In her new book Consent, French writer and editor Vanessa Springora says she fell victim to author Gabriel Matzneff’s sexual “prey” at the age of 14. The book has revived a lively public debate on pedophilia, around an author who has long defended his sexual relations with children.
Springora’s book, which will be published on January 2, chronicles her relationship with the author, whom she describes as a well-known “predator”, which began in the mid-1980s when she was just 13 years old. The book has already provoked a fierce backlash, both from feminists and children’s rights activists denouncing Matzneff as a child molester, and from its defenders, including leading French literary figures.
“Literary aura does not guarantee immunity,” wrote Culture Minister Franck Riester on Twitter Saturday. “I give my full support to all the victims who had the courage to break the silence. I invite them, as well as all witnesses of violence against children, to contact [France’s child abuse hotline].”
Matzneff, now 83, has never hidden his attraction to children. On the contrary, he has largely staked his literary reputation on it. As early as 1974, he published a book defending his sexual relations with girls and boys “under 16” (less grasp years), whom he openly refers to as “children”.
A decade later, Vanessa Springora was one of them. In Consent, she explores the ambiguities of a time when many in France still associated pedophilia – or “pederasty,” as apologists like Matzneff called it – with post-1968 sexual liberation. She recounts her fascination, at 14, for the then 50-year-old author, whom she simply nicknamed “G.”, and how their meeting has weighed on her ever since.
Their relationship did not end with their first sexual encounter, but continued in what Springora describes as an enduring pattern of harassment. She points out that Matzneff continued to publish books based on his sexual exploits with children, including young boys in Asia.
“As if his time in my life hadn’t been devastating enough, he had to continue to document, falsify, record and etch his misdeeds forever,” Springora writes.
In the context of renewed international attention to sexual violence, catalyzed by the #MeToo movement, her book sheds light on the evolution of the notion of consent. It also rekindles a long-running debate between sexual abuse advocates and defenders of Matzneff, who accuse his critics of judging him by the standards of a new era.
A friendly literary establishment
Far from being ostracized, Matzneff enjoyed for decades a platform in some of the greatest French literary halls. In 1975, then in 1990, he was interviewed on public television by Bernard Pivot, who for three decades hosted the most watched literary talk shows in France. Pivot was also director of the prestigious Académie Goncourt from 2014 until earlier this month.
In the 1990 interview, Pivot strikes a playful tone, calling Matzneff “a real sex education teacher” and asking him about his taste for high school kids and “kitties.”
Gabriel Matzneff has never hidden his attraction to teenage girls, as on the set of “Apostrophes”, in 1990. Vanessa Springora publishes a book, “Le consent”, in which she describes the influence he has exercised on her in the 80s when she was underage. pic.twitter.com/T2l2xyEsmC
— Ina.fr (@Inafr_officiel) December 26, 2019
Matzneff, however, faced criticism from another guest on the TV segment, Canadian novelist Denise Bombardier, who compared the author to “old men” who lure children with candy. In the clip, which racked up more than 900,000 views in less than a week, Bombardier said Matzneff would be “held accountable by the justice system” were it not for his “literary aura.”
“Literature cannot serve as an alibi,” she said.
Speaking to Canadian media last week, Bombardier said it received an email from Springora thanking her for being the only one to publicly speak out against Matzneff’s predatory behavior.
“Vanessa says that [my intervention] gave him the strength, after thirty years, to write and decide to speak,” she says. “I did what I had to do,” she adds, recalling the hostility she experienced in Parisian literary circles following the exchange.
Pivot, for its part, responded to the accusations of complicity by invoking another “time”.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, literature came before morality; today, morality comes before literature,” he said. wrote on Twitter, where he has more than a million followers. “Morally, it’s progress. We are more or less the intellectual and moral products of a country and, above all, of an era.
The comments were not well received by Matzneff’s critics.
“You were complacent to a child molester,” the feminist collective said All of us in a report. “You expressed no disgust, no outrage, no empathy for the victims. You used the term “kittens” to describe, denigrate, ridicule and disqualify them.
Online chronicle and public subsidies
Matzneff was never convicted of abuse. Even today, he is an online columnist for the weekly Pointa platform he has used on several occasions to denounce the media “lynchings” of himself and other personalities.
“Like everyone else, we are horrified by pedophilia – there is no debate about it”, Etienne Gernelle, director of Point, told AFP. “But is there any reason not to publish someone’s article because their behavior is deemed immoral?”
“I don’t protect anyone but I don’t participate in manhunts either,” Gernelle added, noting that none of Matzneff’s columns in the magazine had defended pedophilia. “Otherwise he wouldn’t have made it.”
Writing in Le Point in 2013, after receiving one of France’s top literary prizes for an anthology of his essays, Matzneff called his accusers a “lamentable race of sycophants”.
According to Culture Minister Riester, Matzneff still benefits from subsidies given by the National Book Center (a division of the Ministry of Culture which supports books and publishing) to authors facing financial difficulties due to old age or disease.
The subsidies, reserved for “authors whose work has undoubtedly contributed to the influence of French-speaking literature” in the world, can range from 3,000 to 24,000 € per year, according to an official document. Riester did not specify how much Matzneff receives.
A “building under construction” around the question of consent
A law against sexual violence passed by the French parliament in 2018 qualifies relations between an adult and a child under the age of 15 as rape, but only if a judge determines that the victim did not have the capacity to consent. In other words, it does not establish an automatic age of consent – a big disappointment for child abuse advocates.
It came after two separate cases where judges initially refused to try men for rape after they were accused of engaging in sex acts with 11-year-old children. The men were both initially convicted of “sexual abuse”, which carries a lesser sentence, on the grounds that the girls had consented to the acts. One of the men was later convicted of rape on appeal.
“I hope to make a small contribution to the edifice that is being built around questions of domination and consent,” Springora told L’Obs magazine. She noted that she started writing the book “long before the Harvey Weinstein affair” which began in late 2017.
Springora now runs the publishing house Julliard, which first published Matzneff’s book on “under 16s”.
This article has been adapted from the original in French.