UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – The Proust questionnaire

Marcel Proust, a French novelist, essayist, and critic from the early twentieth century, is probably best known for his iconic, massive novel Remembrance of Things Past. The book follows the narrator’s recollection of childhood and his transition into adulthood, pondering the loss of time and the eternal search for meaning. In contemporary times, Proust may be better known for popularizing a common parlor game of the Victorian Age called the confession album, where players answer a series of questions designed to reveal a person’s true nature.

Versions of the questions are now known as the Proust Questionnaire, and they are often used by interviewers. The most well-known example today is probably the profiles featured on the back page of Vanity Fair magazine where celebrities answer variations of the original questionnaire. I’ve always enjoyed reading this feature, and I’ve often used parts of the Proust Questionnaire in my classes. Yet, while I’ve pondered the questions when I read profiles of others, I’ve never taken the time to literally record my thoughts. Until now.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?  A quiet Sunday morning with the sun just coming up, a cup of rich dark roast coffee with a splash of heavy cream, a slice of homemade strawberry rhubarb pie, and some cool piano jazz in the background to accompany it all.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Those times I lack kindness and empathy 

What is the trait you most deplore in others? A lack of kindness and empathy 

Which living person do you most admire? My children are two of the most impressive people I have ever known, and I have endless admiration for how they live their lives. They are both more mature adults at the age of eighteen than I was in my mid-twenties. I’m in awe of their kindness, confidence, compassion, knowledge, talents, and genuine good nature.  

What is your greatest extravagance? I never mind paying top prices for exquisite dining, and I also enjoy quality bourbon.

What is your current state of mind? Contentment and joy for how my life is now mixed with subtle but anxious ambition for what comes next

Which living person do you most despise?  An old friend of mine once had a bumper sticker on his car that said simply, “Mean People Suck.” I agree with that sentiment.

When and where were you happiest?  Summers in Keystone with the family

Which talent would you most like to have? To be a really smooth jazz piano player and musician

What do you consider your greatest achievement?  My teaching career 

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?  Honestly, I’d like to try this one again. 

Where would you most like to live?  As my wife and I think of what comes next, we’re tossing a few ideas around. The south of France and northern Italy appeal to us, so the town of Genoa on the border might be the perfect compromise. I am also quite interested in the town of Alton, England, where Jane Austen lived and wrote. Interestingly, I grew up in Alton, Illinois, and never knew of the British counterpart.

Who are your favorite writers? I enjoy columnists like Mike Royko, David Brooks, Robert Fulghum, and I think Mark Kiszla is one of the best sports writers out there.  

Who is your hero of fiction? Oh, it has to be Huckleberry Finn. 

What is it that you most dislike? As a member of Generation X, I think collectively we most dislike inauthenticity and phoniness. 

What is your greatest regret? I believe if we are satisfied with our lives then we should have no regrets about the ups and downs that got us here. However, I was just telling my wife the other night that I wish I’d seen more concerts and shows in my youth. On a more personal level, I do regret any and all the times I’ve senselessly hurt others. 

What is your motto? I like Henry Thoreau’s reason for going to Walden – “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”

Self reflection and self examination are valuable parts of the human experience, and it’s helpful to occasionally take the time to think about what we really feel and believe. So, if you have the chance, perhaps sit down with the Proust Questionnaire and record your own “remembrances of things past.”

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com