Dangerous liaisons: Too much, too young

Margaux Fragoso's new memoir tells of a childhood shattered by a sexual predator. It's a shocking read, says Arifa Akbar, but part of a rich literary tradition
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The Independent Culture

I started writing this book the summer after the death of Peter Curran, whom I met when I was seven and had a relationship with for 15 years, right up until he committed suicide at the age of 66."

So begins Margaux Fragoso's unnervingly explicit memoir that takes us from the municipal swimming pool of her first meeting with Curran through ritual grooming and sexual game-playing. Tiger, Tiger has been hailed by some critics as a triumph – a paedophilia story from "Lolita's perspective" – while others describe its graphic passages as "the most indecent thing in any major book of the last decade."

The critical schism is neither new nor unexpected. The "Lolita" narrative, in which the lusts of an older, predatory man are set against a vulnerable, yet seemingly "knowing" underage girl, first emerged at the turn of the 20th century. Its most accomplished example is Vladimir Nabokov's eponymous story of the middle-aged Humbert Humbert and the 12-year-old "nymphet" with whom he becomes sexually obsessed. On publication, the novel was temporarily banned across parts of Europe and reviled as "sheer unrestrained pornography", although Graham Greene bravely maintained it was "one of the three best books of 1955".

Since that moment in September 1955, "Lolita" has entered pop culture as shorthand for a sexually precocious girl who is on the cusp of womanhood and, it is controversially suggested, colludes in her own seduction. A host of contemporary writers have explored the Lolita dynamic, including most recently, Joyce Carol Oates in A Fair Maiden, a baroque tale of a wealthy old man's sexual obsession with a teenage babysitter that re-conceives Little Red Riding Hood to tease out its paedophilic strains. Paul Auster's latest novel, Sunset Park, has at its heart an illicit romance between a college girl and a man in his mid-20s that leads him to flee Florida for fear of imprisonment, while Lynn Barber's memoir, An Education, though not dealing with the sexual initiation of a pre-teen girl, bears thematic flecks of a Lolita romance, as she recounts her relationship with a worldly first boyfriend in his late 30s, when she was just 16.

The subject entered literature in ever more overt storylines just as Freudian theories became popularised in the early 1900s and concepts of sexual liberation spawned a preoccupation with sexual perversion and deviancy. Dr Katie Fleming, an English literature lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, says that Freudian thought brought with it its own paranoias, some of which manifested in literary narratives.

The first most significant example was Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, published in 1912. Even though the story revolves around homosexual fantasy, the unrealised lusts of the middle-aged Gustav von Aschenbach, for the beautiful boy, Tadzio, created a blueprint for the heterosexual Lolita story that would follow, suggests Dr Fleming. There is even a chapter in James Joyce's Ulysses which deals with the subject, and which may have influenced Nabokov. Chapter 13, entitled "Nausicaa", features a teenager, Gerty MacDowell, contemplating love and marriage as the older figure of Leopold Bloom masturbates while watching her from a distance. It is unclear how much of the text is her fantasy or his projection of desire onto her.

As far as Fragoso's non-fictive account goes, Fleming says that it is in keeping with some aspects of this literary tradition, while radically departing from it in other ways. While there is nothing in Nabokov's novel to suggest that the underage object of desire is sexually complicit, Fragoso's voice is more problematic, she feels. Curran is an amalgam father figure, best friend and playmate as well as pervert and paedophile. Fragoso helps him to hide love letters and porn films. In her prologue, she recounts, with lashings of nostalgia, that he considered her a "princess" ("I still have 12 spiral notebooks of dated daily letters, all beginning with 'Dear Princess'"). Now 31, she still feels his daily absence: "At two in the afternoon when he would come and pick me up and take me for rides: at five, when I would read to him, head on his chest; in the despair at 7pm, when he would hold me and rub my belly for an hour; in the despair again at 9pm, when we would go for a night ride... to gaze beyond the Hudson River to the skyscrapers' lights ignited like a thousand mirrors."

"Nabokov explores how sick and perverse we are as readers: we expose our own prejudices if we think Lolita – a child – is sexually aware or complicit, in a similar way that some people think a rape victim invites her own rape by wearing a mini-skirt," says Fleming. "Humbert Humbert sees sexual provocations where there are none – it is all his projection, and we are all Humbert Humbert if we think this way of Lolita. Fragoso seems to have internalised the narrative of sexual agency ascribed to children in a sickening way, when in fact she was a passive child victim."

What Lolita narratives conjure most powerfully is the frisson of burgeoning sexuality: "The really dangerous thing about Nabokov's Lolita is that she is on the cusp of being sexually active. She is 12 and in another five years, it would be viewed as socially acceptable for her to have a relationship with an older man. This liminality does not excuse someone like Humbert Humbert, but it's the whole point of the early adolescent 'nymphet' figure," says Fleming.

This edgy, emerging sexuality is teased out in Sunset Park by Auster, in which the high-school girl, Pilar Sanchez, is in a sexual relationship with the far older Miles Heller. The narrator repeatedly insists that Pilar is "mature for her age" even though Miles's description of her, when he first sees her sitting in a park in Florida, resembles the leering thoughts of a modern-day Humbert Humbert: "He guessed that she was even younger than sixteen, just a girl, really, and a little girl at that, a small adolescent girl wearing tight, cut-off shorts, sandals, and a skimpy halter top... No more than a baby, he said to himself." Auster draws attention to the socially constructed nature of the age of consent; their relationship appears equal and unexploitative despite Miles's status as a paedophile in a court of law.

Barber's memoir also bears echoes of this liminality. Barber wrote of her first, far older boyfriend: "Simon established early on that I was a virgin, and seemed quite happy about it. He asked when I intended to lose my virginity and I said '17', and he agreed this was the ideal age. He said it was important not to lose my virginity in some inept fumble with a grubby schoolboy, but with a sophisticated older man."

Fragoso's "real life" account, unlike Barber's, was initially met with doubts over its veracity, and she was forced to defend the book's sexual content, including scenes of fellatio at the age of eight. She insists these passages were essential to circumvent any unintentional romanticising. "The necessity of detailed sex scenes has been called into question by some reviewers. In my mind, they are crucial in order to break up the romantic narrative. Here is this idealised fantasy world on the one hand and then on the other, the brutal reality of what he is doing. Those scenes undermine Peter's romanticism by bringing the disturbing truth fully out into the open."

Another criticism angled at Fragoso focuses on her language, which is literary, poetic and – critics argue – not transparent enough for "memoir writing". This throws up interesting questions about the kinds of Lolita stories readers find acceptable or unacceptable.

Following the furore, Fragoso, who has studied creative writing, revealed that she had initially considered transforming her story into fiction to "avoid being judged" but in the end, she wrote in memoir form for its "social value" and provided her editors with material to prove her abuse – her childhood diaries and his letters sent over 15 years.

"[As autobiography] it shows parents how real paedophiles operate. It communicates to others who have been through relationships like this that they aren't the only ones. I read a live journal entry about my book that said: 'For her it was 14 years; for me 12'. That moment, which was very profound for me, couldn't have happened if my book was published as a fictional work."

Maureen Freely, an author and English literature academic at Warwick University, suggests that this brand of "literary non-fiction" which presents true accounts in a literary register, often carries an added burden of responsibility toward its readership. "The idea of literary non-fiction challenges people's moral understandings of the world we live in," she says.

"People read stories all year long and accept them, but they read non-fiction in a completely different way. You have to establish for them, and they have to believe what they are reading is true. With non-fiction, you are having to negotiate with everybody else in the world that it happened this way." The opprobrium that has greeted Tiger, Tiger suggests that as far as Lolita's story goes, truth can be far more dangerous, and problematic, than fiction.

'Tiger Tiger' is published by Penguin (£9.99)

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