I read two books in quick succession — Consent and My Dark Vanessa ( HarperCollins). Both deal with the same subject. Grooming of a young school girl by a much older man, a writer / school teacher. The difference being that “Consent” is a true account by Vanessa Springora about her being groomed by French literary giant Gabriel Matzneff. It is a horrifying account of a 14-year-old girl groomed by a man who was at the time fifty years old. It is sickening. Springora, the head of the Julliard publishing house, met Matzneff at a dinner with her mother. ( https://www.theguardian.com/…/french-publishing-boss…) She was going through a troubled childhood as her parents were divorcing. Springora began a relationship with Matzneff but despite breaking it off two years later, she was not rid of the man for the next few decades. He pursued her. He stalked her. To the extent he wrote letters to her bosses in the publishing publishing she worked in. Ultimately, the Me Too movement happened, giving her the space to write her account of the events. Consent has been translated by Natasha Lehrer.
It is a memoir that flits between the perspective of the 14yo school girl and the 47yo Springora. It is disturbing. The school girl participates in the relationship with a much older man, but the adult Vanessa questions some of the acts/moments. She is able to see through the sexual exploitation and misogyny of the male writer and the protection he got from his social circle. It is incomprehensible to her. Consent is minimalistic. It does not delve into too many gory details but what the author chooses to share are emotionally shattering. It is inexplicable why this man was protected so well by the French establishment. If anyone had dared to look close enough, the evidence was apparent in the “illustrious” literary career where Matzneff published books that were thinly veiled accounts of his paedophilic acts, letters with his under-age mistresses and his regular visits to the Philippines to sexually exploit boys as young as eleven years old. Yet, Springora too only found the courage to reveal her dark secret after the Me Too movement became popular. She was relieved when she showed her mother this manuscript, who upon reading it said, “Don’t change a thing. This is your story.”
Towards the conclusion of the memoir, she writes:
I spent a long time thinking about the breach or confidentiality, particularly on a legal area that is otherwise strictly controlled, and I could only come up with one explanation. 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 authorization, 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 judgement.
Were any other person to publish on social media a description of having sex with a child in the Philippines or brag about his collection of fourteen-year-old mistresses, he would find himself dealing with the police and be instantly considered a criminal.
Apart from artists, we have witnessed only Catholic priests being bestowed such a level of impunity.
Does literature really excuse everything?
It is a question that the reader is left asking with My Dark Vanessa. Nearly twenty years in the making and endorsed by Stephen King, it too explores the grooming of a young school girl by her English teacher. King calls it is a “hard story to read” and it is. Maybe because Kate Russell’s imagination is very detailed and sometimes gut-wrenching. It is torture to read this story. Initially I stopped reading it after a few pages but then managed to resume reading it after having finished reading Consent.
Somehow My Dark Vanessa comes across as a brilliantly crafted story but it is not as easy to read as Consent. Every despicable encounter/event in “Consent” is meticulously documented but it is shocking to read for the complicity of the French elite in permitting the writer to flourish. Not only did his books sell well, but he was lauded with honours, practically given an expense account by his publishers and the French state. It is astonishing. Whereas My Dark Vanessa reads like fiction although the events described in it are plausible. It is fiction but it sometimes seems to stem from an overactive imagination. The distinction is real. It is unsurprising that My Dark Vanessa has been shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2021.
Interestingly Vanessa Springora’s memoir Consent has been endorsed by Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa, as “A gut-punch of a memoir with prose that cuts like a knife.”
Currently the controversy about Blake Bailey, the biographer of Philip Roth, is raging in the world of Anglo-American publishing. Take for instance this article published in the Slate, called “Mr Bailey’s Class“. It eerily parallels the events described in My Dark Vanessa and Lisa Taddeo’s nonfiction Three Women, where the only girl who agreed to be identified by her real name was Maggie. She spoke about her grooming by her teacher and later taking him to court. It is hard at such moments to distinguish between what is real and what is fiction.
These kinds of stories are not going away in a hurry. There are many, many more. Predatory men and women exist. It is a fact. Children are vulnerable. These books may only focus upon young girls but there is no denying that boys too are victimised.There is no telling how much longer will these stories have to be constantly told for there to be some positive change in the attitude of individuals and society. But for now, read these stories.
It is not very easy to read while the lockdown is on but I have managed a wee bit. The following are only some of the books I managed to read in April. Many others that I read I wrote about in separate blog posts. As always it is an eclectic collection.
Stephen and Lucy Hawking’s The Universe: Everything you need to travel through Space and Time is a brilliant collection of essays about the universe. It begins with a beautiful but very brief essay by Professor Stephen Hawking, “The Creation of the Universe” where he simply and clearly tries to explain the origins of Universe, packing it with concepts too. The contributors to the volume consist of eminent scientists, some Nobel Prize winners too, and a school student, Nitya Kapadia. The range of topics is extraordinary — understanding the origin of life, the Big Bang theory, idea of Space, travelling through the Universe, the idea of Relativity, from the solar system, the planets, speculating about life in space, Zero-Gravity Flights, Time Travel, wormholes, the Goldilocks zone, the geographical structures on Earth, Artificial Intelligence, Robot Ethics, 3D Printing, Internet Privacy, Quantum Computers etc. The template set by the late Prof. Hawking is the blueprint for the subsequent essays in the book. It makes science so easily accessible for young and adults alike. ( Confession time: My 10 yo daughter and I have been taking turns to read this book as both of us are fascinated by complicated subjects explained ever so simply!)
Scientific discoveries do not necessarily happen always in a staid manner, in controlled laboratory conditions. S D Tucker’s fascinating book Forgotten Science attempts to uncover the backstories of some of the extraordinary scientific applications that we take for granted in modern times. For instance, figuring out the circulatory system within an individual and the effect of medication if taken orally or injected directly into the bloodstream was discovered after experimenting upon dogs. These experiments were conducted by Robert Boyle (1627-91), often described as “the father of chemistry”, and Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the anatomist, architect and designer of St Paul’s Cathedral to test William Harvey (1578-1657), court physician to Charles I, hypothesis about the circulatory system of various living creatures. Another equally bizarre and immoral experiment was carried out by Nazi doctor, Dr Sigmund Rascher ( 1909 – 45) to test the effects of high altitude and how to recover from hypothermia. Taking advantage of his close proximity to SS Head Heinrich Himmler ( 1900-45), Dr Rascher got permission to conduct experiments upon prisoners in Dachau concentration camp. In 1942 Rascher was given a pressure chamber and began locking prisoners inside to simulate the effects of high altitude upon Nazi airmen and parachutists. By altering pressure changes quickly or slowly, Rascher could mimic both gradual ascents and total freefall, and see what such states did to the human body. The effect upon the prisoners varied from exploding lungs, while others began to rip their own hears apart with bare hands due to the unbearable stress they felt inside their skulls. He killed about eighty prisoners in this ghastly manner but dismissed it as saying they were ‘only’ Poles and Russians. Some of his other experiments were on hypothermia, discovering the blood-clotting agent called Polygal and developed the cyanide capsule which later even Himmler took to avoid capture by the British. Ultimately Rascher too was incarcerated at Dachau for publicising the falsehood that he had extended the childbearing age of women and as proof he said his wife, touching fifty, had given birth to three babies, when in truth they had been kidnapped. Rascher was shot in April 1945. Several scientists who had worked with Rascher ended up working at NASA.
The next three books belong loosely to the category of science fiction — The Flight of the Arconauts by Sophia Khan ( steampunk fiction); The Sin Eaters by Megan Campisi and Analog Virtual by Lavanya Lakshminarayan. The Flight of the Arconaut is written at a nice pace. Neat dialogues. Interesting attempt at blending names to denote cultural melting pots. But it seems to have been heavily influenced by contemporary scifi young adult literature. It is also very desi in its telling by cramming the main narrative with so many stories and backstories. I see no reason why all must exist in the forefront. It is also inexplicable why must SpecFic, or in this case Steampunk Fiction, be so obsessed with conservative social rankings especially along gender lines? Why not break free? Also why is birth and regeneration such a massive preoccupation. It is as if it is impossible to think beyond the writing of H G Wells, Aldous Huxley et al. Sophia Khan’s saving grace is the packed dialogue and a superb grasp of the English language — LOVE IT! The second volume in this trilogy should be fun.
The Sin Eaters and Analog Virtual are debut novels. Both the writers seem to be voracious readers. Keenly imaginative writers too but not sufficiently confident enough to create landscapes of their own. While theatreperson Megan Campisi creates a parallel reality to Elizabethan England in The Sin Eater to explore the rumours of Queen Elizabeth I having had an illegitimate child. Campisi builds the premise of her story upon the social mobility a Sin Eater has within society and is able to pick up bits of information. So this part-mystery, part-historical fiction, is thrilling to read in parts with the strongest moments in storytelling being different scenes, much like the scenes enacted on stage. Usually the best moments in the novel are when the sin eater is in an enclosed space like a bedroom or a chapel attending a recitation or funeral and there are onlookers, replicating a play being enacted on stage, watched by an audience. Megan Campisi’s forte is theatre and not long fiction. But if she persists at this craft and attempts to write what her heart tells her to, she has the potential to do well. Much of this holds true for Lavanya Lakshminarayan who need to break the shackles of a well-read reader of science fiction and create with the assurance that resides deep within her, an imaginary landscape with its distinctive vocabulary, unique social structures, and a clear inner logic to the society she creates so that any reader coming to it for the first time will fall in love with her story. For now Virtual Analog is competent storytelling but no more. It may also fit snugly on the joint imprint that her publishers Hachette India have with Gollancz but Lavanya Lakshminarayan is capable of much, much more than what is displayed in Analog Virtual. What shines through the books is their keen imagination. They are creative writers whose confidence will soar with their third books. If they persist at this craft and attempt to write what their hearts tell them to, they have the potential to do well.
And then there are the two works of fiction — Meena Kandaswamy’s Exquisite Cadavers and Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule: Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. Established writers. Controlled writing. Immersive reading experience. Meena Kandaswamy’s Exquisite Cadavers is an extraordinary reading experiment with parallel texts laid out on the pages — the main narrative and the interior monologue of the writer. Fascinating. It is a sophisticated cross between poetry and prose. Such books are meant to be experienced. In the old-fashioned sense. Linger over the pages. Dip into the text. Read along the margins. Shut the book. Mull over what one has read. Imbibe some more. Go back to a few lines. Meena Kandaswamy’s sense of rhythm as a poet has not left the prose. It is gorgeous! Her writings have always been infused with a ferocity that seems tto have been sharpened over the years but there is something special about this novel. Fifteen years down the line Exquisite Cadavers will be used a fine example of a literary text that will be read by the general reader as well as be a prescribed text. This is not a novel that will not be easily converted to an audio book — nor should it be. Likewise Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novella about Morayo Da Silva, a seventy-five-year old Nigerian, living in San Francisco. She reflects upon her life as an academic, author and a diplomat’s wife. It is also a moving tale about ageing and suddenly being at the mercy of tender and well meaning care of others. Ladipo chooses an extraordinary literary technique of giving every character the first person narrative which at first is confusing but slowly adds up to the variety of perspectives and unsolicited advice Morayo gets upon her hospitalisation. The saddest part in the novel is when her kind young friend decides to tidy up Morayo’s apartment thereby ridding it off a clutter of books. Morayo is understandably upset, a hurt that many are unable to comprehend. It is a novel that criss-crosses continents — Africa, America and Asia. Irrespective of the land she is in, or when nostalgia hits her regarding Africa, Morayo’s levelheadedness always wins. It is a novel that cuts across cultures seamlessly and sensitively. There is never an awkward sense of looking at other cultures as “other”.
Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women and Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do are ( to use cliches) — mind blowing books. Both by journalists-turned-authors whose books were written after many years of intensive research and recording testimonies. Both these books will influence women’s writing, women’s movements, and all aspects of feminism in a manner similar to that of Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer’s influence. Lisa Taddeo’s Three Womenis about talking to three women about sex and desire for nearly eight years. It became a publishing sensation. While the subject itself would attract attention, it is the narrative, the confidence with which the subjects explore their own complicated reactions to sexuality. Significantly Three Women marks a watershed moment in contemporary women’s literature on how women talk about their sexual desires and needs. In many ways the strength of Lisa Taddeo’s is very similar to male writing, an unquestionable confidence. Jess Hill won the Stella Prize 2020 for Look What You Made Me Do. A title that probably gets lost as it is very similar to many of yalit and chiklit titles, but this title has a purpose with sinister underpinnings. It encapsulates the blame-game that inevitably every male perpetrator foists upon his female victim, usually said in a manner that fools the victim to believe the falsehood — she is too blame for the violence being meted out to her. In this particular book, Jess Hill focusses on domestic violence and her analysis of it is horrific. She breaks many myths about it being only restricted to certain socio-economic sections . Her profiling of the perpetrators is pathbreaking as she creates categories. Some of the men when they appear in court seem as if they can never hurt a fly and yet the incidents they are involved in are gut wrenching. Much of what she says is familiar to women activists and legal teams such as that violence is not necessarily always physical but emotional, psychological, financial etc. The manner in which the information is presented in Look What You Made Me Do will help this material in reaching to newer audiences. Women who either need help themselves or those close to victims. Both these powerful books are going to be seminal in the field of women/gender studies, human rights, manual for legal and counselling professionals.
The final book is the stupendously magical award-winning Lampie and the Children of the Sea. It has been written and illustrated by Dutch illustrator Annet Schaap. This is her first novel. It has already won the Woutertje Pieterse Prize, the Nienke van Hichtum prize, the Bookenleuw and the Gouden Griffel for the best Dutch children’s book of the year. It has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson. It is also the only translated book to have been shortlisted for the 2020 Carnegie Medal Award. It is a stunning modern fairy tale about a little girl, Lampie, living in a lighthouse with her father. Due to some unfortunate events Lampie is sent off to live in the Admiral’s home where it is rumoured a monster resides. It is a heartwarming tale as it is also a tale of Lampie overcoming prejudices and learning to live on her own terms, overcome hurdles and set goals for herself to achieve. The joy with which this story seems to have been written flows splendidly in the translation. It is truly magical to read it even in the moments when there is deep sadness and unnecessary violence. The imaginative plot matches the wild imagination that children are prone to creating for themselves. Yet Annet Schaap, an adult, an illustrator and a storyteller, pulls her strengths together of — an adult’s perspective on a child’s world sans judgement, creative imagination and a wide-eyed wonder at the power of stories to weave her magic. There are multiple layers to Lampie and the Children of the Sea. Whether the monsters in a child’s life are real or imaginary, they can be confronted and set free. It is a book that will appeal to adults and children alike!