All of his life Marcel finds it difficult to go to sleep at night. After he blows out the light, he lies quietly in the darkness and thinks of the book he had been reading, of an event in history, of some memory from the past. Sometimes he thinks of all the places in which he had slept—as a child in his great-aunt’s house in the provincial town of Combray, in Balbec on a holiday with his grandmother, in the military town where his friend, Robert de Saint-Loup, had been stationed, in Paris, in Venice during a visit there with his mother.
He remembers always one night at Combray when he was a child: Monsieur Swann, a family friend, has come to dinner. Marcel is sent to bed early, and he lays awake for hours, nervous and unhappy until at last he hears Monsieur Swann leave. Then his mother comes upstairs to comfort him. For a long time, the memory of this night remains his chief recollection of Combray, where he spent a part of every summer with his grandparents and aunts. Years later, while drinking tea with his mother, the taste of a madeleine, or small sweet cake, suddenly brings back all the impressions of his old days at Combray.
Marcel remembers the two roads. One is Swann’s way, a path that runs beside Monsieur Swann’s park, where lilacs and hawthorns bloom. The other is the Guermantes way, along the river and past the château of the duke and duchess de Guermantes, the great family of Combray. He remembers the people he sees on his walks. There are familiar figures like the doctor and the priest. There is Monsieur Vinteuil, an old composer who died brokenhearted and shamed because of his daughter’s friendship with a woman of bad reputation. There are the neighbors and friends of his grandparents. Most of all, he remembers Monsieur Swann, whose story he pieces together slowly from family conversations and village gossip.
Monsieur Swann is a wealthy Jew, accepted in rich and fashionable society. His wife is not received, however, for she is his former mistress, Odette de Crecy, a prostitute with the fair, haunting beauty of a Sandro Botticelli painting. Odette had first introduced Swann to the Verdurins, a common family that pretends to despise the polite world of the Guermantes. At an evening party given by Madame Verdurin, Swann hears a movement of Vinteuil’s sonata and identifies his hopeless passion for Odette with that lovely music.
Swann’s love is an unhappy affair. Tortured by jealousy, aware of the commonness and pettiness of the Verdurins, determined to forget his unfaithful mistress, he goes to Madame de Saint-Euverte’s reception. There he hears Vinteuil’s music again. Under its influence he decides, at whatever price, to marry Odette.
After their marriage, Swann drifts more and more into the bourgeois circle of the Verdurins. He travels alone to see his old friends in...
(The entire section is 1169 words.)