Joan Didion Answers the Proust Questionnaire
“Misery is feeling estranged from people I love. Misery is also not working. The two seem to go together.”
By Maria Popova
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 compendium of answers by such cultural icons as Jane Goodall, David Bowie, Allen Ginsberg, Hedy Lamarr, Gore Vidal, and Julia Child.
Unsurprisingly, some of the most wonderful answers come from 69-year-old Joan Didion — a woman who has endured more personal tragedy than most and has written about it with great dignity and grace, extracting from her experience wisdom on such subtle and monumental aspects of existence as grief, self-respect, keeping a notebook.
Didion’s answers are particularly poignant for their timing — she answered The Proust Questionnaire in October of 2003, several weeks before her husband died of a heart attack while her only daughter lay comatose in the ICU; though Didion’s daughter did recover from the coma, acute pancreatitis took her life eighteen months later.
What is your greatest fear?
I have an irrational fear of snakes. When my husband and I moved to a part of Los Angeles County with many rattlesnakes, I tried to desensitize myself by driving every day to a place called Hermosa Reptile Import-Export and forcing myself to watch the anacondas. This seemed to work, but a few years later, when we were living in Malibu and I had a Corvette, a king snake (a “good” snake, not poisonous, by no means anaconda-like) dropped from a garage rafter into my car. My daughter, then four, brought it to show me. I am ashamed to say I ran away. I still think about what would have happened had I driven to the market and noticed my passenger, the snake, on the Pacific Coast Highway.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
I find “speaking one’s mind” pretty overrated, in that it usually turns out to be a way of aggrandizing the speaker at the expense of the helpless listener.
What is your favorite journey?
A long time ago, before they showed movies on airplanes and decided to make you close the blinds, I used to love flying west and watching the country open up, the checkerboarded farms of the Midwest giving way to the vast stretches of nothing. I also loved flying over the Pole from Europe to Los Angeles during the day, when you could see ice floes and islands s in the sea change almost imperceptibly to lakes in the land. This shift in perception was very thrilling to me.
On what occasion do you lie?
I probably lie constantly, if the definition of lying includes white lies, social lies, lies to ease a situation or make someone feel better. My mother was incapable of lying. I remember her driving into a blinding storm to vote for an acquaintance in an S.P.C.A. election. “I told Dorothy I would,” she said when I tried to dissuade her. “How will Dorothy know?” I asked. “That’s not the point,” my mother said. I’m sorry to report that this was amazing to me.
What do you dislike most about your appearance?
For a while there I disliked being short, but I got used to it. Which is not to say I wouldn’t have preferred to be five-ten and get sent clothes by designers.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Most people who write find themselves overusing certain words or constructions (if they worked once, they get hardwired), so much so that a real part of the exercise is getting those repetitions out.
When and where were you happiest?
Once, in a novel, Democracy, I had the main character, Inez Victor, consider this very question, which was hard for her. She drinks her coffee, she smokes a cigarette, she thinks it over, she comes to a conclusion: “In retrospect she seemed to have been most happy in borrowed houses, and at lunch. She recalled being extremely happy eating lunch by herself in a hotel room in Chicago, once when snow was drifting on the window ledges. There was a lunch in Paris that she remembered in detail: a late lunch with Harry and the twins at Pré Catelan in the rain.” These lunches and borrowed houses didn’t come from nowhere.
What talent would you most like to have?
I long to be fluent in languages other than English. I am resigned to the fact that this will not happen. A lot of things get in the way, not least a stubborn fear of losing my only real asset since childhood, the ability to put English sentences together.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’m afraid that “one thing” would just lead to another thing, making this a question only the truly greedy would try to answer.
What is your most treasured possession?
I treasure things my daughter has given me, for example (I think of this because it is always on my desk), a picture book called Baby Animals and Their Mothers.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Misery is feeling estranged from people I love. Misery is also not working. The two seem to go together.
Where would you like to live?
I want to live somewhere else every month or so. Right now I would like to be living on Kailua Beach, on the windward side of Oahu. Around November, I’m quite sure I will want to be living in Paris, preferably in the Hotel Bristol. I like hotels a lot. When we were living in houses in Los Angeles I used to make charts showing how we could save money by living in a bungalow in Bel-Air, but my husband never bought it.
What is your favorite occupation?
I like making gumbo. I like gardening. I like writing, at least when it’s going well, maybe because it seems to be exactly as tactile a thing to do as making gumbo or gardening.
What is your most marked characteristic?
If I listened to other people, I would think my most marked characteristic was being thin. What strikes me about myself, however, is not my thinness but a certain remoteness. I tune out a lot.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Axel Heyst in Joseph Conrad’s Victory has always attracted me as a character. Standing out on that dock in, I think (I may be wrong, because I have no memory), Sumatra. His great venture, the Tropical Belt Coal Company, gone to ruin behind him. And then he does something so impossibly brave that he can only be doing it because he has passed entirely beyond concern for himself.
Sample Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire further with answers from Jane Goodall and David Bowie, complement it with LIFE magazine’s similarly-spirited compendium of wisdom from cultural icons The Meaning of Life, then revisit Didion’s remarkable meditation on grief.
Published October 2, 2014