(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In Swann’s Way, the first volume in Remembrance of Things Past, Proust presents Marcel in bed wondering where he is, what he is reading, whether he is asleep, and finally remembering the places where he has spent his life. This scene reminds one of the meditative reflections of René Descartes, the seventeenth century philosopher. Proust then presents the reader with a more traditional plot and introduces many of the characters who will figure in the intricate work: his mother and grandmother, his father, Aunt Léonie, the maid Françoise, Charles Swann, the baron Charlus and other members of the Guermantes family, and a host of others.

The description of Combray, seen as a church, occupies a great part of Proust’s first volume. Many of the activities are presented against a background of ecclesiastical imagery. Aunt Léonie wants to know whether Mme Goupil has gotten to church on time. She awaits the visit of Eulalie, who should be able to tell her, as she spends so much time there. Léonie, a hypochondriac, fulfills her Sunday obligations by praying next to a bedside table that resembles an altar. Her nephew, Marcel, and his parents spend their time going to church and taking walks near Combray. When not walking or reading, Marcel spends his time witnessing the maid Françoise’s cruelty toward her own helper.

Swann’s own anguish and jealousy are material for Proust’s psychological insight into human relations. Swann seems to be more successful in the world of art than he is in the search for love. This quest takes him into the Verdurin salon, where love of the arts and fear of being excluded from high society are a constant concern. Once married to Odette, he realizes that she is not really his type of woman. When he contemplates her, it is to transform her into the biblical figures portrayed by the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli.

In Within a Budding Grove, Marcel continues to discover that people are not who they seem to be. He attends the theater and is disappointed with the interpretation of his favorite actress, La Berma. He realizes that the play of his imagination, the play in anticipation, gives him more pleasure.

He experiences his first love for Swann and Odette’s daughter, Gilberte. His friendship with Odette evolves into a closer relationship with the Swanns in their home, a kind of sanctuary filled with artworks. The world of art and his understanding of it continue to be marked by revelations, for it is in Odette’s salon that he hears Vinteuil’s sonata. He does not realize that Vinteuil is the music teacher whom he had known in Combray and who then had seemed quite ordinary. In the Swanns’ salon, he meets the writer Bergotte, for whom he recognizes some affinity.

A trip to Balbec, a resort town of the Normandy coast, allows Marcel to continue his appreciation of architecture and to learn the ways of the wealthy. Through the savor of cake dipped in a cup of tea, he discovers that chance often brings people together as much as it resurrects the past. He recognizes the baron Charlus, the nephew of Madame de Villeparisis, to have been Odette’s lover. Marcel also establishes ties with Charlus’s nephew, Robert de Saint-Loup, and the socially conscious Bloch family. One day, he visits the painter Elstir in his studio. Elstir talks to him of church architecture and introduces him to Albertine Simonet, whom he had known only from afar and who will later become his lover.

The action of The Guermantes Way is centered in Paris and in the military town of Doncières, where Saint-Loup is garrisoned. Marcel travels to Doncières to visit Saint-Loup in the hope that he will be introduced to Oriane de Guermantes. When he returns to Paris, he finds his grandmother gravely ill. On an excursion in the Parisian suburbs, he meets Saint-Loup’s mistress, Rachel, and discovers in her the prostitute whom he had once known in a brothel.

The spectacle of the world is played out in the receptions that Marcel attends. There, he is able to analyze more...

(The entire section is 1668 words.)