The Next Chapter·Proust Questionnaire

Randy Boyagoda is focused on being the best Randy Boyagoda he can be

The Canadian author and academic takes our version of the Proust Questionnaire.

'My idea of perfect happiness is to accept that there is no such thing in this life as perfect happiness.'

Randy Boyagoda is an author, academic and columnist. (CBC)

Randy Boyagoda is a Canadian literary critic, novelist and English professor at the University of Toronto. He is also a The Next Chapter columnist where he talks to Shelagh Rogers about literature in Canada and beyond. His books include Governor of the Northern Province, a longlist selection of the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and Original Prin, published in 2018.

His new novel, Dante's Indiana, is a follow-up to Original Prin. Middle-aged and living on his own despite being married, Prin is desperate for money and purpose. He moves to a small town in Indiana to work for an evangelical millionaire who's building a Dante's Inferno-inspired theme park. Soon, he becomes involved in the lives of his co-workers and their opioid ravaged community while trying to reconcile with his distant wife and distant God. 

Boyagoda stopped by The Next Chapter to take its version of the Proust questionnaire. 

Name your favourite writers.

I think the right answer to the question of my favourite writer, right now, would be Dante Alighieri. I have spent the past five years reading a canto a day of The Divine Comedy.

And a lot of that has to do with my wanting to see the world through Dante's vision, to tell this story that I'm telling of my new novel, Dante's Indiana. But well beyond that, I have come to inhabit Dante's sense of the world — of all of the possibilities and the risks involved in being someone who's lost and seeking a way forward, in being someone guiding someone who's lost and being someone concerned about others and sending help for them. 

In all those ways, Dante has become part of my daily life and very happily so. 

Tell me about your favourite character in fiction. 

My favourite character in fiction is Belacqua. He is a very, very minor character, one of 500, in Dante's Divine Comedy.

Early in the second segment of the poem Purgatory, Dante runs into his old buddy Belacqua. Dante sees him in purgatory at the foot of the mountain, kind of sitting against a boulder, and he's very happy to see him. And he says, "Belacqua, what are you doing? Why aren't you going up the mountain?" And Belacqua shrugs. And then Dante remembers that he was a famously lazy person in life, and he's just as lazy in the afterlife.

That sense of continuity of our personhood and of our identity that Dante conveys with that one very minor character, I just find moves beyond fiction into something very true about life in literature.

I find that incredibly appealing: a character who is lazy in life and lazy in the afterlife — and that who we are in our ordinary mortal lives is who we will be in a lot of ways in our ultimate and eternal lives. That sense of continuity of our personhood and of our identity that Dante conveys with that one very minor character, I just find moves beyond fiction into something very true about life in literature. 

What phrase do you most overuse? 

Well, I know the phrase that I overuse because it's the phrase my daughters most overuse and I enjoy them by saying it back to them all the time. And it's, "Wait, what?"

On what occasions do you lie?

I often lie when my mother asks me if I biked to work through downtown Toronto. My mother is convinced that, for cyclists in this city, they have to negotiate an apocalyptic hellscape of raging drivers trying to knock down innocent, beautiful sons on their bikes. And so I have to alleviate that concern by avoiding it, by lying when she asks me if I biked to work. 

What is your favourite occupation? 

I would say my favourite preoccupation is the early evening with my family. Everyone is together. We're planning dinner. And yes, there's a little bit of chaos, but in that chaos is joy. And I think one of my abiding preoccupations is to get to that moment and to stay and be fully present in that moment in the house with four children and a dog to discern and live out the joy in that moment. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

My idea of perfect happiness is to accept that there is no such thing in this life as perfect happiness, and the effort to achieve it ends up disappointing yourself and probably the people around you.

My greatest regrets are small regrets.

What is your greatest regret? 

My greatest regrets are small regrets. The girl I made fun of in Grade 2, because she'd had an accident in class. Thirty-eight years later, I still regret making fun of that girl. That is a regret, but it's one among many — the ordinary, shabby ways that I have treated other people, when I know and I'm called to do better and I don't. Those are my greatest regrets. 

What is your greatest fear? 

My greatest fear is that I will not live out the life that I am called to, given the many gifts that I have been granted.

What is your greatest achievement?

So far? Living out the life that I have been called to, with the gifts that I have been granted.

Randy Boyagoda's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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