Photo Credit: Fitzcrittle/Shutterstock.com
Almost every allegation of sexual aggression that has been made in these years of #MeToo has had “he said she said” moments. The woman accuses, the man denies or excuses, and the public chooses who they believe. The 1986 affair between the then 14-year-old Vanessa Springora and 50-year-old writer Gabriel Matzneff differs radically from this schema. Matzneff has never denied his affair with the adolescent, which he wrote about in his 1993 volume, La Prunelle de mes yeux (The Apple of My Eye). Even more, he wrote a book in praise of sexual relations with adolescents, Les Moins de seize ans (Younger Than Sixteen). In 2020 Springora, after decades of silence, published her account of the affair in Le Consentment, now available in English as Consent. Like Evan Connell’s classic novels Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, in which a marriage is recounted from the viewpoint of the title protagonist of each volume, in the Springora and Matzneff books, published decades apart, we are presented with two very different accounts of the same lived experience. If for the most part what occurred in the most skeletal sense is the same, their internal reality is starkly different.
Springora’s account is a cry of rage against a man she now sees as having involved her in something abnormal, for “it’s not normal for a fifty-year-old man to wait for you outside your school. It’s not normal to live with him in a hotel, to find yourself in his bed at teatime with his penis in your mouth.” A man who, because they had problems achieving vaginal penetration, sodomized her – modo puerili, as Matzneff referred to it – during the first months of their affair. A man thanks to whom they lived in hiding from the police, who had received anonymous letters denouncing their illegal relationship, the age of consent in France being fifteen.
Not that she was always averse to the affair, finding the attentions of a handsome, highly regarded literary figure flattering. She admits that after receiving a number of seductive letters, which “overnight …turned [her] into a goddess,” she consented to their liaison.
She reveled in the affair until she no longer did. Matzneff, whose promiscuity and taste for young girls (and even younger boys) was widely known and which she’d been warned of, had proudly told her that he’d sworn off all his other lovers and was going to be faithful. He transcribes a letter she wrote to him saying that “I passionately desire to feel my head spin when you caress me a thousand more times… I want to be able to embrace and caress you all my life…” He spends his time at her knees in adoration. “She metamorphoses my life,” he wrote. “I want to illuminate hers.” He even writes to President Mitterrand, an admirer of Matzneff’s fiction, to request that “should the situation arise could he, as president, grant Vanessa a dispensation to marry him.”
Reading their correspondence, their conversations, their pledges of undying love in the two accounts, it’s impossible not to be struck by the gravest inequality in their relationship: Matzneff, as an experienced seducer, is performing the role of the romantic hero, granting Springora the sexual and intellectual delights that only he can. That it’s a role is clear to any reader. “In his diary,” she writes, “he transformed our love affair into the perfect fiction.” But for the virgin Springora the role is a new one, and she isn’t even aware she’s playing a role in his fiction. For her it’s reality. Her inability to see Matzneff for what he is makes this story a horrifying one. They are living on two different planes, and her inability to accept the existence of his past loves, which he describes as her “self-torturing imagination,” turns him against her, makes him grow to almost hate her for destroying what he insists was something beautiful. The reader can only be shocked at his reproaching an inexperienced teenager totally swept up in her first affair for not having understood that “love is the giving of oneself. Not the possession of the other.”
Springora for many years refused to view herself as a victim, accepting that there is a contradiction between having consented to the affair and victimhood. She admits that in adolescence “sex is everywhere, you’re overflowing with desire it invades you, it’s like a wave, it has to be satisfied straightaway.” But over time she came to feel that there is something irreconcilable between an adult and an adolescent, something that changes the nature of any relationship between them. “An adult’s desire can only ever be a trap for an adolescent,” she writes. “How can both have the same level of understanding of their bodies, their desires?… Sometimes, in exchange for an indication of affection… an adolescent will agree to become the object of pleasure, thus renouncing, for a long time to come, the right to be the subject, actor, and master of their own sexuality.” Here is the firmest ground for the wrongness of their relationship, of all those between adolescents and adults. The question of the age of sexual majority is one that has historically varied: in France it was eleven from 1832 until 1863, then thirteen from 1863 until 1945, when it was revised to fifteen. Historically there is no fixed, eternal age of consent based on objective criteria. Springora’s description, based on the differences in psychological makeup is as close to a firm basis for distinguishing between the right and the wrong as we can obtain.
There is a particularly fascinating thought expressed by Springora in this regard. Reflecting on her relationship with Matzneff she admits that their love affair could have been “sublime,” but on one condition. If she “had been the exception in his love life,” not one of dozens of young girls. If she had been just an exception, a change from more age appropriate lovers, “how could anyone fail to pardon his transgression? Love has no age limit. That was not the issue.” That she was underage by a year at the beginning of their affair was not that great a matter, confessing that it “hardly made much of a difference.”
Springora is unforgiving towards her mother for allowing her relationship with Matzneff to proceed, though Matzneff paints her as far more of an obstacle than Springora does. But more than her mother, along with Matzneff there is another culprit in this affair, one that has been on trial in France for decades: May 1968. For Springora and many others of the post-1968 generation, that great liberatory struggle was little more than a release of egoistic energy that led to what she experienced. Her mother’s hands-off attitude, her virtual encouragement of the affair, the fact, she writes, that the “scandalous situation was not entirely displeasing to her, despite her knowledge of Matzneff’s tastes,” is not just a matter of parental neglect: it is the fruit of the permissiveness and promiscuity unleashed by May.
Her hatred of May and its makers is in many ways unreasoning and unreasonable. She expresses “fear of the tiny circle of friends who might still be prepared to protect G.” She speaks of “violent attacks’ she might suffer from ex-soixante-huitards, who might feel they were being attacked for having signed his notorious open letter” in defense of sex between adults and minors. Her hatred of May is combined with an ignorance of those she attacks, who for over fifty years have been accused of every ill suffered by France, none of whom have been known to physically assault those who condemn them.
Viewed from the point of view of today’s climate it is easy for Springora to express disdain for her elders and their struggles. She is not alone in her embrace of presentism, in ignoring historical context. The error of this is nowhere clearer than in her treatment of two public petitions from 1977.
Both dealt with the cases of three men charged with engaging in sex with minors younger than fifteen, which was the age of consent for heterosexual sex (it was eighteen for homosexual acts, a difference the petitioners also condemned). The first petition, from January of 1977, was written by (though not credited to) Matzneff. In it he dismissed the case as a simply a matter of an affair of “morals”, asserting that no harm had been done the adolescents, and that in any event “antiquated” law failed to take into account “the reality of everyday life in a society,” which accepts the sexuality of thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds. The second petition, actually an open letter, from May of that same year and dealing with the same case, included a lengthy history of laws regarding the age of consent in France, but also focused on the “desuetude” of the notions that serve as the foundation of laws banning relations between adults and minor, as well as the “evolution of morals among youth who consider oppressive the excesses of a minutely detailed segregation.” No one, after all, questioned the right of adolescents to have sex with each other, accepting consent in those cases as legitimate. Why is it different for sex between adults and minors?
That “evolution” had been set in motion by the events of May ‘68 which, if it failed to overthrow capitalism and the bourgeois order of things, served as a catalyst for enormous changes in human relations, not least in the realm of sex.
That this resulted in cases of laissez-faire parenting is undeniable, but this laissez-faire parenting was the result of a change that allowed women to freely engage in whatever relations they felt appropriate, to have access to birth control and abortion, and for married women to have bank accounts in their own names, none of which was legal before the explosion of May. Springora says of her mother that “having just turned eighteen in May 1968, she first had to free herself from her corseted upbringing… [S]he now aspired above all to live according to her own rules. ‘It’s forbidden to forbid’ remained, it seemed, her mantra. It’s not easy to escape the zeitgeist.” Springora’s blanket dismissal of May sounds perfectly justifiable when viewed in the sole context of her affair with Matzneff, but it is radically ahistorical. Why would her mother have wanted to escape a zeitgeist that liberated her? Having been born into this freedom and never having lived the previous period of sexual, marital, and financial repression, Springora views this freedom as abandonment. That this new freedom was a two-edged sword is undeniable. That some took it to extremes is certain. This was so all over the world in the 1960s (and since). A new freedom will sometimes be abused, but it doesn’t make it an ill.
And what of the other signatories of these petitions? Both contain a wide range of the most impressive names in politics, the arts, philosophy, and even religion. It is too easy to speak of these petitions as merely transgressive. They are both attempts to widen legality and bring it in alignment with new mores.
There is a significant absence from the list of signatories: Marguerite Duras. Duras, as readers of her novel The Lover know, was the object of the attentions of an older man when she was fifteen. She might very well have had a perspective different from that of the 80-year-old (deeply closeted) Aragon on the matter.
These petitions have been brought up and attacked anew in the coverage of the Matzneff affair. Springora dismissively calls the signatories “a generation adrift, suffering from a blindness for which nearly all of the signatories of these petitions would later apologize.” Perhaps some did, but I’d wager most didn’t. They were, in fact, right: social mores were changing, and for the better.
There was, though, a fatal flaw with these petitions that can’t be chalked off to the era in which they were composed. Missing from among the signatories are the adolescents they claimed to liberate. In effect, these petitions are appeals by elders for their right to sleep with the young. They pretend to speak for the young while omitting them from the dialogue. It’s not clear that this disqualifies the documents or those who signed them, but it does give one pause.
Both Matzneff and Springora discuss Lolita in their accounts, Matzneff the film, Springora the book. Oddly, it’s Springora who speaks positively of it. Matzneff claims he suffered all the way through the screening of Kubrick’s film they attended together. Sue Lyons in the title role is shrugged off as nothing but an “eighteen-year-old-babe like thousands of others.” As for Humbert Humbert, played by James Mason, Matzneff negatively compares the Englishman’s actions to his own, finding Kubrick’s version to be an oaf. He reports that when he and Springora left the screening they could only feel “that this wasn’t it at all.” “That afternoon Lolita and Humbert Humbert weren’t on the screen, but in the theater.”
For Springora the Lolita of the book, compared to her, was “lucky.” Writing of Humbert’s confession, she says that “at least she obtained this compensation, the unambiguous recognition of her stepfather’s guilt.” If for Matzneff the film wasn’t pedophile enough, Springora rebuts those who condemn the book, finding it to be “the strongest possible denunciation of [pedophilia].”
Unlike Matzneff, “Nabokov never tried to make Humbert Humbert pass for a benefactor.” This is where Matzneff’s true evil lies. Springora astutely notes that reading his books “you might imagine he was brought into the world to offer adolescents the fulfillment that a culture of inhibition denied them.” But his accounts of his affairs with young girls all read the same way, all are filled with self-praise, self-admiration. They are all tales of solipsism.
Springora’s crowning act of revenge in Consent is her account of a meeting several years later with a rival for Matzneff’s affections. Both former lovers mock his prowess in bed. The reader can feel the glee with which these passages were written.
Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.