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Bombshell debut of innocence stolen in guise of sexual liberty

Consent, A Memoir

Vanessa Springora, translated by Natasha Lehrer HarperVia, €16.00

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'Consent, A Memoir' by Vanessa Springora

'Consent, A Memoir' by Vanessa Springora

Gabriel Matzneff photographed in 1990

Gabriel Matzneff photographed in 1990

Consent, A Memoir

Consent, A Memoir

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'Consent, A Memoir' by Vanessa Springora

There are things you must know before reading Vanessa Springora's literary bomb of a debut, Consent, A Memoir. Described as "a Molotov cocktail flung in the face of the French establishment", it is a treatise on the slippery concept at the core of contemporary sexual debate.

This is a book that is uniquely "of France" in its social history, culture and laws; and without knowledge of the backdrop, it can be mind-boggling.

Why is it called Consent? This is the true tale of how, in 1986, the then 14-year-old Springora was lured into a sexual relationship with a 50-year-old acclaimed writer, who preyed on her, having identified her as a vulnerable target.

So there is no issue of consent in this clear case - she was a child, he was more than three times her age. It is statutory rape; she was the victim of a paedophile. You cannot give consent when you are a child. In France, there is no crime of statutory rape. While sexual relations with minors is illegal under French law, a loophole makes it possible for the accused to successfully argue that their victim consented. Earlier this month the French government announced moves to set the age of consent at 15.

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Gabriel Matzneff photographed in 1990

Gabriel Matzneff photographed in 1990

Gabriel Matzneff photographed in 1990

It partly explains how the male writer at the book's centre - Gabriel Matzneff, lauded member of the Parisian intelligentsia - seemed to operate in plain sight, with impunity. Absorbing the details - frequently an uncomfortable, queasy read - it's hard not to come to the conclusion that in almost any other country, he would have been in jail.

Laws both reflect and influence the culture of a country, and Springora asks why there is an aura of impunity around the arts figures of her nation. "If it is illegal for an adult to have sex with a minor under the age of 15, why is it tolerated when perpetrated by one of the artistic elite - a photographer, writer, film-maker, a painter?"

Shocking as it is, we discover that advocating for the supposed "emancipation" of children to allow them sexual choice was a way of going against the bourgeois order in 1970s and 1980s' France. It is at this juncture that Springora deftly draws an arc between two revolutionary movements; the Spring 1968 student protests and the #MeToo movement 50 years later.

She portrays the two as cause and effect; positing that the libertinism of the "soixante-huitards" - such as her own mother - ultimately led to harms shouldered by those of Springora's generation. She makes a strong point when she argues: "Those who once advocated for sexual liberation would be well-advised to accept the liberation of survivors' voices now."

Springora, now a publishing boss in her late 40s, distanced her book from the #MeToo movement. Indeed, this is a book that transcends #MeToo. But would it have seen the light, without #MeToo giving a platform to victims? Francesca Gee, another teenager seduced by Matzneff, could not find a publisher for her tell-all in 2004.

Springora's reservations around the movement seem more about art than politics, however.

She has stated: "This is first and foremost a piece of literature."

Is it, though? The reader might decide otherwise. I found Consent to be a powerful, educational and highly intelligent work, combining psychology, sociology and culture. For anyone interested in sexual politics, women's studies, or criminology, it is an important read. But for a story that has plenty of content to work with, it is frequently pretentious and melodramatic, particularly so in the mundane, middle-class memoir parts. Chunks of the beginning are overwrought and overdone. Thankfully, it picks up pace as it goes on - she certainly has a story to tell - but I found the psychoanalytical tone grating.

However, Springora never shirks from the intricate truth, and so we get an important insight into the mind of characters like Matzneff: how he operated, manipulated, and gained force over a young girl by making her believe she was empowered.

He is not just a child sex abuser, but a proud, boastful, apologist for paedophilia, and advocate for it. I still cannot get over how France's systems have protected him throughout this, instead of protecting children from him.

It is an instructive tale; much like the Grimms' Fairy Tales that the author interprets in the prologue as lessons for children about life. Writing essays, journals and novels about his predilection for young teenagers, Matzneff makes the teen Springora believe his perversion is some kind of free-love lifestyle choice; and he tells her she has the "right and liberty" to love whoever she likes.

He makes her feel special, chosen, a nymphet. "Overnight, I had turned into a goddess," she writes. She reads Nabokov and gets drawn in by the Lolita role. In reality, she is a young girl suffering from emotional trauma due to abandonment by her father. She confuses sex for love in her desperate need for male attention. One of the indicators of her childish obsession is how, when it seems Matzneff might have Aids, she sees the scenario as some kind of romantic tragedy.

Where was her mother? This "feminist of the May '68" generation was there all along, but it seems a lingering freedom-above-all attitude of "it is forbidden to forbid" took precedence. She tried to stop it and told her daughter he was a paedophile, but she was dealing with a wayward teenager just one year off the legal age. With Consent, Springora hopes she will "ensnare the hunter in his own trap, ambush him within the pages of a book". She has certainly done that. But I wonder if she has, in a roundabout way, also given her power over to Matzneff, by making him the star of her debut. "We felt like he made us exist," she writes.

But Vanessa Springora exists in her own right, and I would like to see what this writer produces next, independent of the predator who stole her childhood.

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