Answering Proust

Vanity Fair magazine closes every issue with a one-page feature called “The Proust Questionnaire,” a series of stock questions asked of a celebrity or public figure in hopes of eliciting some deep insight into that person’s character… or at least a witty response. In other words, it’s essentially the same thing as all those quiz-things that used to get passed around during the golden age of blogging, those things we called “memes” before “meme” came to mean something else. I’ve often toyed with the idea of making the VF questions into a blog post (which of course I fantasized would go viral and become Something Big!), but I’ve never gotten around to it… and now I don’t have to, as somebody else has already done it.

Before I get to the actual questions though, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I had only a vague impression of who Proust even was until about ten minutes ago. I knew he was a writer of some renown, but that’s about it. I know, I know… for a guy with a BA in literature, there are some pretty significant holes in my literary knowledge. Anyhow, for the benefit of my fellows in ignorance, Marcel Proust was a French novelist, critic, and essayist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (1871-1922, to be precise). He’s best known for a massive novel called Remembrance of Things Past (or, in more recent translations, In Search of Lost Time), as well as, of course, the questionnaire that now bears his name.

The questionnaire was actually a common party game in Proust’s day. The reason it came to be named for him is because he recorded his answers in something called a “confession album,” which has survived to this day (it was sold at auction in 2003 for over 100,000 euros). There are actually two known surviving sets of answers attributed to Proust, the first from 1885 or thereabouts, and the second from 1890, when Proust was a teenager and a young adult, respectively. What follows is questions from both versions, as well a modernized set of questions which is similar to the one used by Vanity Fair. I’ve crossed out the redundant ones, and I’ll try to keep my answers reasonably concise.

The First Questionnaire

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Indecision. Guilt. Regret.

Where would you like to live?

In a house with a broad porch made for sittin’, located on a quiet country lane in a small town that’s not too far removed from the amenities of an urban center… basically an idealized version of the place I grew up in. (I grew up in a farm town where you saw nearly as many tractors and horses going down the road as cars and pickups, but we were only 20 minutes away from Salt Lake when you needed or wanted something from the city.) Oh, and it’d be nice if there was running water, like a creek or something, nearby.

What is your idea of earthly happiness?

Warm sunlight on my face and nothing on the agenda.

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?

Meaning, I suppose, what are my biggest faults? (The Victorian-era wording of some these…)  Um, procrastination and a tendency toward melancholy.

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?

Captain James T. Kirk, Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and Mr. Spock; Han Solo and Luke Skywalker; Indiana Jones; John Carter of Mars; Dirk Pitt; Roland Deschain of Mid-World; Flash Gordon; the Vampire Lestat; Snake Plissken; and Bugs Bunny

Who are your favorite characters in history?

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, Butch Cassidy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Howard Hughes, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Samuel Pepys

Who are your favorite heroines in real life?

Pancho Barnes, Nellie Bly, Dorothea Lange, Sally Ride, Lauren Bacall, Jane Goodall

Who are your favorite heroines of fiction?

Ellen Ripley; Leia Organa; Thelma and Louise; Neil Gaiman’s Death; Mrs. Anna Madrigal

Your favorite painter?

I couldn’t choose just one, so: Drew Struzan, Frank Frazetta, Alberto Vargas, Olivia De Berardinis, Edward Hopper, and Rembrandt

Your favorite musician?

Rick Springfield

The quality you most admire in a man?


The quality you most admire in a woman?


Your favorite virtue?


Your favorite occupation?

Not sure if this is what this item is asking for, but of the occupations I’ve held, movie projectionist.

Who would you have liked to be?

Who, as opposed to what? Um… just a better version of myself, really.

 The Second Questionnaire

Your most marked characteristic?

My manly beard.

The quality you most like in a man?

The quality you most like in a woman?

What do you most value in your friends?

Their support.

What is your principle defect?

Worrying too much about what others think.

What is your favorite occupation?

What is your dream of happiness?

A leisurely life spent pursuing the things I want to do, rather than most of my time going to The Man just to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly.

What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes?

To be alone and living on the street.

What would you like to be?

Independently wealthy

In what country would you like to live?

I thought SamuraiFrog’s answer was pretty good: A better version of the United States.

What is your favorite color?


What is your favorite flower?


What is your favorite bird?

I’m rather fond of owls.

Who are your favorite prose writers?

Stephen King, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Armistead Maupin, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Anne Rice

Who are your favorite poets?

Leiber and Stoller

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

Who are your favorite heroines of fiction?

Who are your favorite composers?

John Williams, John Barry, James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith

Who are your favorite painters?

Who are your heroes in real life?

Who are your favorite heroines of history?

What are your favorite names?

Um… never really thought about it.

What is it you most dislike?

Willful ignorance, as well as the ingrained distrust of intelligence and education that runs through American society.

What historical figures do you most despise?

Senator Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, Newt Gingrich (whose scorched-earth tactics against the Clinton administration led directly to the broken and utterly toxic state of American politics today), Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld.

What event in military history do you most admire?

In terms of the bravery of the young men who crewed the (relatively primitive) planes and the sheer scale of the operation, the allied bombing campaigns against the Third Reich, 1942-44.

What reform do you most admire?

Theodore Roosevelt’s trust-busting activities (wish we could find that level of progressive, anti-corporate, anti-plutocracy outrage again!) and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, in particular the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA), both of which ought to be revived and set to work on America’s crumbling infrastructure, in my opinion.

What natural gift would you most like to possess?

The ability to draw something more realistic than a stick figure.

How would you like to die?

Heroically saving the Earth.

What is your present state of mind?


To what faults do you feel most indulgent?

What is your motto?

“It is what it is.”

The Modernized Version

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

No responsibilities, no obligations.

What is your most marked characteristic?

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

First in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

What is your greatest fear?


What historical figure do you most identify with?

Ernie Pyle.

Which living person do you most admire?

Jimmy Carter.

No, seriously. The guy left the White House a virtual disgrace, as disliked by many of his fellow Democrats as he was by the Republicans who defeated him. But rather than just disappearing from public view, Carter went on to become a globetrotting diplomat and tireless advocate for human rights, peaceful resolution to conflict, and aid for the poor. He strikes me as a rare example of a genuinely good man who is striving to better the world, and a even rarer example of a successful second act.

Who are your heroes in real life?

Explorers, scientists, journalists, and philanthropists. And, I’ll admit, the occasional movie star…

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Lack of confidence.

What is your favorite journey?

The walk down the jetway… both leaving and coming home.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?


Which word or phrases do you most overuse?

Not sure, but probably it’s probably got four letters.

What is your greatest regret?

Disappointing myself.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

I’d undo all the damage caused by my uncle Louie’s fight with ALS.

What is your most treasured possession?

My 1963 Ford Galaxie, which my dad and Uncle Lou restored for me when I was 17 years old, right after he was diagnosed the disease that would kill him.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?