June 24, 2014

Revelations from Proust’s questionnaire


The questionnaire Marcel Proust filled out in 1886. He filled out another in 1890.

The questionnaire Marcel Proust filled out in 1886. He filled out another in 1890.

In the mid-nineteenth century, filling out confession albums was a popular pastime in English households and French salons. In 1886, at age 14, Marcel Proust filled out answers to an album, titled An Album to Record Thoughts, Feelings, etc. The manuscript to these answers, as posted by Open Culture, was found in 1924 and auctioned off in 2003 for nearly $130,000.

In general the questions in such albums are simple, intended to chronicle personality traits, courtship expectations, and bourgeois lifestyles. But Proust’s answers to them, as shown in the second questionnaire he filled out in 1890, in a French one titled Les confidences de salon, are thoughtful and, as expected, depressively earnest:

The principal aspect of my personality
The need to be loved; more precisely, the need to be caressed and spoiled much more than the need to be admired.

My chief characteristic

My dream of happiness
I am afraid it be not great enough, I dare not speak it, I am afraid of destroying it by speaking it.

The country where I should like to live
A country where certain things that I should like would come true as though by magic, and where tenderness would always be reciprocated.

My motto
I should be too afraid that it bring me misfortune.

Confession albums became passé at the turn of the century, but the questions themselves, useful in interview format, were appropriated by Bernard Pivot to bring out secrets, albeit on the shallower end, of the day’s luminaries. Today, they have been revitalized by James Lipton and his actor guests, Asymptote journal and its translators, and Vanity Fair and its celebrities (and where you can also take a stab at the questionnaire yourself). As Graydon Carter sees it, this glib, rapid-fire question-and-answer session can illuminate an inner truth, “a thing or two about human nature.”

Maybe. But I confess that I was surprised to reach perfect happiness when reading three interviews in the latter’s incarnation: Pelé (“What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? I keep wishing I could still play soccer!”), Margaret Atwood (“If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be? A raven”), and Norman Mailer, with two of his best replies below:

What is your greatest fear?
That I will never meet Michiko Kakutani and so not be able to tell her what I think of her. She has an unseemly haste to rush into print with the first very bad review of any book I write. She does this ahead of publication. That is a strategy. If the first review of a book is dreadful, an author needs at least three good ones to change that first impression.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
It is not easy to construct a complex sentence without using “that.”

That, certainly, is truth.


Wah-Ming Chang is the managing editor of Melville House.