Book Review: ‘Consent,’ by Vanessa Springora

That feeling of fatedness is reinscribed by Springora the shaper of this tale, who begins…

That feeling of fatedness is reinscribed by Springora the shaper of this tale, who begins the book with references to fairy tales, imagining Snow White refusing the temptation of the shiny red apple, Sleeping Beauty resisting the spindle — impossible, the tacit message. Impossible, too, to contemplate that hungry 14-year-old girl rebuffing G.M. She followed him up the stairs to his sixth-floor flat, with painful docility.

In France, sexual relations between adults and minors under the age of 15 are illegal, but there is no set age of consent, which permits a lighter penalty than rape. Springora asks us what this consent is supposed to look like. What did her teenage self think she was consenting to? How did the experience of adult violence, control and manipulation shape her desires?

The first time they had sex, G.M. could not penetrate her. He sodomized her instead — “just like a little boy,” he told her. “I was in love,” she writes. “I felt adored as never before.”

The notion of “double vision” is a challenge of writing any memoir — to truthfully embody both the perspective of the past and of the narrator in the present. It is at the dramatic center of narratives of abuse; what proves painfully difficult isn’t necessarily confronting what the body had to endure but the story one concocted to survive, that story so often one of being special and chosen, of being adventurous, of consenting. It is also the challenge of translation, as Lehrer allows. She navigates these shifting registers with subtlety and insight.

“Our affair was a dream so powerful that nothing, not a single one of the few warnings I received from those around me, was enough to awaken me,” Springora recalls. “It was the most perverse nightmare.”

This is among the most upsetting paragraphs in the book. No one warned or protected her with any real force. At first, her mother was horrified to hear of the relationship — jealous, her teenage daughter thought — but she was worn down by Springora, and even began to take pride in the unconventionality of the arrangement. When Springora, distraught by G.M.’s deceptions, ran to one of his friends, the philosopher Emil Cioran, she was chastised. “It is an immense honor to have been chosen by him,” he scolded her. “Your role is to accompany him on the path of creation, and to bow to his impulses.” Teachers leered at her: “You’re the girl who was dating G.M., aren’t you? I’ve read all his books. I’m a big fan.”