There isn’t a great deal of plot in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. At first you feel that there’s nothing going on. But pretty soon you have a daily craving for the minor epiphanies of the narrator, who tells stories from his childhood (in particular his views of the adults in his life), and how Charles Swann agonizes about his relationship with Odette de Crécy.
There are two settings: Combray, the rural town where the narrator grew up; and Paris, where M. Swann’s story is told. The first makes you think of the fuzzy, saccharine paintings by Renoir; the second makes you think of the salons painted by Manet.
Proust is astonishingly gifted at observation. Tyler Cowen calls this the best book on interiority. If you’re not an introvert, perhaps you’ll benefit from reading the thought process of a pretty intense introvert, who must make so many considerations before he can make a move.
A lot of the stories are really funny, especially the parts about M. Vinteuil and M. Legrandin. There are many good insights into vanity, insecurity, pride, and jealousy.
Here are my favorite passages: (from the Lydia Davis translation)
My mother, on hearing that he ‘composed,’ told him by way of a compliment that, when she came to see him, he must play her something of his own. M. Vinteuil would have liked nothing better, but he carried politeness and consideration for others to so fine a point, always putting himself in their place, that he was afraid of boring them, or of appearing egotistical, if he carried out, or even allowed them to suspect what were his own desires.
When a servant came in to tell him that my parents had arrived, I had seen M. Vinteuil run to the piano and lay out a sheet of music so as to catch the eye. But as soon as they entered the room he had snatched it away and hidden it in a corner. He was afraid, no doubt, of letting them suppose that he was glad to see them only because it gave him a chance of playing them some of his compositions. And every time that my mother, in the course of her visit, had returned to the subject of his playing, he had hurriedly protested: “I cannot think who put that on the piano; it is not the proper place for it at all,” and had turned the conversation aside to other topics, simply because those were of less interest to himself.
If his daughter said, in her thick, comfortable voice, how glad she had been to see us, immediately it would seem as though some elder and more sensitive sister, latent in her, had blushed at this thoughtless, schoolboyish utterance, which had, perhaps, made us think that she was angling for an invitation to the house.
Swann would endeavour not to find charm and beauty in the women with whom he must pass time, but to pass his time among women whom he had already found to be beautiful and charming.
M. Legrandin, had we insisted further, would in the end have constructed a whole system of ethics, and a celestial geography of Lower Normandy, sooner than admit to us that, within a mile of Balbec, his own sister was living in her own house; sooner than find himself obliged to offer us a letter of introduction, the prospect of which would never have inspired him with such terror.
In my cowardice I became at once a man, and did what all we grown men do when face to face with suffering and injustice; I preferred not to see them.
Whenever my great-aunt saw in others an advantage, however trivial, which she herself lacked, she would persuade herself that it was no advantage at all, but a drawback, and would pity so as not to have to envy them.