke out, Vanessa Springora, now in her forties and the director of a Parisian publishing company, decided to write about the story of her stolen teenage years. Publication of Consent at the beginning of last year exposed the hypocrisy of a nation which prides itself on its Revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Until now, the powers-that-be and French cultural attitudes have dismissed or condoned the sexual abuse that has gone on behind closed doors – unchecked.
It’s not only the French literary establishment that hero-worships writers – authors are universally admired. For young job seekers, to combine a love of literature with a job in book publishing is a dream ticket. Consent gives a very different view of the back rooms of the Parisian publishing élite.
Bringing Dark Desires to Light
It is not surprising that a fragile teenage girl should confuse manipulation with love. It is surprising, however, that her abuser was once fêted by leading intellectuals and publishers; that the mysterious benefactor who paid for the hotel room where they had sex turned out to be Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent; and that he still has three staunch supporters to this day who are well-respected, well-known intellectuals – worldwide. How can this be?
Hear the latest BookBlast® Podcast with translator, Natasha Lehrer, discussing Consent; the “existential” idealism of “liberty”; the trouble with Feminism in France; literary name-and-shame public revelations leading to the downfall of powerful sexual abusers; and more.
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Children of the 1968 Generation
Springora’s mother and father are libertarians of the 1968 generation, and were woefully neglectful parents. Like children themselves, they were clueless about how to bring up their daughter. She was neglected and left to run wild. In their milieu, to wash your dirty laundry in a public is taboo, backed by some of the most Draconian privacy protection laws in the West: but not any more.
Springora’s abuser knows the mythical, exclusive world of the literary Left Bank very well. For years, he justified and championed child sexual abuse through his books and public appearances. Like Jimmy Savile, he used his fame, language and ideas as tools of psychological manipulation to snare his young victims. Complicity and denial are powerful and primitive defence mechanisms. Conflating the paedophilia of Ancient Greece when tutors fucked their pupils saying it was a form of educative enlightenment; the eighteenth century libertinage made famous by Les Liaisons Dangereuses; and the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Matzneff got away with it for years. He is due to stand trial in September 2021.
For centuries, French women have accepted that men have a mistress and do what they like. Wives suffered in silence. From Lesley Blanch married for eighteen years to Romain Gary, an acknowledged womaniser and darling of the literary Left Bank, to Anne Pingeot, the mistress of former French president Francois Mitterrand and mother of Mazarine, the daughter he kept hidden for 20 years: women were expected to put up and shut up, and accept the unacceptable. For young French women today, Feminism in no longer a dirty word but wholeheartedly embraced.
Now books like Consent exposing paedophilia, or Camille Kouchner’s La Familia Grande revealing how incest is rampant at the highest levels of French society, even among the most glamorous, powerful, bohemian, left wing intellectual Parisian élite, known as “la gauche caviar” (champagne socialists), are creating the momentum to generate real change. Learn More
France’s Senate unanimously adopted a bill to criminalise sexual acts between adults and children under thirteen. The bill was passed on January 21. Next up for discussion is the age of consent. France is finally waking up. #MeToo #MeTooInceste and #MeTooGay sexual violence sufferers are no longer alone.
Consent by Vanessa Springora translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer is published by Fourth Estate in the UK and HarperVia in the US | 18 February 2021 HB 196 pages
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