Few things ring of pretension moreso than invoking the name of one Marcel Proust. Especially since the advent of Little Miss Sunshine, the French novelist's references in pop culture have flourished (and often incorrectly). Still, those who have tackled bits of his seminal work, Ã€ la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), will know why the memory of his description of a madeline moistened by herbal tea remains an unequivocally descriptive tease for famished writers everywhere (not to mention a reminder of our literary inadequacies). Though he lived a short life (1871-1922, dying of pneumonia) Proust's "definitive" work with evolving the novel influenced many other respected and talented writers, such as Samuel Beckett, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Wolff. For the rest of us (the unwashed masses), Proust's influence has become perhaps more pervasive than we think, with a version of his "infamous" Questionnaire showing up in various forms all over our cultural landscape.
The origin of the questionnaire
By no means the inventor of the form, Proust did manage to keep its popularity alive. A typical parlor game of the Belle Epoch that was said to help delve into the true expressions and aspirations of those answering it, Proust was first introduced to a form of the questionnaire entitled "An Album to Record Thoughts, Feelings, etc" when he was merely 13 years old. By responding once at that age and again to a slightly different version at the age of 20, Proust was able to chart his own growth and change, and allow us to get a deeper understanding of the man and his preferences. A complete list of his answers to both questionnaires can be found here.
The Proust Questionnaire, as it is now called, has enjoyed three major rebirths. The first was from French television host Bernard Pivot, who used a version in the 1970's-90s at the end of his broadcast Apostrophes, (a show similar to Book TV) in the hopes of allowing writers to reveal parts of their personalities while discussing their own work.
More famously for us Americans is James Lipton's version used on Inside the Actor's Studio (where certainly the questions have never been asked with such intensity, I'm sure). A list of his condensed 10 Questions can be found here, and a very special version with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (of the UK Office and Extras) asking the questions to the indescribable Karl Pilkington is also available for free download.
Additionally, since July of 1993, Vanity Fair has published its own version of the questionnaire in its back pages as an interview piece for celebrities, questions from which can be found on this site.
Fun for the whole family
Bored on a rainy day with friends? Looking for something to journal about? Seeing whether your date is worth your time? The Proust Questionnaire is still an interesting way to get to know people better. Anyone willing to share a few of their own answers here?
Here are five questions to get you started...
1) Where would you like to live?
2) Who are your favorite characters in history?
3) Who are your heroes in real life?
4) What is it you most dislike?
5) What natural gift would you most like to possess?