Horror of paedophilia is everywhere – most would say rightly. But delve, and the notion of what constitutes sexual abuse of children is a slippery beast, given modern-day, convoluted realities. For one thing, these days some young people mature physically – and, it could be argued, emotionally – younger and younger: at an age that no longer synchronises incontestably with the years of a legal minor (at least in some cultures and communities). For another, the public gaze is skewed towards male offences against girls, glossing over women’s capacity for such forbidden acts. The thought that the natural caretaking gender, the gender equipped for motherhood, could on occasion be guilty too seems to society even further beyond the pale. Some parts of the feminist movement have resisted the very idea, convinced that paedophilia is all about male power: if a woman offends, some have insisted, it can be only at the instigation of a man. Of course, statistics prove that that isn’t so.
Fiction plays with these ideas, mirroring our double standards, our moral blindnesses and avoidances. But when it comes to sexual acts at the expense of the young, do novelists have any more right than others to self-indulge?
Several classic tales focus on men: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, whose middle-aged male protagonist flees to embark on a love affair with the young girl of the title, and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, whose dying author, Gustav von Aschenbach, becomes obsessed with a young boy on the beach, Tadzio, to whom he never speaks: ‘Loneliness fosters that which is original, daringly and bewilderingly beautiful, poetic. But loneliness also fosters that which is perverse, incongruous, absurd, forbidden.’
How can these male authors justify their characters’ feelings? In von Aschenbach’s case, apparently by loneliness:
‘The observations and encounters of a solitary, taciturn man are vaguer and at the same times more intense than those of a sociable man…. Images and perceptions … occupy him unduly, become more intense in the silence, become significant, become an experience, an adventure, an emotion.’
And yet they hint at the old man’s incipient voyeurism:
‘Nothing is stranger or more ticklish than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who meet and observe each other daily – no hourly – and are nevertheless compelled to keep up the pose of an indifferent stranger, neither greeting nor addressing each other, whether out of etiquette or their own whim.’
While von Aschenbach doesn’t observe anything of the boy that he shouldn’t, he has the paedophile’s trick of seeing his ‘subject’ as in some sense complicit in their ‘relationship’. Mann, his creator, tiptoes him right up to the moral line.
In Nabokov’s case, the man acts his feelings out, enlisting Lolita in them. He rhapsodises:
‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita…. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.’
After the horrified public storm on the book’s initial publication, commentators on Lolita have more recently converged in agreement that, although the protagonist may be an unreliable narrator, even a monster, we somehow overlook his wrongdoings given the wonders of his verbal virtuosity: the passionate declaration of his emotions somehow overrides the underage abduction and sex.
One classic that treats a woman’s affair with a boy is The Reader by Bernard Schlink, later made into a film. It tells of 15-year-old Michael who, due to accident, is tended to by a stranger, 36-year-old Hanna, a relationship that morphs into something sexual and strong. This time, the writer subverts our objections to their link in other ways: the book is written from the boy’s point of view, so persuading us that he’s fully aware of and happy with what he is doing; and the woman is portrayed as ultimately his inferior, not only a Nazi, but also an illiterate: someone who can be judged on other grounds than child abuse. The Nazism, especially, deflects our critical gaze, and coopts us into a male-dominated standpoint.
Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal also approaches the subject obliquely, this time through the viewpoint of the tough and cynical Barbara, a teacher intent on predating her younger colleague Sheba, using her knowledge of her junior’s affair with a fifteen-year-old pupil to manipulate Sheba to her will. Barbara’s condemnation of the relationship is greyed over to the point of unreliability by her warped motives and the desert sands of her own loneliness: ‘What is romance, but a mutual pact of delusion? When the pact ends, there’s nothing left.’
The age of the ‘child’/young person is key, surely. Several authors seem to beg readers’ indulgence by endowing their boy children with 15 years, i.e. placing them teasingly close to their majorities anyway. The young student Marito in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa is safely over the age line when he starts an affair with his aunt-by-marriage Julia, who is 13 years his senior; but John Banville’s Alex Cleave is 15 on taking up with his schoolfriend’s mother, Mrs Gray. In later life, Alex comes to realise how costly the affair was to her, so this is a moral tale to some degree; and yet, and yet, Banville has taken refuge in the tantalising near-excusability of the 15-year threshold and the young boy’s viewpoint, characterising him as innocent child seduced: no question that in the end, the woman must be more to blame than he.
All the same, I’ve heard Banville speak of his persistent predilections for women’s silky lingerie (at the Edinburgh Literary Festival, 2013): for writers like him, is woman-seducing-youngster a handy trope for his own self-indulgence in boyish sexual fantasies from the safe reaches of mature adulthood?:
‘I have a suspicion, which will not be dismissed, that on more than one occasion, in the throes of passion, I cried out the word “Mother!”‘
Ian McEwan’s recent book The Children Act partly spurred me to write this post. McEwan’s Fiona, a judge whose longstanding marriage is in difficulty, finds herself emotionally intrigued and periodically pursued by a young man, not quite 18 (that dalliance with age thresholds yet again). The key emotional moment comes when, in a heightened state of need, he tracks her down to an evening meeting in Scotland:
‘She drew him towards her. Her intention was to kiss him on the cheek… but… he turned his head and their lips met. She could have drawn back…. Instead she lingered, defenceless before the moment. The sensation of skin on skin…. If it was possible to kiss chastely full on the lips, this was what she did….’
Dismayingly, this sexual aspect of the story peters out: Fiona’s guilt crystallises much more around whether she has let the young man, Adam, down: ‘Even if we had the room, you could not be our lodger…. [I am] a judge.’ McEwan seems suddenly uninterested in this moral dimension, focusing instead on issues of religion. More disappointingly still, instead of investigating Fiona’s motivations, the author casts her as a stereotype he’s used before: childless career woman in an arid marriage, only concerned for the young Adam in that light.
A.M. Homes is a disturbing but rare exception: witness her unflinchingness in The End of Alice. Alice is a 12-year-old whose story is told by her paedophile killer in prison. She’s sketched as extraordinarily precocious, as is another, a 12-year-old boy: his seducer, a young woman aged 19, is writing to the convict. Disturbingly and challengingly, both young ‘victims’ are seen as willing – as paedophiles would see them, whether they were complicit or not.
But maybe most authors dealing with this stuff can’t help being as guilty as paedophiles themselves of self-justifications and evasions.
Discomfiting as it is, I’ve tried to treat these ticklish issues in my own novel, On the Far Side, There’s a Boy. Martine, my main protagonist, yearns for a boy child to love and mother but recognises that some part of her might need him as some kind of ‘opposite gender counterpart’, some answering half. She struggles with this. In her work as an educational trainer, one day she finds herself unexpectedly alone with a schoolboy in a classroom:
‘For a moment, she was still sure of it later, his eyes melted into that look that a male lover can have, a gaze without concealment.
Then his lids dropped, and the jaw set. “I don’t like being here.”
“It must be hard for you.”
“I don’t mean here. I mean here.” Turning his head away, he stabbed a finger at the carpet.
Something in Martine lurched. She registered, He thinks I’m being inappropriate.
She began to look for a job teaching biology and general science…. Just to be safe though, the place taught only girls.’
I suppose that all novelists need to tiptoe their readers as close as possible up to the moral line and back.