Sophie Fontanel’s memoir, The Art of Sleeping Alone, is her 12th book—the previous were novels about “impossible love.” This book chronicles, in an episodic way, her 12-year bout of celibacy, which she undertook when a glimpse of sleeping alone, and the thought of no longer allowing her body to be “taken and shaken,” caused such a profound feeling of lightness and happiness in her that she had to follow it. It’s out this month in Canada, and it was a bestseller and a sensation in France, where Fontanel works as an editor at French Elle. Fascinated by people who move in the direction of their freedom, I wanted to speak with her.
I’d like to hear about your quest to understand your desires apart from society’s expectations of you.
It’s difficult to accept your own speed. When I was young, I was very interested in the sexual life. It was a pleasure, but it was also a danger because I didn’t know anything about my body. We have the idea when we are young that when we are in front of a man, we have to act as if he is the king. The simple idea of saying “not this time” was absurd to me. I was a body in a bed, and a man could do anything he wanted.
At the age of 27, you followed your instinct to stop having lovers. Did this decision make you better able to follow your instincts in general?
Yes, because the first feeling was freedom. It was amazing for me to wake up in my bed alone, to have all the space of my bed, to go on vacation where I wanted. Freedom is also the possibility of dreaming of other men. When I was with a boyfriend, I was focused on him. When I was alone, it was not a no-desire zone. Taking a coffee in Paris in the café, I was looking at those men walking, and I was saying to myself, Mmm, it would be good to be in their arms. But it was the freedom to dream instead of to do. Sometimes in your life you need solitude with your body.
Did you experience your decision to forgo sex as coming from a kind of courage?
No. Courage is to sleep with a person you don’t want—to do what your body deeply doesn’t want to do. My courage was to resist the social pressure. Because everybody was trying to give me a boyfriend, to help me to be “normal.” But I resisted. I don’t know how. It was very important to respect my ideals. But, you know, ideals sometimes are a jail.
Do you feel like you worked better during your celibate years than you had previously?
Of course! You know, why do you need to write beautiful words, why do you need to caress, to seduce all the world with your words, if you have perfect happiness in your private life? Of course it’s a lack of something that leads you to the arts.
I was 13 when I had my first sexual experience, and I began to write. So it is my idea that meeting the sexual reality and discovering that I was not so gifted in a bed—I escaped into poetry. I didn’t know that there was work to do in a bed—not to be sexual, but to be honest in a bed, to joke in a bed, to meet the other in front of me in a bed.
I remember a friend of mine, she told me once that she never lied in bed. And my reaction was, “How do you do it?” And she told me it’s very simple: “I’m very gentle, I’m very soft. But if I have no pleasure, I say simply, ‘I had no pleasure. No problem, but I had no pleasure.’” For me it was a revolution that it was possible to say the truth.
Did you have a sense when you were younger that you would be able to speak to people through writing?
Of course! Because since I was young I’ve known I am different—because I am very free in my head.
Do you have things you want to say to young women, in particular?
Yes. I always want to tell them: You are more free than you think. There’s not only one solution: Find a man, marry a man, make children. There’s a lot of solutions in life. You can love a man in an impossible love story. You can be alone. And don’t believe those who say sexual life is not a paradise. It could be a paradise. If it’s not so good, take some vacation from the sexual life.
Is it a paradise for you now?
Alors! It’s not always a paradise. But I have learned that sometimes it can be a paradise. And sometimes you are walking in the street, shoulder to shoulder with a man, and sometimes the paradise is there.
You have a line in your book, “No one is allowed to live in paradise unsupervised,” which I loved.
Yes, the other person is a mirror. Of course, it is selfish to not have that mirror, but some people need that to understand who they are. Within that solitude slowly appeared the fact that I needed others. But it was a very, very slow walk.
During your celibate years, did you dress differently?
Yes. I had two separate obsessions: [one was] to be dressed very sexually, to avoid the reputation of “no-sex girl.” So I dressed with high heels, in black leather, with a push-up bra, and I was very aggressive so nobody could notice I had no sexual life. When I see girls in the streets who are very sexy, usually I say to myself, Maybe they’re doing nothing. Maybe all that stuff is an opera.
Then I had another attitude, to dress like Jane Birkin, with blue jeans. It was to hide my body because I had a very big bosom. My family used to tell me, “Don’t hide your body! Show your possessions!” But it was very difficult because I didn’t want men to come on to me.
So you oscillated between dressing very sexually and not wanting to be seen. How do you dress today, now that you are happy sexually for the first time? Now it’s completely different. I am 50 years old, and I am French, and I am working at a fashion magazine, and I belong to a kind of high bourgeoisie, you know? So my aim is to be dressed with elegance—not too young, but not old nanny! I wear very beautiful things, very simple. I only consider the softness of the clothes. It’s not comfort—it’s softness.
But I have learned that it’s not a question of clothes. Whatever clothes you are wearing—no matter. The question is with your eyes. Are you welcoming or aren’t you welcoming a man? It’s only a question of eye contact.
There seems to be a parallel: You’ve come to a place where you’re more comfortable sexually, and more comfortable in how you dress. In both realms you’re now making choices more for your own comfort and pleasure.
Yes, that’s perfectly true. A few years ago, I used to wear a tight slip with my belly not comfortable. I used to wear high heels, and it’s stupid because the most important thing is sensuality. It’s the way you walk. A very sensual girl knows how to walk barefoot. All those years we are leaving the bed naked, absolutely ashamed of walking in front of [someone]! What does he or she think of my body? I’m completely a stranger to those attitudes now. I am who I am. I’m honest, and I don’t ask a man to be perfect, so I accept my faults. When I was not happy sexually, it was impossible. Now with that good experience of sexual activity, I know how to walk barefoot.
It’s funny—I was reading your book and I looked at your picture on the web and I thought, ‘She looks like the happiest woman on the Internet!’
I’m happy! But like everyone, sometimes I cry alone. But I am OK with myself. I know a lot of women of my age in Paris who are always complaining, “I’m too old, a man will not look at me.” That’s absolutely not my idea! I discovered that I am a sensual person, a soft person. If you know how to walk completely naked, you can wear anything you want.