When Christophe Tison was a boy he suffered years of sexual abuse at the hands of a man decades older than him. Racked by guilt and ensnared by lies, he suffered in silence — without his parents knowing — until finally he acquired the force to stand up to his abuser and break free.
Today Tison, a respected French television journalist and headline-grabbing writer, wants to use his experience to rehabilitate one of the best-known and — in his view — most unjustly treated fictional characters of the 20th century: Lolita.
The heroine of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel entered our collective consciousness as an ambiguous figure, a pre-adolescent on whom her middle-aged stepfather, Humbert Humbert, forces himself. Was he not the victim of understandable urges and excusable passions, the novel, shockingly, seems to suggest. Film adaptations — first by Stanley Kubrick in 1962 and then in 1997, when Dominique Swain played Lolita to Jeremy Irons’s Humbert — further fanned the flames of controversy.
What is disturbing is how persuasive Nabokov’s narrator, an eloquent, cultivated academic, can be. In 1958 the critic Lionel Trilling observed: “We have been seduced into conniving in the violation.” Tison sets out to pick apart the lies woven by Lolita’s predator, and, in so doing, highlight the tawdry reality of Humbert’s latter-day disciples.
In Journal de L (Diary of L), which will be published in France on Thursday, Lolita tells the story from her perspective. Far from being the objectified muse of Nabokov’s work, she is portrayed by Tison as a girl fighting to free herself from the psychologically oppressive and physically painful abuse inflicted on her day after day by the man who has her captive.
What is disturbing is how persuasive Nabokov’s narrator, an eloquent, cultivated academic, can be.
Even before publication, the work has been the subject of lengthy previews in French literary journals, and its author is being lined up for interview after interview in the country’s media. The interest is on a par with Tison’s status — for he is no ordinary writer.
In 2004 he caused a bout of national introspection in France when he published Il m’aimait (He Loved Me), an account of the sexual abuse he suffered as a boy. A section of the French intelligentsia had had a historically relaxed approach to paedophilia. Tison’s memoir challenged them to rethink that. This time he is going a step farther by attempting to overturn the view — discomfortingly widespread in France — that les Lolitas are legitimate objects of male desire in our sexually liberated times.
In a country that venerates Dany Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the May 1968 student rebellion, despite (or perhaps because of) his claim in a 1970s work that he allowed kindergarten-age children to “caress” him, Journal de L seems likely to prove explosive.
Yet amid the repercussions of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, Tison’s words are a salutary reminder of the mental torture that accompanies child abuse. “Obviously Lolita’s story resonates in me,” Tison says as we sit in his flat in a multicultural district of north Paris. “Her story resembles mine a little, although it is more exotic.”
Tison has dropped into the capital between two holidays. He is relaxed and tanned, and looks healthy and at ease with the world — as you might expect of a man with a string of literary and audiovisual successes to his name, the producer of musical, literary and news programmes for French television, and the writer of novels and essays.
“Her story resembles mine a little, although it is more exotic.”
It was not always this way, though. He went through drink and drug addiction after escaping from his abuser and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. He says that no one can emerge unscathed from the sort of ordeal he — and Lolita — experienced.
In Nabokov’s novel Lolita’s parents are dead. Tison’s mother and father were alive while he was being abused, but failed to notice that the man in whose care they often left their son between the ages of 9 and 14 was anything but the benevolent family friend they assumed him to be.
Tison’s parents were actors who lived with their troupe in the small town of Beaune in central France, and he says that they were too absorbed by their artistic and social pretensions to notice what his abuser — also a member of the company — was doing. Anyway, he said nothing to them, and the truth was well hidden.
“Child abusers are great manipulators and you can see that in Lolita; Humbert Humbert is a great manipulator,” he says. “Everyone loves him, everyone appreciates him, and in fact no one imagines for a single moment that he is his stepdaughter’s lover.
“It was the same for me. Everyone loved [Tison’s abuser]. He was incredible, he made everyone laugh, everybody appreciated him, everyone said, ‘He likes children so we are going to let him look after our children.’”
No one imagines for a single moment that he is his stepdaughter’s lover.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the Nabokov novel is Lolita’s grudging acceptance of her relationship with Humbert, who ensnares her for months by telling her that she will end up in an orphanage if she denounces him.
Tison says that he knows how such mind games work, having been fooled into forming a “little couple” with his abuser. “It’s a form of mental manipulation,” he says. “The hold is very strong. I knew that he was the persecutor and me the victim, but at the same time I felt guilty. I thought I was compromised because he offered me a lot of presents and I accepted them, and I told myself that if I accepted them, I had to pay for them. There were sweets, lunches and journeys. He even offered me a little house. It was very small and very pretty. He took me there one day and said, ‘It’s for you.’
“He also gave me lots of books to read and took me to the movies, and Humbert Humbert does the same with Lolita. He talks to her a lot, he makes her listen to radio programmes that she would never have listened to otherwise, so she grows up and matures very quickly. In a sense, he is her Pygmalion.”
“I knew that he was the persecutor and me the victim, but at the same time I felt guilty.”
The ambiguity of the relationship between Humbert and his child lover helps to explain the enduring power of Nabokov’s masterpiece. But it has also cemented the notion that Lolita and her ilk are partly to blame for subverting good morality — scheming creatures exploiting their sexual allure for their benefit.
Tison says that we should be careful not to judge. “Because when you are manipulated you learn very quickly to manipulate others. First there is a state of stupefaction, and then there is a moment when you realise what’s going on and … you learn all the other person’s techniques very quickly.
“Lolita uses seduction, and I think she uses it because it’s the only weapon she has. What do you do when you are 14 years old, when you have no mother, no father and you are the prisoner of a man?
“You cannot directly confront someone who is stronger than you, you just can’t. You are too young, too small, too inexperienced.
“People say, ‘Ah Lolita, she is a seducer,’ and I wanted to show that she is a seducer by obligation. That is also the case of millions of women in the world who are prisoners of a man who will say, ‘Do this, do that.’ There are children aged 13, 14 and 15 who prostitute themselves. That exists in France and it exists everywhere.”
After five years of constant abuse, Tison found the strength to confront his persecutor. “I said, ‘It’s finished,’ but it was very hard. He didn’t want to let me leave and we ended up having a fight. But I was 14 and I could resist him physically, and I could resist all his presents and all his words.”
The ordeal was not over, though. Tison fell into drink and drugs, was arrested on several occasions after committing petty offences, and was admitted on at least two occasions to a psychiatric hospital in Paris.
It was between two stays there that he wrote Il m’aimait, a work principally intended for his parents, who had, until then, no idea of what had happened to him. The book became a bestseller — a “big bang” in a country where there had been little written about paedophilia before, Tison says.
A “big bang” in a country where there had been little written about paedophilia before.
He thought that the book would bring him relief. It did not. Invited on to television programmes to tell his story, he became, in his words, “an official victim”, which provided a pretext for continuing to drink. It was months later, when media interest had subsided, that he told himself to stop wallowing in his childhood trauma and started to move on.
Today Tison, who has two children, says that he has neither drunk alcohol nor taken drugs for 14 years. Further, at long last, he has re-established a relationship with his father, who is now a widower. They have managed to talk about the abuse Tison suffered as a boy — a subject long impossible for them to broach, even after the publication of Il m’aimait — and Tison says that he has forgiven his father for failing to notice what happened all those years ago in Beaune.
In short, he seems to have found a form of peace. Now he would like Lolita to be allowed to do likewise.