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Confronting the Academy

By Ella Johnson & Zehra Munir

In 1953, the novel Lolita is published. Author Vladimir Nabokov first sees the manuscript turned down by publishers including Viking, Simon & Schuster, Farrar, and Doubleday. After these rejections, he resorts to publication in France. Lolita is picked up by French publishers Olympia, best known for their pornographic material.

In 1974, Les Moins de Seize Ans, an essay by French writer Gabriel Matzneff, is published. ‘To sleep with a child’, he writes, ‘[is] a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure’. The New Yorker describes it as a ‘full-throated defense of pedophilia’. It is the latest in a long string of works by Matzneff, many of which talk openly about his sexual contact with minors and stalking teenage girls outside schools in Paris.

In 1977, an open letter defending three men accused of sexually abusing a brother and sister aged 12 and 13 is published in Le Monde and Libération. It is penned by Matzneff and signed by 67 people, including Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Roland Barthes.

In July 1986, literary magazine Matulu devotes an entire issue to Matzneff. Then-president François Mitterrand writes an article in it praising the author for having ‘always amazed me with his extreme taste for rigour and with the depth of his thinking’.

The same year, police receive anonymous tips that Matzneff is staying in an apartment with 14-year-old Vanessa Springora. They are subsequently dismissed as the work of some ‘literary rival’. The pair move on to another apartment, which later Matzneff claims was paid for by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

In 1990, Matzneff appears on French TV programme Apostrophes. Bernard Pivot, a prominent French literary figure, probes him on his romantic preference for ‘schoolgirls’. Matzneff obliges; the atmosphere remains light-hearted throughout. Fellow guest and Canadian writer Denise Bombardier is the only person to castigate him. ‘Literature cannot serve as an alibi,’ she says, with visible disgust. The following day, writer Jacques Lanzmann declares that Bombardier deserves to be slapped for being so rude.

In 2013, Matzneff is awarded the prestigious Prix Renaudot, a French literary prize.

In November 2017, the inner workings of the Swedish Academy are laid bare as it is revealed that the husband of Academy member Katarina Frostenson has been accused of serial sexual abuse. In accusations published by the Stockholm daily paper, 18 women say that they have been assaulted or exploited by Arnault, who has been married to Frostenson since 1989. Soon after, the secretary of the Academy says she herself has been assaulted by Arnault. Several members of the Academy resign as the scandal unfolds, including Arnault’s wife. The 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature is cancelled as a result.

In December of the same year, the New Yorker publishes a short story titled Cat Person. This story about a stilted romance goes viral. Cat Person sparks conversations about consent within relationships, fat-shaming, and the ethics of dating across an age gap. The Guardian calls it ‘perhaps the most talked about short story ever’.

In January 2018, 100 French women sign an open letter in Le Monde denouncing #MeToo, arguing that ‘what began as freeing women up to speak has today turned into the opposite—we intimidate people into speaking “correctly”, shout down those who don’t fall into line, and those women who refused to bend are regarded as complicit and traitors’.

In August 2018, a bill on sexual violence is brought before the French national assembly. The legal age of consent of 15 is voted into law. A clause bringing in statutory rape of a minor is voted down.

In April, the Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz publishes a searing essay in the New Yorker about his experiences as a victim of sexual assault at young age. He writes in his essay of the dreams he had in the years after the assault, saying they were often ‘so upsetting that I would bite my tongue, and the next morning I’d spit out blood into the bathroom sink’.

In May, writer Zizi Clemmons accuses Junot Diaz of ‘forcibly’ kissing her when she invited him to speak at a workshop. Other allegations follow, and the literary world is shaken by the controversy. Clemmons accuses Diaz’s agent Nicole Aragi of protecting her client to the detriment of women he has hurt.

Total print sales of Diaz’s books drop nearly 85% in the seven months after reports against him.

In 2019, the Dean of Humanities at Yale removes David Foster Wallace from her class reading list, citing stories of abuse perpetrated by him, among other reasons. She replaces her session on his work with a class on graphic novelist Alison Bechdel.

On 2 January 2020, leading French publishing director Vanessa Springora publishes her

memoir, Le Consentement. It details how Gabriel Matzneff seduced her when he was 50 and she 14. She recalls realising that she was one of many victims when reading his books, which she describes as being ‘populated by other 15-year-old Lolitas’.

On 7 January, top French publishing house Gallimard announces that it is cancelling the publication of Matzneff’s latest work. His two other publishers drop him. The government withdraws the prestigious lifetime stipend it provides Matzneff. The Culture Ministry begins re-examining two state honours conferred on him in the 1990s.

On 15 January, Springora appears on French television programme, La Grande Librairie. The goal of her memoir, she says, is ‘to lock [Matzneff] up in a book, to catch him in his own trap, because that’s what he did to me and […] so many young girls’.

On 11 February 2020, a New York Times reporter tracks down Matzneff in a café he mentions in his books. He says he feels like ‘a dead man walking’. It is not an admission of wrongdoing: ‘Who are they to judge? These associations of the virtuous, how do they sleep, what do they do in bed, and who do they sleep with, and their secret, repressed desires?’

On 12 February 2020, Gabriel Matzneff is charged in a Paris court with promoting the sexual abuse of children. Matzneff, who has been hiding in the Italian Riviera, does not appear at court.

In September 2021, Matzneff’s trial will begin. While the statute of limitations is believed to have expired in the case involving Springora, Matzneff could face additional criminal charges for other sex acts with minors. Prosecutors are now actively searching for victims to come forward. The trial will also investigate the role of those who published his books and promoted his career, an implicit indictment of the elite that furthered Matzneff’s career and smothered the voices of those who dared to speak out.

Art by Hope Sutherland

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