Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Marcel Proust’

10 JULY, 2014

David Bowie Answers the Famous Proust Questionnaire

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“Q: What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? A: Living in fear.”

In the 1880s, long before he claimed his status as one of the greatest authors of all time, teenage Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922) filled out an English-language questionnaire given to him by his friend Antoinette, the daughter of France’s then-president, as part of her “confession album” — a Victorian version of today’s popular personality tests, designed to reveal the answerer’s tastes, aspirations, and sensibility in a series of simple questions. Proust’s original manuscript, titled “by Marcel Proust himself,” wasn’t discovered until 1924, two years after his death. Decades later, the French television host Bernard Pivot, whose work inspired James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, saw in the questionnaire an excellent lubricant for his interviews and began administering it to his guests in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1993, Vanity Fair resurrected the tradition and started publishing various public figures’ answers to the Proust Questionnaire on the last page of each issue.

In 2009, the magazine released Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life (public library) — a charming compendium featuring answers by such cultural icons as Jane Goodall, Allen Ginsberg, Hedy Lamarr, Gore Vidal, Julia Child, and Joan Didion. Among the most wonderful answers, equal parts playful and profound, are those by David Bowie — himself a vocal lover of literature — published in the magazine in August of 1998.

Portrait of David Bowie by Robert Risko for Vanity Fair

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Reading.

What is your most marked characteristic?
Getting a word in edgewise.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Discovering morning.

What is your greatest fear?
Converting kilometers to miles.

What historical figure do you most identify with?
Santa Claus.

Which living person do you most admire?
Elvis.

Who are your heroes in real life?
The consumer.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
While in New York, tolerance.
Outside New York, intolerance.

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

What is your favorite journey?
The road of artistic excess.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Sympathy and originality.

Which word or phrases do you most overuse?
“Chthonic,” “miasma.”

What is your greatest regret?
That I never wore bellbottoms.

What is your current state of mind?
Pregnant.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
My fear of them (wife and son excluded).

What is your most treasured possession?
A photograph held together by cellophane tape of Little Richard that I bought in 1958, and a pressed and dried chrysanthemum picked on my honeymoon in Kyoto.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Living in fear.

Where would you like to live?
Northeast Bali or south Java.

What is your favorite occupation?
Squishing paint on a senseless canvas.

What is the quality you most like in a man?
The ability to return books.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
The ability to burp on command.

What are your favorite names?
Sears & Roebuck.

What is your motto?
“What” is my motto.

Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire is a treat in its colorful totality. For a similar compendium of wisdom from cultural icons, see LIFE Magazine’s 1991 volume The Meaning of Life, then revisit Bowie’s 75 must-read books.

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14 NOVEMBER, 2013

Moleskine Celebrates 100 Years of Swann’s Way: Illustrated Portraits of Ira Glass, Rick Moody, and Others Reading Proust

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In search of lost time in pen and ink.

“Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life,” Marcel Proust wrote in Swann’s Way (public library; free ebook) — the first volume of his legendary magnum opus In Search of Lost Time — published on November 14, 1913. A city-wide “nomadic reading” by the French Embassy in New York is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Swann’s Way with appearances by such beloved luminaries as This American Life’s Ira Glass, author Rick Moody, Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, and NYPL’s Paul Holdengräber, and the fine folks at Moleskine, who brought us the wonderful Moleskine Detour, invited students and alumni from the Illustration as Visual Essay MFA program at the School of Visual Arts to live-illustrate each of the readings — a pairing particularly apt given Proust himself was a semi-secret illustrator.

Proust Nomadic Reading, sketch by Cun Shi

Marcel Proust by Mark Bischel

Here are some favorites from the live series:

Ira Glass reads Proust, sketch by Maelle Doliveux

Ira Glass reads Proust, sketch by Carol Fabricatore

Rick Moody reads Proust, sketch by Lauren Simkin Berke

Dominique Ansel reads Proust's 'The Cookie,' sketch by Jade Shulz

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

McNally-Jackson owner Sarah McNally reads Proust, sketch by Maelle Doliveux

Ron Chernow reads Proust, sketch by Lisha Jiang

Paul Holdengräber reads Proust, sketch by Doug Salati

Judith Thurman reads Proust, sketch by Carol Fabricatore

Jonathan Galassi reads Proust, sketch by Maelle Doliveux

Lorin Stein reads Proust, sketch by Doug Salati

Julian Tepper reads Proust, sketch by Lauren Simkin Berke

Proust's original notebook of writings and sketches, 1909

Pair with Proust’s previously unknown illustrated poems — a fine addition to famous creator’s secret obsessions and little-known talents — then peek inside the Moleskine sketchbooks of celebrated artists.

Images courtesy of Moleskine

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26 APRIL, 2013

Proust’s Previously Unknown Illustrated Poems

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“As you read the poems, the lapidary wall of Great Writer dissolves and the person expands horizontally.”

In recent decades, literary history has unearthed previously unknown — and, often, unexpected — poems by such prose icons as Vonnegut, Bradbury, Joyce, and Twain. But even those most deeply acquainted with his work might be surprised that between the ages of seventeen and fifty, Marcel Proust — master of tormented prose, weaver of breathless sentences, sickly eccentric — penned a number of poems, mostly scribbled in his journals and in letters to his correspondents. A newly released dual-language edition of The Collected Poems (public library), with parallel text in French and English, features Proust’s poems never previously translated into English or published in book form at all. Affectionate, witty, often lascivious, frequently full of longing, these unexpected verses reveal a side of Proust that is at once utterly new and all the more intimately familiar.

Harold Augenbraum, founder of the Proust Society of America and editor of the collection, writes in the introduction:

[The poems] show a different side of Proust from the Great Writer to whom we have become accustomed and inured: at various times intimate, vulgar, gay, Proust as Wicked Little Imp, master of the affectionate barb. Knowing this Proust only enhances our appreciation of the novel. As you read the poems, the lapidary wall of Great Writer dissolves and the person expands horizontally, while at the same time the importance of friendship draws out a consistent beauty of form and language, full of sentiment without sentimentality.

At various times they are sexed-up, dreamy, artsy, catty, and loving. They are always observant, insightful, and delightful.

And delightful, indeed, they are. A number of them explore Proust’s experience of place and belonging, and three of those included in the collection feature his hand-drawn illustrations:

Proust's drawing that accompanied Poem 36, sent to Reynaldo Hahn from Dordrecht

#36 DORDRECHT

Your sky always slightly
blue
Morning often slightly
wet

Lovely Dordrecht
Tomb
Of my precious illusions

When I try to draw
Your canals, your roofs, your steeple
I feel I could love
A homeland

Still sun and church bells
Dry out quickly
For high mass, also brioches
And gleaming steeple

Your sky
So often wet,
But always underneath
A bit stays blue.

Proust's drawing that accompanied Poem 37, sent to Reynaldo Hahn from Dordrecht

#37 DORDRECHT

A baker in the square
Where nothing stirs but a pigeon
Reflections in an icy blue canal —
A great red mould,
A barge slipping forward, disturbing
A waterlily, sunlight
In the baker’s mirror flitting over a red currant
Tart,
Scaring hell out of a feasting fly.
At the end of the mass, here comes everybody — alleluia,
Holy Mother of Angels
Come, let’s take a boat ride on the canal
After a little nap.

Proust's drawing that accompanied Poem 58

#58

Little project of sweet stained glass
To make it was a pain in the ass
On the left are Félicie and Marie
Who wash clothes and complain incessantly.
On the right Buninuls cannot open Legras powder
And Binchdinuls comes for alumsinum
Buninuls helps by knee and arms
Binchdinuls is divided by a gothic column
Everything here to show Binchdinuls what day it is
Not a day goes by without sending a little inscripartus.

Echoing neurologist Oliver Sacks’s provocative wisdom on influence and the necessary forgettings of creativity and Twain’s assertion that all creativity is “second-hand,” Augenbraum notes:

The very bookish Marcel Proust was above all a reader, a logophile who imbibed literature to such an extent that one imagines by the time he reached adulthood he no longer knew where the memory of Baudelaire’s work ended and the vision of his own poetry began. Tone wells up from the deeply digested works of precursors.

And yet The Collected Poems are somehow uniquely Proustian — dreamy, ambivalent, sensitive, and invariably, intoxicatingly restless.

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