Kilometre Zero Proust Questionnaire: On heroes, authors and death

Last week, on my last day in Paris after a work trip, I had one free afternoon in the city before I was due to fly home. Having spent the morning getting a hair cut I’d planned to spend the afternoon at the Institut du Monde Arabe. The idea was to walk from the 1st to the Institut as it was one of the nicer days in Paris and on my way I passed the Shakespeare and Co book store. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a queue so I stepped in for a quick look and what was meant to be a 15 minute browse became a two hour activity. Frankly, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. The new poetry wing at the back of the store houses two very, very comfortable velvet upholstered armchairs and my quick read to see which of the five extra volumes I really wanted to buy in addition to the seven I’d already bought turned out to see me past lunch time.

I left the bookstore at around half three at which point I felt slightly peckish and having left round the back till, I came out by the bookstore’s cafe. Stepped in to see what was there and amidst all the vegan muffins and 6 euro granola bars, I decided to have scones and Postcard Tea. Nothing can go wrong with clotted cream, except clotted arteries but hopefully I can offset that with a positive attitude… or something. Also love Postcard Tea. They have a shop just off new Bond Street in London and my favourite is the French Peppermint.

Anyway, as I was eating, I looked down to see ifthey had wasted paper by printing some sort of unfortunate advertisement for tray liner and what sort of product it was hawking. Instead I found this Zero Kilometre Proust Questionnaire – much better! So I took care not to get it sticky with jam or oily with crumbs or cream fat. The questionnaire was a bit much on a hungry and slightly sleepy afternoon so I pocketed it to do on the plane or when I got back.

This morning I did it with a friend of mine and we skipped a couple questions because the questions are quite broad and we were lazy, but I thought I’d write them all down here because the writing of it would mean that I’d get the chance to think a bit about all of them. So here you go. I expect though, they’re questions of this moment. Like Proust’s own answers to his questionnaire, I’m sure when I go through radical or perhaps even not so radical change, the answers will change with me so it’s nice, I think, to have them help me capture, well, me, in this slice of time.

Feel free to do yours in the comments!

1. What is your present state of mind?
Happy and calm but also slightly anxious.

2. What is your favourite way to spend your time?
Traveling, reading, thinking about the way the world has changed through clothes and retail and having chats where you really feel like you’ve exchanged souls and opened one another’s eyes.

3. If you were an animal, which one would you be?
An owl

4. What book makes you want to live in a different era?
Most of the Agatha Christie novels but probably the Poirot series more. I love anything to do with the golden age of travel when everything was being discovered and the idea of the British aristocratic country home, city townhouse life.

5. What's the craziest thing you've ever eaten?
Okra. I’ve had like sea snail sperm or whatever but I will never be able to get over the texture of okra.

6. What is your favourite journey?
I did this with a friend and we scaled the journeys to trip and plane ride. Because what is a journey anyway and specificity means you can prevent people from copping out with cliches like ‘the journey of life.’

Post school would probably have to be Zimbabwe last October which was wonderful for many many reasons, one of which was that my sister could come along with me and sunrises don’t look that way anywhere else in the world.

I also have a pre college one which was Egypt. Seems like every great journey begins on the African continent. We slept under the stars in the Sahara within the confines of our little jeep enclosure and out of them. We had spit roasted goat and chickens for dinners. I had never really seen the sky the way I saw it in the desert at night so it’s a million times unforgettable.

In terms of a plane journey it was this one time I was flying back to Hong Kong from New York and was told my entertainment set was broken. Of course it was Cathay. They gave me some pittance in apology credit, which I’ve lost and not used – it was really a rather insincere amount but it was a really fantastic opportunity for me to write and read which I did for all 12 or 16 hours of the journey. I can never remember how long flights are. This information always seems so unnecessary to store in the brain so I’m always impressed when I meet people who know exactly how long their flights are. The longer the better I say. Long haul is the best time to be alone.

7. Who is your hero in real life? Who is your hero in fiction?
Diana Vreeland. Edmond Dantes.

8. Which word or phrases do you most overuse?
Lol. What? Really? Oh

9. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
To have true and clear purpose and to never be misunderstood.

10. If you could spend the rest of your life with a character from a book, who would it be?
Maybe Matilda Wormwood? From Roald Dahl’s Matilda. This was a question I definitely ignored the first time round because it was much too difficult to choose and it still is.

11. What is your theme song?
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played by Anne Sophie Mutter. If life as I want it to be had sounds, that entire work interpreted by Mutter is it.

12. Who are your three favourite writers?
Joan Didion, Agatha Christie, Geoffrey Chaucer. This is a really difficult question because they’re not necessarily the authors of my favourite books of all time but I prefer their bodies of work over other bodies of work. Like Milan Kundera doesn’t count because I really only like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and not the rest of it, which is a bit of a pity.

13. Where in the world would you most like to live?
I’d most like to not have to live in one place all the time so I’m going to choose Cape Town, Lisbon, Paris (or London, it’s hard to make up my mind between the two) and Hong Kong.

14. On what occasion do you lie?
Marketer calls. I tell them I don’t speak Chinese and they usually hang up themselves.

15. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Soups. Any and all kinds of soup.

16. Which poem makes your spine tingle?
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night —Dylan Thomas but also Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold and The Second Coming by Yeats.

17. What is your favourite smell?
Clean babies or orange blossom water on clean hands and to have the scent wafting through cool summer breeze.

18. If you could ask the leader of your country to read one book, what would it be?
Not really a book but The Last Czars on Netflix. It’s quite new actually. Also while we’re at it HBO’s Chernobyl.

19. What's your favourite hiding place?

20. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Every time I’ve been able to let go because I’m really pretty much absolutely not someone who lets go. But also probably just having survived all the bullshit I’ve lived through to get me to where I am and not be admitted to an asylum.

21. Which book do you have on your nightstand but know you'll never read?
I don’t really have books on my nightstand but probably Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. There are so many footnotes and I hate interrupting my reading flow because I have to flip about. But it’s too bad really because I’d love to read it and it certainly seems a much better use of time than reading Joyce’s Ulysses which I’ve read cover to cover for school and basically had no feckin’ clue what it was about at any point.

22. If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?
Mind reading.

23. What was your favourite book as a child?
Every. Single. Nancy. Drew. Book.

24. Do you have a recurring dream? If so, what is it?
I never dream. I sleep soundly and deeply and could probably do so through a nuclear explosion. But I do get the very rare nightmare that really reflects the state of my life at that moment. One time I dreamt that I was in a darkened warehouse something like Costco, which is actually my heaven, but it was stacked high with rats with only a sliver of daylight right at the top of the building where they didn’t seem to have sealed it properly and it wasn’t covered with glass – so to me it was a sliver of hope, light, escape etc. Anyway, and all these rats were falling on top of me and I had to fight to the top of it or they’d drown me. That was pretty terrifying but I googled the meaning of rats in dreams and it reflected pretty well the state of where I was in my life at that moment.

25. What to you is the most beautiful word or words?
“All sorted.”

26. What's the worst book you've ever read?
Lord of the Flies - William Golding. Don’t care what anyone says. I think it’s awful.

27. Who would play you in the movie of your life?
Bette Davis. If anyone then tells me that I can’t choose her because she isn’t Chinese, I’d probably suggest they turn around, go home and think about their limited and provincial view of life and reconsider their ideas about race and humanity.

28. What is your motto?
“Fuck it.” And basically any variation on that like perhaps fuck this or fuck you. It’s actually not something that has come instinctively but what is instinctive is that I know I’ll feel better for facing things this way and so I exercise that attitude every day to make sure it’s strong and healthy.

29. What's the most romantic experience you've ever had?
A long time ago when someone I was with gave me a bowl of cereal. It was the first time he’d done it and it was less about the cereal as sort of the context and the way in which it was done. I think I wrote a piece about that moment for my university’s literary journal and it got published. That adds to the romance of it a bit, I’d like to think. And also how interesting is it that that tiny little quotidian thing made such an impact on me yet it made zero impact on him, and something that might have touched him will have been totally forgotten by me.

30. How would you like to die and in what form would you choose to come back?
I’d like to be maybe 105 because as someone, I’m told, who does everything to 150% all the time, I’d like to go beyond the 100 mark. Would preferably have never lost my faculties and am a sprightly old thing even at such a ripe old age. I’d have had a laughter-filled, raucous night with my family and friends maybe celebrating the anniversary of a book I’d written or something or other, maybe a great great grandchild’s birthday (though maybe great grandchild is good enough, wouldn’t want my progeny to have teenage pregnancies) and then drift off to night eternal softly in my sleep. I realise this is really quite the opposite attitude to my favourite poem by Dylan Thomas but I think if you’ve had a grand old time, then it’s ok to go.

And I’m not sure I’d come back. Hopefully my body of work will leave something behind that touches people and I’ll live in some kind of collective memory instead. Though sometimes I tend to look out the windows of various forms of transportation and feel real fomo that I’m sort of trapped in the era that I am and there won’t be any way for me to find out what happens next. And I’m someone who really doesn’t mind a good spoiler.