À la recherche du temps perdu is not in the first place a novel about time and memory as is often said (although these are very important, too, in its pages), but rather about the power of art. It is only art that can recapture the lost - only art triumphs over the destructive power of time - and that is the very thing Proust sets out to demonstrate by writing his novel. Proust had picked up this important idea about the transformative power of art from the influential and eminent English art critic John Ruskin, several of whose works he had translated into French.
Already in "Combray," the first part of the novel, the narrator desires to become a writer and he in fact gives an example of how he transforms one of the family's usual walks (where he experiences a sort of epiphany on seeing the bell towers of a neighboring village) into a short descriptive literary passage. Art is created by taking the experiences of life and transforming them by our inner consciousness. Besides this, throughout the whole novel, writing, painting, and music are discussed at great length. À la recherche du temps perdu is saturated with art.
The narrator's subject is his own story and the narrative perspective that of "lived time," therefore memory also plays a large role - we first have to recall our past experiences before we can transform them into art.
Du côté de chez Swann is divided into four parts: "Combray I," "Combray II," "Un Amour de Swann," and "Noms de pays: le nom."
"Combray I" starts with "For a long time I used to go to bed early" and the famous goodnight kiss scene: as a boy, the narrator can not sleep if his mother does not first come up to his bedroom to give him a goodnight kiss - a situation where the boy clearly manipulates the love of the mother - and the manipulation of love will be an important theme in the whole novel. This part ends with the famous madeleine episode, introducing the theme of "involuntary memory." A madeleine is a shell-shaped sponge cake, and when the narrator later in life happens to eat such a cake, and dip it in his tea, he realizes this forms a forgotten memory of his life in Combray - a memory that brings back a whole conglomerate of other memories he had forgotten:
"And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness."
As his memories of Combray have been reactivated by the madeleine, "Combray II" can now introduce the intimate world of the narrator and his family, as well as various family friends. We also read about the "two ways" (two fixed walks he often took with his father and mother): the way along the estate owned by Swann, a rich dilettante, where beautiful hawthorns blossom (and "Swann's Way" has become the title of the whole novel), and the way along the estate of the Guermantes, the top aristocratic family in Combray, a beautiful river scenery with water lilies. These two walks symbolize the separate bourgeois and aristocratic worlds, which will be united at the end of the last volume of A la recherche.
The Combray chapters take place between 1883 and 1892 (the narrator was born in 1878). This chronology, by the way, is not given by Proust, who keeps it on purpose vague.
Part Three, "Un Amour de Swann," is about the wealthy Jewish art lover Charles Swann, his infatuation with a woman from the demi-monde, Odette de Crécy, and the Verdurin circle to which Odette belongs. Swann is an elegant man with strong ties to high society, including the Guermantes family, but his love for the high-class prostitute Odette means that they both are excluded from that society. Odette plays a game of hide and seek with Swann and he is tormented by jealousy, for good reasons, as he will discover. This part takes place before the narrator is born, in 1877-78. It is the only part of the novel that the narrator did not experience himself but has from hearsay.
What does Swann see in Odette? She is described as neither very charming nor intelligent, and not even Swann's "type." It is art which does the trick again: Swann falls in love with her after he realizes her face resembles that of Jethra's daughter Zipporah in the famous painting Trials of Moses by Botticelli in the Sistine Chapel in Rome (see picture below). And it is music that forges the bond between them - when they first meet in the salon of Mme Verdurin, an andante from a violin sonata is played and that becomes their "love theme" (called "the little phrase"). The composer is the fictional Vinteuil, one of the characters in the novel, but Proust is probably thinking about real music here: the adagio from the first sonata for violin and piano, op. 75, by Saint-Saens.
Swann, who throws away his life for a love not really worth the sacrifice, and who never manages to finish the study he is writing about the painter Vermeer - and thus floats aimlessly through life - is a negative contrast to the narrator, who in the end will find his true destiny.
As "Un Amour de Swann" forms a self-contained story and is relatively short, it is sometimes read as an independent novella. It was filmed in 1983 by Volker Schlöndorff.
[Botticelli, detail from the Trials of Moses in the Sistine Chapel
(Jethra's daughter Zipporah, Moses' future wife) -
Swann fell in love with Odette because he felt her features resembled this woman]
Part Four, "Noms de pays: le nom." After a digression on place names and the images they evoke, we get the beginning of the story of the love the narrator feels for Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette, who is of his own age (yes, Swann and Odette have married, as we learn for certain in the second volume). The narrator meets Gilberte in the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but had already once seen her in Combray, in the garden of Swann's estate, where she made an indecent gesture at him. His adolescent love (which is more "love of being in love" than love for Gilberte) remains unanswered, mirroring in a smaller way the mad infatuation of Swann for Odette, and prefiguring the long infatuation of the narrator for Albertine which will play out in the next few volumes. This part also takes place in 1892.
Needless to say: although A la Recherche contains many elements from Proust's life and the lives of his acquaintances, the work is not an autobiography; the narrator is not Proust the person, and the characters never existed except in the author's mind.
A la Recherche often puts off readers: it is one huge, monumental novel (like a cathedral in words) consisting of seven volumes of each 500 pages (almost without paragraphs and chapters, so with very little white space to rest the eyes), written in lengthy and sometimes difficult sentences. That is a pity, for it is truly one of the greatest novels ever written and an extremely engaging book, especially for those who share Proust's love for art. The way to tackle it, is just to read on, and allow the rhythmic swing of Proust's prose to propel you on, without worrying about small things that are not fully understood at this stage - keep that for a second reading sometime in the future. Also, as this is a novel about time, time wasted and time used, and the tricks time plays on us by accelerating and decreasing its speed, it is probably best to read it when one has some experience of the flow of time oneself, i.e. when one is not too young anymore.
I read the novel in the translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, which I can fully recommend. Scott Moncrieff translated the first six volumes in English between 1922 and his death in 1930 under the title Remembrance of Things Past, a phrase taken from Shakespeare's Sonnet 30 (only the final volume therefore had a different translator). Scott Moncrieff was close to the world of Proust and he put all his passion into this translation. There are some slips and small mistakes, but these were removed in a revised edition by Terence Kilmartin, and again in a further revision by D.J. Enright (published by the Modern Library in 1992). A completely new translation, with seven different translators is being brought out by Penguin Books, a project started in 1995, but I have to confess I do not find the style an improvement on Scott Moncrieff (and his revisers) and not all choices are felicitous - moreover it has been printed in too small print to read such a long novel comfortably. Give me the Scott Moncrieff translation (the original one is freely available here), whose long rhythmic sentences are just as beautiful as Proust's and who has a sonority and harmonic feeling that seem just right.