The Proust Questionnaire

For years I was an avid reader of Vanity Fair magazine. As is/was my habit with print magazines, those near-dinosaurs of modern publishing, I would flip to the last page. And the reward was worth it: the Proust questionnaire. In which a celeb of some ilk would answer the 35 questions immortalized by the French novelist and critic in 1890.

What fun to read about Ricky Gervais’ idea of perfect happiness! Or to know what Joan Didion regarded as the lowest depth of misery. The answers to these questions give you a glimpse inside a famous head that I always find fascinating.

Why Proust? I found the following explanation here.

In the late nineteenth century, the confession book was all the rage in England. It asked readers to answer a series of personal questions designed to reveal their inner characters. In 1890, Proust, still a teenager, took this questionnaire, answering the questions with frank sincerity. The original manuscript was uncovered in 1924, two years after Proust’s death, and in 2003, it was auctioned off for roughly $130,000. (Credit: Open Culture)

That Marcel Proust went on to become one of the most influential lights of French literature and thinking probably explains why the questionnaire bears his name. Interestingly, it provides the basis for many modern media interviews. And writers are encouraged to use it as a way of getting to know their characters.

A year ago I bought a copy of Proust’s most famous work, À la recherche du temps perdu, or Remembrance of Things Past, as part of a project to do the reading list of a self-driven MFA. That project remains, ahem, in development, but I still intend to read the original text in French. In the meantime, I have decided to seize the opportunity to interview myself. Here you go with my answers to the Proust questionnaire.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
An empty morning.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Impatience.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Unkindness.

What is your favourite journey?
Anywhere on a boat in Switzerland.

On what occasion do you lie?
To make someone less uncomfortable. Mostly about little things.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
WTF, c’est pas possible, merde, hurry up, sorry (like a good Canadian).

What is your greatest regret?
Older self: loss of hearing in my left ear; younger self: not learning to read music.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Language, my family, beer (not necessarily in that order).

When and where were you happiest?
Alone, as a child, talking to nature.

Which talent would you most like to have?
To be able to multitask.

What is your current state of mind?
Time is running out.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Not killing anyone.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Constipation (physical or otherwise).

Where would you like to live?
Right here in Switzerland (yet, in a twist of magic realism, minutes from my family around the world).

What do you most value in your friends?
Listening and loving me anyway.

What is your most marked characteristic?
An opinion on most things.

Who are your favorite writers?
Barbara Pym, Anita Brookman, John Kennedy Toole, Carole Shields, Alice Munro, David Sedaris, Andrew Sean Greer, Patrick Dewitt, to name a few.

Who are your heroes in real life?
I don’t believe in heroes but Volodomir Zelensky comes close.

What is it that you most dislike?
Cruelty of any kind.

How would you like to die?
I wouldn’t.

What is your motto?
Keep it real.

20 comments

  1. margaret21 · August 12

    Great answers. I wonder how long it took you to come up with them? I found I didn’t have pat answers to quite a few. I might pinch this idea in the near future (with acknowledgement, of course) … the sincerest form of flattery.

    • MELewis · August 12

      Please do pinch! Many have…including me!
      As for the answers, it took me a bit of thinking about it, but not too much (see my answer on most marked characteristic ;-)) and I really had fun doing it!

  2. Suzanne et Pierre · August 12

    I didn’t know about this questionnaire and it is a lot of fun. I am like Margaret, I wouldn’t know what to answer to a number of the questions. I quite enjoyed your replies.

    As for Proust, I have never been able to read him but Pierre has set out to read the 7 volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu and he is at the 3rd one…but he says it is very difficult reading. Good luck to you! (Suzanne)

    • MELewis · August 12

      Oh dear…if Pierre struggles with it as a native speaker, I suspect I will have very hard time! Already I was regretting having ordered the entire work as one volume — it is densely printed and didn’t give me much desire to get started.

      Glad you enjoyed the replies. They do require a little thought but I found the process fun.

  3. Darlene · August 12

    When I went to the Shakespeare and Company Café in Paris in 2018, I found the Proust Questionnaire on their paper placemats- and they are thought-provoking questions, aren’t they? (I answered them in my own blog post.) I enjoyed reading your answers. Your answer to “lowest depth of misery” made me chuckle. Thank you for sharing!

    • acflory · August 13

      Me too. 😀

    • MELewis · August 14

      Glad you enjoyed! I went and checked out your answers…love #6! Nice to catch up with your blog again. 😊

      • Darlene · August 14

        Thank you, that’s so kind of you! 😊

  4. Garfield Hug · August 13

    Love your answers – 🙂

  5. Kiki · August 13

    I knew about this for many years and answered it publicly on a friend’s blog maybe 2 yrs ago…. shall endeavour to find it and will send it to you privately (as not to make an even bigger fool of myself publicly on your blog too). So keep watching your emails.
    I liked your answers and I loved Proust’s work, but it IS bl..y hard work to read. I wouldn’t do it again.
    And, needless to say, I love your ❤️ for Switzerland 🤩🇨🇭😃

    • MELewis · August 14

      I will keep an eye out. 😉 It really is an interesting exercise to ask oneself these questions. Some of the answers are slight edited to avoid embarrassment. 😅 But my love for Switzerland is 100%! 🇨🇭

  6. Dale · August 13

    I used to love watching Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton and my favourite part was his version of the questionnaire. I loved the celebrities’ answers. Some were brilliant!
    I’ve answered some of these in the past. I think it might be time to redo it 🙂
    And I’ve put this book (en français, évidemment) on my to-read list. I thought it was there but apparently not.

    • MELewis · August 14

      Dale, I will be interested to know how you get on. It will be my goal to get through at least one volume by the end of the year. I remember that show…love that kind of intense interview. I also loved ‘In Treatment’ with Gabriel Byrne. Just being a fly on the wall as he asks them questions and they open up their emotional baggage.What a voyeur I am! 😆

      • Dale · August 14

        It was a steal as a Kindle book, so I downloaded it 😉 Actually, I think it was even his complete works. I haven’t looked yet, already having four books on the go…
        It was such a wonderful show and I was bummed when I no longer had access to it. Weirdly it moved and was not on the Canadian version of Bravo. sigh.
        I’ll have to look into that series 😉
        You and me both!

  7. acflory · August 13

    I’ve never read Proust, in English or French, and I’ve never heard of his questionnaire, but I do love your answers. 😀

    • MELewis · August 14

      Thank you, Meeks! I’d love to read yours if you ever feel inspired to answer it. 😉

      • acflory · August 14

        lol – maybe one day. 😉

  8. Vanessa in France · August 20

    I had never heard of the Proust questionnaire, but I enjoyed reading your answers. I’ve not had the courage to embark on À la recherche du temps perdu so good luck!

    • MELewis · August 22

      Thanks! Glad to have introduced you to this bit of fun. I’ll keep you posted about Proust. The few opening pages looked ‘abordable’ but I’m not convinced I’ll manage the whole thing.

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