Outing the French Literary World’s Jeffrey Epstein
By Erin Zaleski
January 19, 2020
For decades, Gabriel Matzneff got a pass from French culture mavens as he extolled the pleasures of sex with underage boys and girls. No longer.
Long before Jeffrey Epstein was shuttling underage girls to the U.S. Virgin Islands on his private jet, Gabriel Matzneff was engaging in sexual activities with young adolescents in his Paris apartment, in hotel rooms, and on trips to Southeast Asia—and then writing about his exploits.
“Once you have held, kissed, caressed, possessed a 13-year-old boy, a girl of 15,” Matzneff once wrote, “everything else seems bland, heavy, insipid.”
Such candidly creepy musings weren’t discovered in secret journals or on a password-protected laptop in a basement safe. Matzneff is an acclaimed writer in France and the above sentence was in a book-length essay, Les moins de seize ans (The Under 16s), which was published in the mid-’70s. In it, Matzneff openly discussed his attraction to young teens, and described sex with children as “a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure.”
He was even more blatant in his 1990 book, Mes amours décomposés (My Loves Deconstructed), in which he wrote about sexual relationships with kids between 12 and 16 years old, and described an afternoon spent watching child pornography involving children as young as ten. He was in his 50s at the time.
These kinds of writings would have resulted in, at the very least, an extensive police investigation in other parts of the world, but in France, where it is illegal for an adult to have sex with anyone under 15, Matzneff was never arrested.
Positioning himself as a sort of literary libertine, he would boast on air about his affinity for young teens.
On the contrary, he was venerated in literary and media circles alike, often appearing as a guest on prestigious talk shows, where, positioning himself as a sort of literary libertine, he would boast on air about his affinity for young teens.
Even more disturbing was how the hosts would egg him on, which was the case during a now-infamous broadcast of the literary TV program Apostrophes in 1990 when Matzneff appeared to promote Mes amours décomposés.
“Why do you specialize in high-schoolers, minettes [young chicks],” the respected journalist Bernard Pivot asked playfully. “And once they hit 20, what? They don’t interest you anymore?”
The lecherous man of letters replied that teens weren’t yet “hardened by life,” and that they were “nicer.”
“A very young girl is much sweeter even if she very quickly becomes hysterical and just as crazy as she will be when she is older,” a smirking Matzneff explained.
One of these very young girls Matzneff was referring to was Vanessa Springora.
Now 47, the publishing house head was 14 when she was seduced by Matzneff in the ’80s, and has broken her silence in a shocking new book, Le Consentement (Consent). Just 120 pages long, Springora's account nonetheless packs a punch as it sketches dramatically her alleged experiences with Matzneff—from their first meeting at a dinner party when she was 13 to the sexual relationship that followed, to the emotional and psychological fall-out she endured for years after it ended.
Abandoned by her father, Springora describes herself as intellectually precocious, and with an immense desire for validation from the opposite sex. Qualities, she recalls, that made her the perfect prey for the famous writer, who began pursuing her fervently, beginning with romantic letters, followed by an invitation to his studio apartment for pastries.
He called Springora his “darling child” and “beautiful schoolgirl,” claiming their love was “pure” and “rare” and that such liaisons had occurred throughout history, citing sexual relationships between adults and children in Ancient Greece, and Edgar Allen Poe’s marriage to 13-year-old Virginia Clem as examples.
He called Springora his 'darling child' and 'beautiful schoolgirl,' claiming their love was 'pure' and 'rare.'
As time passed, Matzneff exerted more control over Springora’s life, alienating her from her friends and family and shaming her if she expressed an interest in standard adolescent pursuits like going to a rock concert. One particularly unsettling passage occurs when Springora has dressed up and put makeup on prior to attending one of Matzneff’s TV appearances. Matzneff noticed her new look in the taxi, which resulted in a barrage of insults over her desire to “look like a woman.”
Springora writes that she was embarrassed by the presence of the taxi driver, “who likely thought that my father was in the right to yell at me like that.”
It’s a chilling read, not only because of the psychological suffering Springora endured, but also because it provides a first-person account of the predatory and manipulative tactics Matzneff used to groom the young girl (and others) and to keep her under his control. Throughout the book Matzneff emerges as a narcissist and master manipulator, who, Springora would learn, not only had other very young “mistresses” during their “relationship,” but would also allegedly travel to the Philippines for sex with boys as young as 11.
Even after Springora mustered up the strength to extract herself from his clutches, he continued to harass her, going so far as publishing details of their encounter in his works, including notes exchanged between the two, as well as referring to her by her first name in televised interviews.
“As if his passage through my life hadn’t been devastating enough, he had to continue documenting, falsifying, recording, and forever engraving his misdeeds,” she writes.
The reaction in France to Springora’s tell-all has been explosive—a veritable “#MeToo” moment for the French intellectual and publishing worlds, which, she writes, have long tolerated sexually predatory behavior toward minors. Le Consentement quickly sold out at many Paris bookstores, as well as on Amazon, which announced on Jan. 10 that additional copies wouldn't be available for another two weeks. Numerous articles have appeared in the French press dedicated to the book’s revelations, and Springora, who is the director of the publisher Éditions Julliard, has made the rounds on French news shows.
Although Matzneff might have been hauled off to jail in the United States, consent laws are hazy in France. Here until recently it was considered a “sexual infraction” for an adult to have sex with a child under 15, but not necessarily rape unless it was physically forced. New legislation passed in 2018 aimed at strengthening child sexual abuse laws states that sex with anyone under 15 can be considered rape if the sex act was the result of “an abuse of vulnerability.” That is, if the adult exploited the minor’s lack of understanding to engage in sex.
A day after Springora’s book hit stores, French prosecutors announced that they were opening an investigation into “rape committed on a minor under 15” related to the allegations in Le Consentement. And, in an unprecedented move, the prestigious Gallimard publishing house, which released Matzneff’s latest book in November, has halted sales of his work. The kindle version of Les moins de seize ans is no longer available on Amazon, and Matzneff is also set to lose a special state pension for writers that he has received since 2002.
“A literary aura does not guarantee impunity,” French Cultural Minister Franck Riester said in a tweet. “I lend my full support to all victims who have had the courage to break the silence.”
Although the 2018 law extended the statute of limitations from 20 to 30 years, it can’t be applied retroactively, which would restrict a police investigation into Springora’s claims. Her book may have unmasked Matzneff as a predator, but it is doubtful he will be charged or do any prison time.
As a non-French person reading both Springora’s book and Matzneff’s writings, what is most troubling isn’t Matzneff’s acts, monstrous though they were, but the general nonchalance toward pedophilia that pervaded France just a few decades ago.
Springora writes that anonymous tips about an underage girl entering and leaving the writer’s apartment resulted in investigators knocking on Matzneff’s door, but, despite having to go to police headquarters for questioning, he was never charged with a crime.
Matzneff is telling us about sodomizing little girls of 14, 15 years old ... We know that dirty old men attract little kids with candy. Matzneff attracts them with his [literary] reputation.
— Canadian author Denise Bombardier
Indeed, Springora says her own mother was aware of their relationship, and despite her initial disapproval, never reported Matzneff to police.
“Are you sure?” she asked Springora when her 15-year-old daughter told her she had finally broken away from Matzneff. “He adores you.”
And then there were the television appearances, like the aforementioned Apostrophes broadcast during which the writer openly bragged about his preference for underage girls. While the other panelists laughed at the lurid passages in Mes amours décomposés, one guest, Canadian author Denise Bombardier, called him out.
“Mr. Matzneff is telling us [in his book] about sodomizing little girls of 14, 15 years old, of how these little girls are crazy about him,” she said. “We know that dirty old men attract little kids with candy. Mr. Matzneff attracts them with his reputation.”
Calling such relationships an “abuse of power,” Bombardier pointed to the lasting psychological impact of such encounters on young girls. “Literature cannot serve as an alibi,” she said.
Recalling the incident in an editorial in Le Journal de Montreal that appeared earlier this month, Bombardier said that she had “always felt alone.”
“I became the ‘mal baisée,’ for my detractors,” Bombardier writes, referring to the French term for “sexually frustrated” which literally translates to “badly fucked.”
Springora writes that the country’s lax attitudes regarding pedophilia have roots in the cultural revolution that began in May of 1968, during which sexual liberty reigned supreme.
In his book, L’enfant interdit (The Forbidden Child) French sociologist Pierre Verdrager examines the politics surrounding pedophilia in France in the ’70s and beyond, and reports that in the two decades that followed May of 1968, pedophilia was presented by its advocates as another aspect of sexual liberation—a sort of twisted emancipation of children, which allowed them agency over their own bodies and sexuality. Giving kids the go-ahead to sleep with adults, they argued, freed them from the constraints of both their controlling parents and bourgeois society.
Verdrager told The Daily Beast that during the ’70s, members of the far-right also promoted pedophilia—just for different reasons. Citing journalist and founding member of the far-right political movement Nouvelle Droite, Alain de Benoist, who was a close friend of Matzneff, Verdrager explained that far-right supporters of pedophilia viewed relations between adults and children as not about sexual freedom, but as a tool of domination and control akin to Ancient Greek pederasty. Such relationships between adults and children played a role in the Classical Greek education system, and were an important social institution among the elite.
“We can’t say that attempts to legitimize pedophilia after 1968 was monopolized by the left,” Verdrager said. “It’s false to say that.”
There is also, I suspect, a bit of the Roman Polanski factor at play in the decades-long protection of Matzneff by the literary establishment. That is, the tendency among the French to view an artist’s questionable behavior—or even criminal activity—through the lens of creative eccentricity.
Matzneff was widely considered one of France’s literary greats, his pervy extracurricular pursuits secondary to his artistic talent. Just 15 years ago, Les moins de seize ans was republished, the same year, incidentally, that culture maven Frédéric Mitterrand’s La mauvaise vie (The Bad Life) hit shelves.
In the so-called autobiographical novel, the then-middle-aged politician and nephew of former president François Mitterrand writes in graphic detail about paying for sex with “boys” in Morocco and Thailand, describing one experience with a young prostitute making him feel “blissful and powerful.”
Despite these questionable passages, the book received rave reviews and became a bestseller. Mitterrand went on to serve as the country’s culture minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, and only got flack for La mauvaise vie in 2009 after he made remarks defending none other than Polanski when the film-maker was detained in Switzerland over a decades-long warrant relating to his rape of a 13-year-old girl in California. In spite of calls for Mitterrand’s resignation, Sarkozy defended his minister and Mitterrand neither stepped down nor was investigated.
And who could forget the Marquis de Sade who, in addition to writing about sex with minors in his infamous 120 Days of Sodom, had a sexual relationship with the daughter of an employee at the insane asylum in Charenton where he spent his last days? The notorious writer was in his seventies, and she was in her early teens. Banned for decades in France, Sade’s work became widely available in the ’60s, and over the years the 18th-century aristocrat’s image morphed from that of a depraved pervert to a genius anti-hero and national treasure. Just a few years ago, in fact, the original manuscript of 120 Days of Sodom was exhibited at the Institut des Lettres et Manuscrits in Paris.
Verdrager explained that a certain tolerance among the French intelligentsia for waywardness was also advantageous for Matzneff.
“There was a certain permissiveness in the literary world born from that fact that in the creative and intellectual worlds the unusual, the transgressive are essential values,” said Verdrager. “It’s in this context that Gabriel Matzneff was able to thrive for a very long time.”
Indeed, when a tearful teenage Springora approached an intellectual who was a friend of Matzneff to discuss what was becoming an increasingly unbearable situation, the older man scolded her.
“[Gabriel] is an artist, a great writer… It’s an immense honor he has bestowed upon you in choosing you. Your role is to accompany him on his creative path…”
This time, it’s the victim, not the predator who is having the last word.
While a post-MeToo era has resulted in changing attitudes in France, Matzneff, now 83, continues to show no remorse. In notes published in Le Parisien
, he described the relationship with Springora as “one of beauty,” and accused her of trying to portray him “as a pervert, a manipulator, and a predator,” arguing that he didn’t deserve what he deemed a “dreadful” portrait of himself.
“This is not what we experienced together and you know it,” Matzneff wrote in L’Express, addressing Springora directly.
“What characterizes sexual predators in general, and pedophiles in particular,” Springora writes in Le Consentement, “is the denial of the gravity of their acts. They’re accustomed to presenting themselves either as victims (seduced by a child), or as benefactors (who have only done good things for their victim).”
But this time, it’s the victim, not the predator who is having the last word, something Verdrager calls “extraordinary.”
“This is the first time that one of Matzneff’s victims has spoken out to give her version of the story,” Verdrager said. “And that version has been an earthquake”: a tectonic shift, Verdrager claims, that was set in motion, ironically, by the sexual openness that emerged from the 1968 movement.
“One of the dimensions of 1968 was the freedom to talk about sex,” he said. “I consider the freedom of pedophilia victims to speak out part of that heritage.”
Springora began writing Le Consentement in 2013 after Matzneff had won the prestigious Prix Renaudot literary award. Telling her story was a catharsis of sorts, a way, as she puts it “to catch the hunter in his own trap by locking him in a book.”
“He was not a good man,” she writes. “He was in fact what we’re taught to fear since childhood: an ogre.”
Thanks to her courageous book, it seems that many in France are finally starting to agree.