About two months ago, something like that, I learned about the Proust Questionnaire. As conceived by Marcel Proust—a writer I like, even though the only thing of his I’ve ever read is the first 50 pages of Swann’s Way—the questionnaire is supposed to tease out one’s “true nature.” Needless to say, I took it very seriously.
Maybe too seriously: writing longhand, I covered just over 44 pages in answering these questions, often arriving at my answers through exhaustive self-examination.
And then, just the other day, I was browsing a used bookstore in my neighborhood and saw Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. (Why Vanity Fair gets to take ownership of Proust’s questionnaire I don’t know.) The people featured are indeed luminescent (James Brown, Elaine May, Yoko Ono, Walter Matthau), but what kept me from buying the book was how short everybody’s answers were. And here I was, struggling for page after page to reveal my true nature to myself!
And so, with my overlong first draft complete, I offer now a condensed version of my answers to the Proust Questionnaire:
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Working at something I love, and the work is going well.
What is your greatest fear?
What is the trait you most despise in yourself?
My tendency to sarcasm.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Which living person do you most admire?
My father, for his self-reliance, my wife for her curiosity, my brother-in-law for his generosity, my daughters for their fearlessness and strength.
What is your greatest extravagance?
What is your current state of mind?
Scared shitless, with the occasional burst of optimism.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
On what occasion do you lie?
Out of convenience or to preserve my fragile self-image.
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
Not much, but it might’ve been nice to be six feet tall.
Which living person do you most despise?
Gosh, nobody comes to mind.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
When and where were you happiest?
Ten years old, living in London and then moving back to the U.S.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Mastery of a musical instrument.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would increase my tolerance of risk.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be?
Tossup: grizzly bear or humpback whale.
Where would you most like to live?
Any beach town along the Atlantic Coast, preferably one with a bit of a scene: a music venue, an art museum, a movie house.
What is your most treasured possession?
The cocktail napkin that has my wife’s phone number written on it.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
To be misunderstood.
What is your favorite occupation?
What is your most marked characteristic?
My oval-shaped face.
What do you value most in your friends?
The charity of their companionship.
Who are your favorite writers?
Me, followed by Nicholson Baker, Sue Townsend, Philip Roth, B. Traven, George Orwell, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonngeut, Jr.
Who is your hero of fiction?
Tossup: Winston Smith from 1984 or Linus Van Pelt from Peanuts.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Tossup: Ida Tarbell or Jim Morrison.
Who are your heroes in real life?
My mother and father, then maybe Ozzy Osbourne.
What are your favorite names?
Female: Lillian and Willa. Male: August and Van.
What is it that you most dislike?
Cruelty in all its forms: racism, sexism, emotional withholding, practical jokes.
What is your greatest regret?
Oh, various instances of either romantic overreach or romantic dawdling. Or those times when I was a bad friend.
How would you like to die?
Preferably at home, sometime in the mid-morning, an open window nearby, my wife holding my hand.
What is your motto?