Tuesday, April 3, 2007


The March 19 New Yorker includes "Lucky Alan," a terrific short story by David Lethem. The story recounts the events of a friendship between two men who start out as more or less chance acquaintances on the Upper East side and grow to be friends. They both enjoy going to the movies, and at one point in the story the narrator's friend brings a copy of Max Frisch's Sketchbook 1966-1971 to their after-movie meeting at a wine bar.

If you don't know this book, it's a sort of treasure. It's a commonplace book of sorts, containing a number of reflections, notes, impressions of travel, and recollections of Frisch's meetings with other writers of his time. But the most remarkable feature of the book, and the one which figures as a plot element in Lethem's story, is the provocative questionnaires that Frisch includes, like this one:

1. Are you really interested in the preservation of the human race once you and all the people you know are no longer alive?

2. State briefly why.

3. How many of your children do not owe their existence to deliberate intention?

4. Whom would you rather never have met?

5. Are you conscious of being in the wrong in relation to some other person (who need not necessarily be aware of it)? If so, does this make you hate yourself - or the other person?

6. Would you like to have perfect memory?

7. Give the name of a politician whose death through illness, accident, etc. would fill you with hope. Or do you consider none of them indispensible?

8. Which person or persons, now dead, would you like to see again?

9. Which not?

10. Would you rather have belonged to a different nation (or civilization)? If so, which?

11. To what age do you wish to live?

12. If you had the power to put into effect things you consider right, would you do so against the wishes of the majority? (Yes or no)

13. Why not, if you think they are right?

14. Which do you find it easier to hate, a group or an individual? And do you prefer to hate individually or as part of a group?

15. When did you stop believing you could become wiser - or do you still believe it? Give your age.

16. Are you convinced by your own self-criticism?

17. What in your opinion do others dislike about you, and what do you dislike about yourself? If not the same thing, which do you find it easier to excuse?

18. Do you find the thought that you might never have been born (if it ever occurs to you) disturbing?

19. When you think of someone dead, would you like him to speak to you, or would you rather say something more to him?

20. Do you love anybody?

21. How do you know?

22. Let us assume that you have never killed another human being. How do you account for it?

23. What do you need in order to be happy?

24. What are you grateful for?

25. Which would you rather do: die or live on as a healthy animal? Which animal?
There are nine questionnaires in all spread throughout the book, each consisting of 25 questions on a particular theme: marriage, sexuality, hope, humor, cash, friendship, home, property. Lethem uses this particular questionnaire as a framing device to deliver a story-within-a-story in which one of the characters provides an elaborated answer to the question "Are you conscious of being in the wrong in relation to some other person (who need not necessarily be aware of it)? If so, does this make you hate yourself - or the other person?" There's an interview with Jonathan Lethem about this story at the New Yorker site as well, in which he talks, among other things, about the origins of the story in his own reading and experience:

I haven’t read much of Frisch, but I began browsing through those questions a lot after—yes, as in the story—a friend pulled out a photocopy of them in a wine bar and began posing them to me. Blondy and Zwelish began to take form shortly after that. They’re recognizable to me as another variation on a kind of archetypal pair I love to write about, as well as discover in other people’s art works: the corrupt but magnanimous teacher and the idealistic but priggish pupil, bound together in some kind of rivalrous love-hate obsession.

In the spirit of the questionnaire, I'd like to toss out ten questions that pick up on the teacher-student dynamics to which Lethem refers. I invite you to add you own as comments below, as many as you like, and I'll roll them up at some point and present them as a list. Alternatively, you may wish to attempt an answer to any of the questions above, or below.

1. Which student would you most like to meet up with again? Why?

2. Which teacher?

3. What do you hope that your students have learned from you?

4. Is there any reason to believe they have done so? How do you know?

5. Which teacher did you learn the most from?

6. What was it that you learned?

7. What's the worst experience you ever had as a teacher or a student?

8. If you were provided with time, money, and instruction to become expert in one area, which area would you choose, and why?

9. What would your students say is your greatest weakness as a teacher?

10. What compromises are you ultimately unwilling to make? (Where do you draw the line?)


Mark Hanington said...

If you had to choose to be either a teacher or a learner (ignore the impossibility of the hyphothesis) which would you choose to be and why?

Bruce Schauble said...

Note: Sarah Puglisi has taken a shot at answering all of these questions on her own blog...