Book Review: Consent: A Memoir by Vanessa Springora
Updated: Dec 4, 2021
I first heard about Vanessa Springora's Consent: A Memoir sometime late last year and was eagerly awaiting its English language translation. I didn't want to get it through Amazon - it's important to support independent bookstores (especially now) - but I also didn't want to order it in. What I really wanted was to find it on the shelves of a bookstore who had the taste and foresight to have it in stock already. It took a little while, but eventually I found it at the excellent Morocco Bound Books in London. This hidden gem, masquerading as a boutique beer and bookshop in Bermondsey, had already lured me in with their fledgling book club - and when I went in to pick up my first month's reading, there it was!
Consent tells Springora's story as both the victim, and muse, of a renowned French writer who she only refers to as G.M. Their 'affair' began when she had just turned 14, and he was already 49 - 35 years her senior. G. was already well-known as a sex tourist (translation: rapist) in the Philippines and an abuser of adolescents - one of his earliest works was an essay entitled Les moins de seize ans (Those less than 16) - yet people turned a blind eye to the situation, including Springora's mother who was complicit in offering her 'consent' and help to cover things up. It wasn't until she was almost 16 that V. (Springora) could see the true nature of her situation and finally extricate herself from it.
The book chronicles the time of her abuse, and touches on the decades of recovery time that followed. Although she's ultimately gone on to have a successful career and family life, it's taken until she was almost the same age as G. when the abuse started for the healing to really come. Having known survivors of abuse and narrowly avoided situations myself, I understand the emotional scars those things leave on people - especially those deep wounds which are inflicted so early on. The scar tissue will always be there as a reminder, but it's hoped that in exorcising those demons continued progress can be made.
I was curious about Springora's choice of only referring to her abuser as G.M. rather than naming him outright, until I realised she was replicating the way he had reduced her to V. in his own efforts. In robbing him of his name (yet making sure there's enough evidence to incriminate him), she similarly strips away his power and identity - making him a character in a story that is now very much her own. Just as he had done to her, she has trapped him with her words - and it's a trap which has ensured his past finally caught up with him as evidenced by criminal investigations that began last year. As Springora says in the prologue:
“For many years I paced around my cage, my dreams filled with murder and revenge. Until the day when the solution finally presented itself to me, like something that was completely obvious: Why not ensnare the hunter in his own trap, ambush him within the pages of a book?"
As a confirmed Francophile, it's important to be aware of both the positive and negative aspects of this culture I adore. In terms of text that is translated into English, I think we've been especially shielded from the negative aspects of French literature, which can be both good and bad. It's horrifying to think that this was happening, especially in such recent times, and it's even more horrific when you realise that the cover up has continued. We've seen it now with the exposure of G.M. but many of us have been aware of it with regard to creatives like Roman Polanski, who still managed to win the award for Best Director at France's 2020 César Awards despite lingering accusations that he drugged and raped a 13 year old in 1977. He's essentially been on the run ever since, but that's never harmed his opportunities of finding work or funding.
Again, Springora casts a spotlight on this larger issue as she asks:
“If it is illegal for an adult to have a sexual relationship with a minor who is under the age of fifteen, why is it tolerated when it is perpetrated by a representative of the artistic elite - a photographer, writer, filmmaker, or painter? It seems that an artist is of a separate caste, a being with superior virtues granted the ultimate authorisation, in return for which he is required only to create an original and subversive piece of work. A sort of aristocrat in possession of exceptional privileges before whom we, in a state of blind stupefaction, suspend all judgment ... Apart from artists, we have witnessed only Catholic priests being bestowed such a level of impunity. Does literature really excuse everything?"
In quoting from the book, it's important to recognise the role of translator Natasha Lehrer, who does a remarkable job in tackling this difficult subject matter and presenting the work in a way that honours both the original text and its message. I'm always in awe of translators, as there's a necessary degree of co-writing which takes place, but with none of the acclaim that an actual co-writer would receive. Lehrer speaks about the unique challenges of translating Consent in a note to readers at the end of the book. I particularly like the way she refers to her work as a summoning, almost as if the translator were a medium for the author, speaking from beyond. She explains:
“The challenge for the translator is to navigate the multiple registers of the prose, to match the nimble, suggestive descriptions of social occasions and interpersonal dramas, so brilliantly summoned in French, sometimes in barely more than a single word or phrase. Most important of all, the translator must summon with the same nuance the double vision that characterises the narrative: the child's view of the world as it segues into that of the adult looking back ... Consent is a memoir of abuse, but it is also a penetrating exploration of both language and literature - specifically French - as a vector of power."
Although known as a superb editor and publishing powerhouse in her native France, this is Springora's first book in English or French. It's my sincere hope that in reclaiming both her identity and her voice, we get to see more of her work in future. Consent makes for uncomfortable, yet compelling reading, and I would recommend it to all readers - Francophile or otherwise. For those who have been through abuse of their own, it's fair to say this should come with a trigger-warning and may not be advised but, for those who haven't, it provides an uncomfortable window into a reality we should all be aware of - if only so it doesn't happen again. Consent: A Memoir is available now through HarperVia, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.