It’s a peculiar thing about critics. We praise fiction by saying it has the ring of truth, and nonfiction by saying it has the feel of a novel. And some of us hold entire classes of books in such dim regard that individual works must shake off the stench of their very type — “transcend the genre” is the critic’s finicky little phrase.
Among the most suspect genres is the “abuse memoir.” Chief charges include that these books are “just” documents of trauma. They possess no real literary value, they hew dismayingly to certain conventions, they are repetitive — in effect, they wallow. In her book on campus date rape, “The Morning After,” Katie Roiphe complained that the spoken testimonies of survivors of assault “sound the same” — never mind that the commonalities might make a horrifying point of their own.
“Consent,” by Vanessa Springora and translated by Natasha Lehrer, was published in France last year. It was a sensation, selling 200,000 copies. It is nonfiction that, yes, has the feel of a fable, a memoir of abuse that has been lavishly praised for transcending its type — even as it affirms the genre’s inherent power, rebuking received notions about sex and narrative.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Springora said she conceived of her book as “a message in a bottle.” Don’t imagine a lonely bottle, bobbing in the sea, bearing its plaintive missive. “Consent” is a Molotov cocktail, flung at the face of the French establishment, a work of dazzling, highly controlled fury.
Some 30 years ago, Springora was a 13-year-old tagging along with her mother to a party. A man stared at her. “When I finally dared to turn toward him, he 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.”
She refers to him as G.M. In France he was instantly recognizable as Gabriel Matzneff, the acclaimed writer whose sexual predilections for young girls and even younger boys were well known and regarded with fond indulgence. Matzneff wrote in his diaries, published in 1985: “Sometimes, I’ll have as many as four boys — from 8 to 14 years old — in my bed at the same time, and I’ll engage in the most exquisite lovemaking with them.” François Mitterrand declared the author a “hedonist inspiration.”
Springora met Matzneff at a party, but she shows us that the stage had been set long before.
“At the grand old age of 5, I am waiting for love,” she writes. “Fathers are meant to be their daughters’ protectors. Mine is no more than a current of air. More than his physical presence, I can summon up the scent of vetiver filling the bathroom.” The cloud of scent was preferable to his presence, however — he was sexually crude and frightening. When Springora’s mother accidentally spilled wine on a white tablecloth, he almost strangled her. Their violent fights kept young Vanessa awake. She fell asleep during class so regularly that teachers set up a camp bed for her. It wasn’t long before her father left home entirely.
“All the necessary elements were now in place,” she writes. “A father, conspicuous only by his absence, who left an unfathomable void in my life. A pronounced taste for reading. A certain sexual precocity. And, most of all, an enormous need to be seen.”
G.M. began sending her letters, sometimes twice a day. She’d felt herself invisible, if not repulsive, but now, “overnight I had turned into a goddess.” The relationship felt fated. The novel she carried with her at the party, their first meeting, was Balzac’s “Eugénie Grandet.” Only later did she notice its play on words. It named the very role she was soon to play: l’ingénue grandit — “the innocent grows up.” When she went to a bookstore to buy one of G.M.’s books, she discovered “another unsettling coincidence”: The first sentence of the book contained her exact date of birth.
That feeling of fatedness is reinscribed by Springora the shaper of this tale, who begins the book with references to fairy tales, imagining Snow White refusing the temptation of the shiny red apple, Sleeping Beauty resisting the spindle — impossible, the tacit message. Impossible, too, to contemplate that hungry 14-year-old girl rebuffing G.M. She followed him up the stairs to his sixth-floor flat, with painful docility.
In France, sexual relations between adults and minors under the age of 15 are illegal, but there is no set age of consent, which permits a lighter penalty than rape. Springora asks us what this consent is supposed to look like. What did her teenage self think she was consenting to? How did the experience of adult violence, control and manipulation shape her desires?
The first time they had sex, G.M. could not penetrate her. He sodomized her instead — “just like a little boy,” he told her. “I was in love,” she writes. “I felt adored as never before.”
The notion of “double vision” is a challenge of writing any memoir — to truthfully embody both the perspective of the past and of the narrator in the present. It is at the dramatic center of narratives of abuse; what proves painfully difficult isn’t necessarily confronting what the body had to endure but the story one concocted to survive, that story so often one of being special and chosen, of being adventurous, of consenting. It is also the challenge of translation, as Lehrer allows. She navigates these shifting registers with subtlety and insight.
“Our affair was a dream so powerful that nothing, not a single one of the few warnings I received from those around me, was enough to awaken me,” Springora recalls. “It was the most perverse nightmare.”
This is among the most upsetting paragraphs in the book. No one warned or protected her with any real force. At first, her mother was horrified to hear of the relationship — jealous, her teenage daughter thought — but she was worn down by Springora, and even began to take pride in the unconventionality of the arrangement. When Springora, distraught by G.M.’s deceptions, ran to one of his friends, the philosopher Emil Cioran, she was chastised. “It is an immense honor to have been chosen by him,” he scolded her. “Your role is to accompany him on the path of creation, and to bow to his impulses.” Teachers leered at her: “You’re the girl who was dating G.M., aren’t you? I’ve read all his books. I’m a big fan.”
“It’s not easy to escape the zeitgeist,” Springora writes, situating so much of this indifference to the spirit of the 1970s, where repression of youthful sexuality was seen as a form of oppression. “It’s forbidden to forbid” was the mantra. G.M. had a powerful hand in creating this atmosphere that would protect him. In 1977, he drafted an open letter arguing for the decriminalization of sexual relations between minors and adults, which was signed by Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre among others. Later he conscripted Springora herself into his cause, using her letters in his work as proof for the wholesomeness of their love.
Springora stopped seeing G.M. after two years, but he wrote about her obsessively — “at a rhythm that left me no respite.” He wrote novels and published his diaries that included their letters to each other, accounts of the breakup. This dispossession, this theft, prompted “Consent”: “For many years I paced around my cage, my dreams filled with murder and revenge. Until the day when the solution finally presented itself to me, like something that was completely obvious: Why not ensnare the hunter in his own trap, ambush him within the pages of a book?”
The fallout has been swift. After the publication of “Consent,” prosecutors opened a case against Matzneff. He was dropped by his three publishers and stripped of a lifetime stipend. This week the government announced it would instate 15 as the age of consent. By every conceivable metric, her book is a triumph.
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