Marcel Proust, the renowned French novelist and critic, is widely considered one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. Of his vast collection of work, Proust also earned fame due to a set of questions that he established as the quickest way to reveal a person’s true character. Here, we take a look back at one of the most up close and personal interviews of David Bowie’s career as he takes on ‘Proust’s Questionnaire’.
Famously, Proust’s lasting legacy remains his epic novel À la recherche du temps perdu, a piece of work which translates in English as In Search of Lost Time. The novel, written in 1909 when Proust was 38, is split into seven volumes and totals in excess of 4,300 pages. Before his fame, however, Proust filled out an English-language questionnaire given to him by his friend and the daughter of the French President Felix Faure, Antoinette. At the time, Antoinette described the questionnaire as a “confession album”, but, in today’s tongue, it is more commonly referred to as a personality test. With basic questions, the test would lead to determine the “tastes and aspirations of the taker”.
While Proust originally answered the questions in 1890, the manuscript of his answers would not be discovered until some 30 years later, in 1924. Given his reputation, Proust’s answers would become a significant collectable item. The memorabilia was subsequently sold at auction in 2003 for an eye-watering figure of €102,000.
Such was the popularity of his answers and the form of questioning, leading members of popular culture across film, television and music, would follow the pattern in their own distinct manner. The first to do this, television host Bernard Pivot, used the Proust questionnaire to get a better reading of his celebrity guests. This pattern was later followed by James Lipton, the host of the TV program Inside the Actors Studio, who developed the questions used in Proust’s original questionnaire to interview his guests with his own unique pattern and personality.
More recently, Proust, Pivot and Lipton inspired Vanity Fair magazine to follow suit and regularly included a Proust-style question to interview popular celebrities and have its ubiquitous nature to unseat usually media-savvy interviewees. Vanity Fair’s version of the format would appear on the back page of their publication and have done so since the 1970s. Given its popularity, the magazine published the book ‘Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire’ and included a series of their favourites.
One of the subjects that appeared in the Vanity Fair archives is the great David Bowie. The singer, actor and mime artist (yes, really) had such a long and varied career that you’d imagine he would get bored of some of the more middling questions — but he doesn’t.
Throughout the questionnaire, Bowie remains not only attached and engaged but whip-smart, totally in control and completely captivating. In comparison to some of his other, more tempestuous conversations, it’s a joy to read. Whether it’s revealing his ‘greatest fear’, which he says is “converting kilometres to miles,” or sharing his most relatable historical figure (“Santa Claus“), Bowie is pure class throughout.
You can read his full set of answers below.
David Bowie answers Proust’s questionnaire:
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
What is your most marked characteristic?
“Getting a word in edgewise.”
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
What is your greatest fear?
“Converting kilometers to miles.”
What historical figure do you most identify with?
Which living person do you most admire?
Who are your heroes in real life?
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?
What is your favourite 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?
What is your greatest regret?
“That I never wore bellbottoms.”
What is your current state of mind?
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 favourite 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 favourite names?
“Sears & Roebuck.”
What is your motto?
“‘What’ is my motto.”