Proust Questionnaire Number One

Marcel Proust filled out the questionnaire twice. The first time was in either 1885 or 1886 in an English confessions album. The second time was in either 1891 or 1892 in the French album Les confidences de salon. There are some questions unique to both questionnaires and the wording is slightly different in both questionnaires.

To start this exercise (perhaps in futility) I will share one of my favorite Marcel Proust quotes, pose the questions both ways and share Proust’s answers to the questionnaire in Confidences.

Marcel Proust quote:
“Love is a reciprocal torture.”

Confessions Question:
Your favorite heroes in fiction.

Confidences Question:
My heroes in fiction.

Proust’s Confidences’ Answer

To remain true to the 19th century spirit of this question I am going to only consider literary characters and not fictional movie or television characters. Although it is really hard not to pick a fictional character like Glenn Beck. That character is hilarious! Brilliant parody of paranoid, right wing nut job! He has to be playing a character, right? Nobody with half a working brain could truly let loose the things that fall out of that guy’s mouth.

The label “elitist” has falsely been placed upon me many a time. I do not consider myself an elitist just because compared to some of my other fellow members of the human race I actually have standards.

Teresa knows not to ask me for Nicholas Sparks novels for Christmas. In fact, when my Mom and I went Christmas shopping for Teresa last year and she picked up a Nicholas Sparks book for Teresa I refused to let it be placed near the same bag as a book that I had picked up. It also had to ride in the trunk the whole way back from Des Moines. I’m not sharing any of the car cabin space with anything that guy put to print.

My reputation is great enough that when Elainie put the Twilight books on her Christmas list this year Teresa asked me if she should bother copying that over to my Christmas list book. (Teresa makes books that contain everybody’s Christmas list so that it easier to carry with you when you go Christmas shopping.)

I told her that Elainie is a teenage girl. It is acceptable for her to be reading such trash. But I would hope that she would aim higher in her literary pursuits in the future. Of course, there is no way that Elainie will be getting those books from me. My skin burns when I touch reading material that is beneath me. Even if I’m only buying it for somebody else. It is an allergic reaction that can’t be helped.

Despite my standing as the family literary snob, I actually have read very few fiction books this year. In fact, I don’t even think I’ve cracked open a book by either of my favorite authors: J.D. Salinger or Nathanael West.

The fact I have read so few fiction books makes it rather easy to answer this question. My favorite fictional hero that I met this year is the title character from Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome.

According to the back cover of my Dover Thrift Edition of Ethan Frome, Ethan is:

Burdened by poverty and spiritually dulled by a loveless marriage to an older woman, Frome is emotionally stirred by the arrival of a youthful cousin who is employed as household help. Mattie’s presence not only brightens a gloomy house but stirs long-dormant feelings in Ethan. Their growing love for one another, discovered by an embittered wife, presages an ending to this grim tale that is both shocking and savagely ironic.

Since I doubt anybody will rush out to read this small book, I will just let you know why this book and character stuck with me, even though it will ruin the shocking and savagely ironic ending somewhat.

Ethan is stuck in a loveless marriage. He is in love with his wife’s cousin Mattie and Mattie loves him back. But he is paralyzed by the times he lives in and a mountain of debt and his personal code of morality. One of my favorite paragraphs exhibits the paralysis that has stricken Ethan.

Ethan had imagined that his allusion might open the way to the accepted pleasantries, and these perhaps in turn to a harmless caress, if only a mere touch on the hand. But now he felt as if her blush had set a flaming guard about her. He supposed it was his natural awkwardness that made him feel so. He knew that most young men made nothing at all of giving a pretty girl a kiss, and he remembered the night before, when he had put his arm about Mattie, she had not resisted. But that had been out-of-doors, under the open irresponsible night. Now, in the warm lamplit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable.

Because Ethan and Mattie can’t be together in life, they decide to be together in death. They make a suicide pact where they sled down a hill together into a large elm tree.

Her pleadings still came to him between short sobs, but he no longer heard what she was saying. Her hat had slipped back and he was stroking her hair. He wanted to get the feeling of it into his hand, so that it would sleep there like a seed in winter. Once he found her mouth again, and they seemed to be by the pond together in the burning August sun. But his cheek touched hers, and it was cold and full of weeping, and he saw the road to the Flats under the night and heard the whistle of the train up the line.

The spruces swathed them in blackness and silence. They might have been in their coffins underground. He said to himself: “Perhaps it’ll feel like this. . .” and then again: “After this I sha’n’t feel anything. . .”

The sledding accident doesn’t kill Ethan or Mattie. They are both crippled and Mattie’s sweet disposition turns sour. Ethan spends the rest of his life with the wife that he despises and with a woman that is but a shadow of the woman that he loves.

It is a bitter life, but Ethan continues on every day with a daily reminder of his shattered dreams of happiness.

2 thoughts on “Proust Questionnaire Number One”

  1. Hmm. I have a few different favorite characters (whether they are heroes or anti-heroes is somewhat debatable).

    Favorite hero – Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. She's everything a lady should be.

    Favorite (kind of) anti-hero – Seymour Glass in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by Salinger. He's not a traditional character, in that he makes a horrible, devastating decision. However, he looks at life with a child's innocence.

  2. Actually on the questionnaire there is a separate question for favorite heroines in fiction. I don't think I read a fictional female character that I really liked this year.

    Elizabeth Bennet is a great character. Too bad she spells the last name wrong!

    Of course any Salinger character is a great character. I wonder if they will release all of his writings when he dies.

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