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...
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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 closely the poetry of the Guermantes family against a background of exclusion and snobbery. At home, he witnesses the slow deterioration of his grandmother and the approach of death.
The smallest detail serves for the analysis of character. When Albertine visits Marcel in Paris, Marcel is finally able to kiss her. The kiss becomes a point of departure for reflection, a palimpsest of thought about architecture and photography and the phenomenon of knowing the human person. Oriane de Guermantes is more concerned about her red shoes than the sickness of her friend, Swann. Even though a close cousin is dying, she and her husband, Basin, will not be kept from going to an evening party. Marcel slowly learns to shed all illusions about the aristocracy as he delves beyond the brilliance of their names.
Cities of the Plain continues Proust’s voyage of discovery. Marcel becomes the spectator of the chance meeting of two homosexuals, Charlus and Jupien, the latter a servant of the Guermantes family. Proust humorously writes that the biblical angels must not have done their work very well since so many homosexuals still inhabit the earth. The Princess de Guermantes’s evening party becomes the occasion for other incursions into high society, into its mechanical forms, as well as its games of exclusion and insolence. The party allows Proust to analyze the changes threatening French aristocracy, the homosexual bents of some of its members, and to reflect upon the Dreyfus Affair.
On a second trip to Balbec with his mother, the past relives as she takes on the habits and dress of her own mother. Proust reiterates some of his psychological discoveries as he adds mother and daughter to the list of hereditary doubles: Léonie and her mother, Bloch and his father, uncle Charlus and nephew Saint-Loup. The nonaristocratic Verdurin salon members climb the social ladder and receive Charlus, who is able to direct their activities until Mme Verdurin excommunicates him from her group. Though not always enjoying the company of the bourgeoisie, Charlus manages to entertain a mercurial relationship with the young violinist Morel. The young musician just happens to be the son of the valet de chambre employed by Marcel’s uncle, Adolphe. Chance looms large in Proust’s work, for in another scene, Charlus finds his lover in the company of the Prince de Guermantes. Marcel’s own sentimental education is crowned with his decision to marry Albertine.
The Captive describes Marcel’s life with Albertine in Paris and his struggle with suspicions that she might be a lesbian. He seeks the help of the Duchesse de Guermantes, as he wants to offer Albertine dresses designed by the famous decorator Fortuny. Though the young girl of Balbec now lives with him in Paris, the robes of Fortuny would assure him that the art world of Venice is also present. That is one aspect of Proust’s writing. While one may consider it an overlay or variation of Cubist simultaneity, the writing also reveals itself to be the transformation of many artworks.
Just as Marcel finds it difficult to know Albertine, so does Morel escape the close scrutiny of Jupien’s niece, who has now become his fiancé. The niece is favored by Charlus but does not perceive his homosexual interest in Morel. Marcel realizes that, in his relations with Albertine, habit has its formative role, as it has in so much that is human. His one philosophical consolation is that he has plucked from among all the beautiful young girls of Balbec the most beautiful rose. His doubts persist, and he decides to separate himself from her, only to learn that she has already left him.
The Verdurin salon makes much progress as to the composition of its elite members. The Verdurins exclude Charlus when he tries to promote his lover Morel. Morel plays a Vinteuil composition that was transcribed by his daughter’s lover. For Marcel, this musical piece becomes a symbol of the communication of souls and witnesses indirectly to Marcel’s desire to leave himself. Art allows one to enter the world seen by another.
The Sweet Cheat Gone recounts Marcel’s suffering at the loss of Albertine. He has his friends, Bloch and Saint-Loup, look for her. The news finally arrives from her aunt, Madame Bontemps, that she has been killed in an accident, perhaps an allusion to the death of Proust’s lover Agostinelli. Marcel wonders if he had known her only in his thoughts. He sends Aimé, former headwaiter at the Balbec hotel, to gather information about Albertine’s hidden life. His suspicions are verified. Marcel leaves Paris with his mother for Venice, and the city becomes a marvelous variation of Combray. At Combray, he did not want to be separated from his mother; now he resists leaving the city with her. Once back in Paris, he continues to discover that the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah are ever present among his friends and in the salons that he visits.
In Time Regained, Marcel wonders whether he will ever begin to write and whether he will write memoirs or some form of the Arabian Tales. He notes the influence that the war has had on Paris and its inhabitants, the infidelity of friends and the loyalty of others as they play out their roles in the space granted them by time. He finally realizes that paths he thought would never meet do so in the most unexpected marriages. Time is not fugitive. It may be seized in works of art. Such works are not necessarily those that hang on the walls of museums. One’s personal experience of a copy of an artwork may bestow more value upon it than upon the original. The implicit suggestion is that reading Proust’s own work makes time stand still.