PARIS — Gabriel Matzneff, the French writer under investigation for his promotion of pedophilia, was holed up this month inside a luxury hotel room on the Italian Riviera, unable to relax, unable to sleep, unable to write.
He was alone and in hiding, abandoned by the same powerful people in publishing, journalism, politics and business who had protected him weeks earlier. He went outside only for solitary walks behind dark sunglasses, and was startled when I tracked him down in a cafe mentioned in his books.
“I feel like the living dead, a dead man walking, walking on the lungomare,” he said, referring in Italian to the seafront promenade, after some persuading.
Hiding is new for Matzneff. For decades, he was celebrated for writing and talking openly about stalking teenage girls outside schools in Paris and having sex with 8-year-old boys in the Philippines.
He was invited to the Élysée Palace by President François Mitterrand and socialized with the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. He benefited from the largesse of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, the business tycoon Pierre Bergé.
But Matzneff has been summoned to appear in a Paris court on Wednesday, accused of actively promoting pedophilia through his books. Matzneff could face up to five years in prison, yet the case is also an implicit indictment of an elite that furthered his career and swatted away isolated voices calling for his arrest.
The reckoning came last month with the publication of “Le Consentement” (“Consent”) by Vanessa Springora, the first testimony by one of the writer’s underage victims.
“This is the #MeToo of the French publishing world,” said François Busnel, the host of “La Grande Librairie,” France’s most important television literary program. “A voice has been set free in an environment, the French literary environment, which is male chauvinist, quite misogynistic, and which stays silent — omertà.”
Matzneff’s fall, if late in coming, was swift. His three publishers dropped him. The head of the National Book Center said that Matzneff would lose a seldom-awarded lifetime stipend. Prosecutors opened an investigation.
Matzneff disappeared in late December, just before the publication of Springora’s memoir. As the scandal exploded in Paris, I pored through his diaries and books. When a brief interview he gave to a French television network hinted at his whereabouts, I went to the Italian Riviera and found Matzneff — a creature of habit, his diaries made clear — in his favorite cafe.
Initially startled, defensive and angry, the writer admitted that he was “very, very lonely” and began to open up.
He expressed bewilderment at the sudden cultural shift in France and his precipitous downfall. He also confirmed the passages in his books that describe the support he received from powerful individuals, and provided fresh details. He was bitter and angry that former supporters have remained silent, distanced themselves or turned against him.
“They’re showing their cowardice,” he said.
Matzneff’s friends did more than celebrate his work. They also, unwittingly and otherwise, helped shield him from the authorities.
In 1986, Parisian police officers summoned Matzneff, who was 50 at the time, for questioning after receiving anonymous letters stating that he was staying in his apartment with Springora, then 14. But when he went to the station, Matzneff had a talisman in his pocket: an article praising him by Mitterrand.
When detectives saw it, he said, they dismissed the anonymous tips they had received as the work of a literary rival.
Though he kept churning out books through the nineties, Matzneff was far from wealthy and turned to his powerful friends.
By 2002, Christophe Girard, a close aide to Yves Saint Laurent, had become the deputy for culture to the mayor of Paris. He lobbied intensely for Matzneff to win a seldom-awarded lifetime annual stipend from the National Book Center.
And Christian Giudicelli, a writer who traveled with Matzneff to the Philippines and to whom Matzneff had entrusted incriminating photos and letters of the 14-year-old Springora, helped secure his friend the prestigious Renaudot prize, after studiously confiding Matzneff’s cancer diagnosis to his fellow jurors.
“It’s an argument we heard a lot: ‘He needs it, the poor guy,’” recalled one of the jurors, Franz-Olivier Giesbert, a writer and editor.
One person was especially furious: Vanessa Springora. Angered and disgusted by Matzneff’s triumphant return, she began writing “Le Consentement.”
Matzneff said he learned in November of the imminent release of “Le Consentement” from friends at Grasset, the book’s publisher. He soon left for Italy as Springora’s book landed like a thunderbolt in a newly awakened France.
Alone in his hiding place on the Italian Riviera, Matzneff said he did not know when he would return to Paris. Other than his walks on the lungomare, he dines alone in the hotel restaurant. Up in his room, he rereads old, unpublished diaries. He will not, he says, read Springora’s book. He suffers from insomnia. He doesn’t write.
“I’m too miserable,” he said.
In Paris, it was now Springora’s turn in prime time, live, as she ascended to the studio of “La Grande Librairie.”
What began with a book could end only with a book. Only in France.
“My goal actually was to lock him up in a book, to catch him in his own trap,” Springora said on the show, “because that’s what he did to me and that’s what he did to many young girls.”
Daphné Anglès and Constant Méheut contributed reporting.