Swann's Way: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1 (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) Paperback – Deckle Edge, November 30, 2004
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About the Author
Lydia Davis, a 2003 MacArthur Fellow, is the author of a novel, The End of the Story, and three volumes of short fiction, the latest of which is Samuel Johnson Is Indignant. She is also the translator of numerous works by Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, Pierre Jean Jouve, and many others and was recently named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. Her essay on close translation of Proust appeared in the April 2004 issue of the Yale Review.
Christopher Prendergast (series editor) is a professor emeritus of French literature at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King’s College.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
For a long time, I went to bed early. Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: “I’m falling asleep.” And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try to sleep would wake me; I wanted to put down the book I thought I still had in my hands and blow out my light; I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflec-tions on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This belief lived on for a few seconds after my waking; it did not shock my reason but lay heavy like scales on my eyes and kept them from realizing that the candlestick was no longer lit. Then it began to grow unintelligible to me, as after metempsychosis do the thoughts of an earlier existence; the subject of the book detached itself from me, I was free to apply myself to it or not; immediately I recovered my sight and I was amazed to find a darkness around me soft and restful for my eyes, but perhaps even more so for my mind, to which it appeared a thing without cause, incomprehensible, a thing truly dark. I would ask myself what time it might be; I could hear the whistling of the trains which, remote or nearby, like the singing of a bird in a forest, plotting the distances, described to me the extent of the deserted countryside where the traveler hastens toward the nearest station; and the little road he is following will be engraved on his memory by the excitement he owes to new places, to unaccustomed ctivities, to the recent conversation and the farewells under the unfamiliar lamp that follow him still through the silence of the night, to the imminent sweetness of his return.
I would rest my cheeks tenderly against the lovely cheeks of the pillow, which, full and fresh, are like the cheeks of our childhood. I would strike a match to look at my watch. Nearly midnight. This is the hour when the invalid who has been obliged to go off on a journey and has had to sleep in an unfamiliar hotel, wakened by an attack, is cheered to see a ray of light under the door. How fortunate, it’s already morning! In a moment the servants will be up, he will be able to ring, someone will come help him. The hope of being relieved gives him the courage to suffer. In fact he thought he heard footsteps; the steps approach, then recede. And the ray of light that was under his door has disappeared. It is midnight; they have just turned off the gas; the last servant has gone and he will have to suffer the whole night through without remedy.
I would go back to sleep, and would sometimes afterward wake again for brief moments only, long enough to hear the organic creak of the woodwork, open my eyes and stare at the kaleidoscope of the darkness, savor in a momentary glimmer of consciousness the sleep into which were plunged the furniture, the room, that whole of which I was only a small part and whose insensibility I would soon return to share. Or else while sleeping I had effortlessly returned to a period of my early life that had ended forever, rediscovered one of my childish terrors such as my great-uncle pulling me by my curls, a terror dispelled on the day—the dawn for me of a new era—when they were cut off. I had forgotten that event during my sleep, I recovered its memory as soon as I managed to wake myself up to escape the hands of my great-uncle, but as a precautionary measure I would completely surround my head with my pillow before returning to the world of dreams.
Sometimes, as Eve was born from one of Adam’s ribs, a woman was born during my sleep from a cramped position of my thigh. Formed from the pleasure I was on the point of enjoying, she, I imagined, was the one offering it to me. My body, which felt in hers my own warmth, would try to find itself inside her, I would wake up. The rest of humanity seemed very remote compared with this woman I had left scarcely a few moments before; my cheek was still warm from her kiss, my body aching from the weight of hers. If, as sometimes happened, she had the features of a woman I had known in life, I would devote myself entirely to this end: to finding her again, like those who go off on a journey to see a longed-for city with their own eyes and imagine that one can enjoy in reality the charm of a dream. Little by little the memory of her would fade, I had forgotten the girl of my dream.
A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads in a second the point on the earth he occupies, the time that has elapsed before his waking; but their ranks can be mixed up, broken. If toward morning, after a bout of insomnia, sleep overcomes him as he is reading, in a position quite different from the one in which he usually sleeps, his raised arm alone is enough to stop the sun and make it retreat, and, in the first minute of his waking, he will no longer know what time it is, he will think he has only just gone to bed. If he dozes off in a position still more displaced and divergent, after dinner sitting in an armchair for instance, then the confusion among the disordered worlds will be complete, the magic armchair will send him traveling at top speed through time and space, and, at the moment of opening his eyelids, he will believe he went to bed several months earlier in another country. But it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was deep and allowed my mind to relax entirely; then it would let go of the map of the place where I had fallen asleep and, when I woke in the middle of the night, since I did not know where I was, I did not even understand in the first moment who I was; I had only, in its original simplicity, the sense of existence as it may quiver in the depths of an animal; I was more destitute than a cave dweller; but then the memory—not yet of the place where I was, but of several of those where I had lived and where I might have been—would come to me like help from on high to pull crossed centuries of civilization in one second, and the image confusedly glimpsed of oil lamps, then of wing-collar shirts, gradually recomposed my self’s original features.
Perhaps the immobility of the things around us is imposed on them by our certainty that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our mind confronting them. However that may be, when I woke thus, my mind restlessly attempting, without success, to discover where I was, everything revolved around me in the darkness, things, countries, years. My body, too benumbed to move, would try to locate, according to the form of its fatigue, the position of its limbs so as to deduce from this the direction of the wall, the placement of the furniture, so as to reconstruct and name the dwelling in which it found itself. Its memory, the memory of its ribs, its knees, its shoulders, offered in succession several of the rooms where it had slept, while around it the invisible walls, changing place according to the shape of the imagined room, spun through the shadows. And even before my mind, hesitating on the thresholds of times and shapes, had identified the house by reassembling the circumstances, it—my body—would recall the kind of bed in each one, the location of the doors, the angle at which the light came in through the windows, the existence of a hallway, along with the thought I had had as I fell asleep and that I had recovered upon waking. My stiffened side, trying to guess its orientation, would imagine, for instance, that it lay facing the wall in a big canopied bed and immediately I would say to myself: “Why, I went to sleep in the end even though Mama didn’t come to say goodnight to me,” I was in the country in the home of my grandfather, dead for many years; and my body, the side on which I was resting, faithful guardians of a past my mind ought never to have forgotten, recalled to me the flame of the night-light of Bohemian glass, in the shape of an urn, which hung from the ceiling by little chains, the mantelpiece of Siena marble, in my bedroom at Combray, at my grandparents’ house, in faraway days which at this moment I imagined were present without picturing them to myself exactly and which I would see more clearly in a little while when I was fully awake.
Then the memory of a new position would reappear; the wall would slip away in another direction: I was in my room at Mme. de Saint-Loup’s, in the country; good Lord! It’s ten o’clock or even later, they will have finished dinner! I must have overslept during the nap I take every evening when I come back from my walk with Mme. de Saint-Loup, before putting on my evening clothes. For many years have passed since Combray, where, however late we returned, it was the sunset’s red reflections I saw in the panes of my window. It is another sort of life one leads at Tansonville, at Mme. de Saint-Loup’s, another sort of pleasure I take in going out only at night, in following by moonlight those lanes where I used to play in the sun; and the room where I fell asleep instead of dressing for dinner—from far off I can see it, as we come back, pierced by the flares of the lamp, a lone beacon in the night.
These revolving, confused evocations never lasted for more than a few seconds; often, in my brief uncertainty about where I was, I did not distinguish the various suppositions of which it was composed any better than we isolate, when we see a horse run, the successive positions shown to us by a kinetoscope. But I had seen sometimes one, sometimes another, of the bedrooms I had inhabited in my life, and in the end I would recall them all in the long reveries that followed my waking: winter bedrooms in which, as soon as you are in bed, you bury your head in a nest braided of the most disparate things: a corner of the pillow, the top of the covers, a bit of shawl, the side of the bed and an issue of the Débats roses,1 which you end by cementing together using the birds’ technique of pressing down on it indefinitely; where in icy weather the pleasure you enjoy is the feeling that you are separated from the outdoors (like the sea swallow which makes its nest deep in an underground passage in the warmth of the earth) and where, since the fire is kept burning all night in the fireplace, you sleep in a great cloak of warm, smoky air, shot with the glimmers from the logs breaking into flame again, a sort of immaterial alcove, a warm cave dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat with shifting thermal contours, aerated by drafts which cool your face and come from the corners, from the parts close to the window or far from the hearth, and which have grown cold again: summer bedrooms where you delight in becoming one with the soft night, where the moonlight leaning against the half-open shutters casts its enchanted ladder to the foot of the bed, where you sleep almost in the open air, like a titmouse rocked by the breeze on the tip of a ray of light; sometimes the Louis XVI bedroom, so cheerful that even on the first night I had not been too unhappy there and where the slender columns that lightly supported the ceiling stood aside with such grace to show and reserve the place where the bed was; at other times, the small bedroom with the very high ceiling, hollowed out in the form of a pyramid two stories high and partly paneled in mahogany, where from the first second I had been mentally poisoned by the unfamiliar odor of the vetiver, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and the insolent indifference of the clock chattering loudly as though I were not there; where a strange and pitiless quadrangular cheval glass, barring obliquely one of the corners of the room, carved from deep inside the soft fullness of my usual field of vision a site for itself which I had not expected; where my mind, struggling for hours to dislodge itself, to stretch upward so as to assume the exact shape of the room and succeed in filling its gigantic funnel to the very top, had suffered many hard nights, while I lay stretched out in my bed, my eyes lifted, my ear anxious, my nostril restive, my heart pounding, until habit had changed the color of the curtains, silenced the clock, taught pity to the cruel oblique mirror, concealed, if not driven out completely, the smell of the vetiver and appreciably diminished the apparent height of the ceiling. Habit! That skillful but very slow housekeeper who begins by letting our mind suffer for weeks in a temporary arrangement; but whom we are nevertheless truly happy to discover, for without habit our mind, reduced to no more than its own resources, would be powerless to make a lodging habitable.
Certainly I was now wide-awake, my body had veered around one last time and the good angel of certainty had brought everything around me to a standstill, laid me down under my covers, in my bedroom, and put approximately where they belonged in the darkness my chest of drawers, my desk, my fireplace, the window onto the street and the two doors. But even though I knew I was not in any of the houses of which my ignorance upon waking had instantly, if not presented me with the distinct picture, at least made me believe the presence possible, my memory had been stirred; generally I would not try to go back to sleep right away; I would spend the greater part of the night remembering our life in the old days, in Combray at my great-aunt’s house, in Balbec, in Paris, in Doncières, in Venice, elsewhere still, remembering the places, the people I had known there, what I had seen of them, what I had been told about them.
At Combray, every day, in the late afternoon, long before the moment when I would have to go to bed and stay there, without sleeping, far away from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom again became the fixed and painful focus of my preoccupations. They had indeed hit upon the idea, to distract me on the evenings when they found me looking too unhappy, of giving me a magic lantern, which, while awaiting the dinner hour, they would set on top of my lamp; and, after the fashion of the first architects and master glaziers of the Gothic age, it replaced the opacity of the walls with impalpable iridescences, supernatural multicolored apparitions, where legends were depicted as in a wavering, momentary stained-glass window. But my sadness was only increased by this since the mere change in lighting destroyed the familiarity which my bedroom had acquired for me and which, except for the torment of going to bed, had made it tolerable to me. Now I no longer recognized it and I was uneasy there, as in a room in some hotel or “chalet” to which I had come for the first time straight from the railway train.
Moving at the jerky pace of his horse, and filled with a hideous design, Golo would come out of the small triangular forest that velveted the hillside with dark green and advance jolting toward the castle of poor Geneviève de Brabant. This castle was cut off along a curved line that was actually the edge of one of the glass ovals arranged in the frame which you slipped between the grooves of the lantern. It was only a section of castle and it had a moor in front of it where Geneviève stood dreaming, wearing a blue belt. The castle and the moor were yellow, and I had not had to wait to see them to find out their color since, before the glasses of the frame did so, the bronze sonority of the name Brabant had shown it to me clearly. Golo would stop for a moment to listen sadly to the patter read out loud by my great-aunt, which he seemed to understand perfectly, modifying his posture, with a meekness that did not exclude a certain majesty, to conform to the directions of the text; then he moved off at the same jerky pace. And nothing could stop his slow ride. If the lantern was moved, I could make out Golo’s horse continuing to advance over the window curtains, swelling out with their folds, descending into their fissures. The body of Golo himself, in its essence as supernatural as that of his steed, accommodated every material obstacle, every hindersome object that he encountered by taking it as his skeleton and absorbing it into himself, even the doorknob he immediately adapted to and floated invincibly over with his red robe or his pale face as noble and as melancholy as ever, but revealing no disturbance at this transvertebration.
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"Swann's Way" was written originally in French. The first English translation appeared in 1922 (the year of Proust's death). This translation is part of a long-term project by Penguin Books to create a brand new English translation of "In Search" using a team of translators. The entire project was published in Britain in 2002. US saw the release of the first four volumes in 2004. But the US will not see the rest of the series until 2019 at the earliest. (The British releases of the remaining volumes can still be purchased through Amazon.)
This is my first experience with Proust. Proust is not a story-teller like John Steinbeck or Mark Twain. Instead he spends a lot of time observing what's around him and describing what he sees in highly poetic language. You'll see long discussions about the weather, the wildflowers and the trees, the clothes people wear, the vehicles they travel in, and the music they listen to. Proust makes many references to classical music like Mozart, Liszt and Wagner.
"Swann's Way" contains three sections: Combray, Swann In Love, and Place Names: The Name.
"Combray" is a boy's memoir of life in Combray, a small French town. It has no real plot. The famous "madeleine" is a desert cake dipped in tea that the narrator bites into and suddenly remembers many forgotten memories of his past. The boy narrator talks about his love of reading and infatuation with the theater, his reclusive grand-aunt Leonie Octave, his housekeeper Francoise, the evening visits of Swann, and his obsession with getting goodnight kisses from his mom. "Combray" explains the book's title: there are two walking paths out of Combray. One of those paths runs past the home of Swann, and is therefore nicknamed "Swann's Way."
"Swann In Love" has been described as a novel in a novel. But again it read more like a memoir than a real story. The section takes place before the events in "Combray."
Swann is a well-to-do socialite who is invited to the Verdurins' soiree by fellow socialite Odette de Crecy. Swann falls in love with Odette but he is infatuated and eventually lapses into obsession. He finds himself spying on her, stalking her, stealing her mail, and using her friends to gain information. Amazingly, Odette continues to see Swann as a friend, but he just uses these occasions to pry into her past affairs and rumors of lesbianism. Not surprisingly, she drifts away from him.
"Place-Names: The Name" is the shortest section (supposedly truncated per publisher's directions), and could be retitled "The Narrator In Love." It is yet another memoir of another man (actually a boy) in love with none other than Swann's daughter Gilberte (the name). The boy is not as obsessed as Swann was, but nevertheless causes much stress for his poor governess when he insists on walking to various places in Paris in the off chance of finding Gilberte.
Proust is one of those authors that, like fruits & vegetables, is supposed to ‘good' for you. Fortunately, Proust is not avant-garde or experimental, and his language is straightforward and not that hard to understand (probably because the translator made it so). Even Proust's famously long sentences are heavily punctuated, so they aren't too hard to follow.
Since "Swann's Way" is a classic, I'm going to leave it to the scholars to rate the novel itself.
But five stars go to Lydia Davis' readable translation, the highly informative intro, the detailed footnotes, and the attractive book design.
I'm even firmly believing I'll make it through to the end. Wish me luck!
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Additionally, Proust isn't concerned with writing a page turner. Oh no. For me this book is verging on philosophical in that it attempts, successfully in my opinion , to convey some very deep aspects of our humanity. The book concentrates on trying to get to grips with our sensory and intellectual understanding of the world around us; e.g. the smell of flowers, the falling of light on stone, the many ways we can love etc. etc.
Eventually I found this book totally immersive and, whilst I personally couldn't read more than 20 pages at a single sitting (it just requires too much concentration for more) I have come to see Proust as a writer like no other and one, I suspect, you'll either love or hate.
I'll open my copy now at random and type the first significant sentence I find to give you an idea of what you find here (or are up against!).
page 256 ...
Of course, it did not occur to him to be jealous of Odette, but he did not feel as happy as usual and when Brichot, having begun to tell the story of Blanche de Castille's mother, who 'had been happy with Henry Plantagenet for years before she married him', tried to prompt Swann to ask him what happened next by saying to him: 'Isn't that so Monsieur Swann?' in the martial tone one adopts to make oneself understood by a peasant or instil courage in a soldier, Swann spoiled Brichot's effect, to the fury of their hostess, by answering that they must please excuse him for being so uninterested in Blanche de Castille, but he had something to ask the painter.
Yes, that's one sentence!!
I read it first in French when I was 19 (but it was too much for me to take in), then in English (but for some reason it was also too much for me to take in). I've re-tried a few times, but really got nowhere. I appreciated it aesthetically, but not emotionally, I found it trying despite my best intentions. Then, having found my love of fiction on the wane over the last few years (I don't know why) - but still desperate to read - I picked up this translation, but with little hope. However I find I'm cramming as much in as I can before bed, again in the morning over breakfast, at lunch if I can...if you'd told me one day that I was carrying Proust around everywhere with me, finding it very difficult to put down, I wouldn't have believed you!
Like someone who's had a religious epiphany, I want to share it with everyone, but the experience is so personal in some way that I can't find the words without sounding bonkers! I think it's absolutely wonderful.
Indeed, even in 1913, when this first volume was first released, Proust had to self publish this work; leading publishers having rejected the manuscript. Thankfully, by early 1914, one editor – Andre Gide – had the humility to apologise to Proust for rejecting the book and stating, “For several days I have been unable to put your book down… The rejection of this book will remain the most serious mistake ever made by the NRF and, since I bear the shame of being very much responsible for it, one of the most stinging and remorseful regrets of my life.”
So, what is this book actually about? It is actually split into three parts. The first, “Combray,” sees our narrator musing on childhood memories. It is fair to say that, if you enjoy this part of the book, you will be able to read to the end. Musings, memories, drifting passages and endless paragraphs will either embrace you – or leave you frustrated and infuriated. The middle section is almost a novella in itself – and often taken as such and taught in French schools – and tells the story of Swann’s jealous infatuation with Odette. Lastly, the shorter, third part of the book, sees our narrator having his own infatuation, with the daughter of Swann; the schoolgirl Gilberte. However, although this tells you the bare+ facts of the novel, it does not do justice to the sheer poetry of the writing and the meandering style. It is fair to say that you will either not make it to the end or immediately reach for the second volume. Personally, I am grateful that I discovered this sublime novel and have every intention of reading on.
I'd guess that my most helpful remarks will be about the kindle implementation. I'll cover all six books of this Prendergast edition. There is nothing in the general formatting to deter purchase of the kindle version. The complete novel is so large and there are so many characters that X-Ray would have been good. This series doesn't have it. But each volume does have a synopsis at the end which lists the elements of the narrative (for example “Swann's first meeting with Odette”; “Odette's vulgarity”), together with the page number. At the time of writing (June 2015), the usefulness of this feature varies from volume to volume. Its value is greatest in “In the shadow of young girls”, “The Guermantes Way”, and “The Prisoner and the Fugitive”. In all three the page number is a link, enabling one to jump directly to the page referenced. If, like me, you want to re-read passages, this feature is excellent. In “The Way by Swann's” and “Finding time again” the page numbers don't link directly to the referenced passages: you have to Go To the page number. Finally “Sodom and Gomorrah” doesn't contain page numbers, so those quoted in the Synopsis are almost useless. I assume that this is a production error, and I've informed Amazon. I've read that the Kilmartin/Enright edition has an index of place names and proper names and a thematic index, but I've no idea how well these are implemented on the kindle.
I enjoyed the novel, but it has its weaknesses: the long sentences are quite often hard to comprehend without re-reading, and some passages are over-long. So I wouldn't expect everyone to enjoy it. You just have to try it.
I opted to spend about £30 on the Predergast series, after starting the free (for kindle) Scott Moncrieff edition. I could have lived with the Scott Moncrieff but I just preferred a more modern text. I'm not able to compare the Prendergast series translations with Kilmartin and Enright's. Occasionally I wanted to compare the translation with Proust's French. This was hampered by the Prendergast series being based on the 1987 Pléiade edition, which is not in the public domain and so too expensive for me. There's an informative “General Editor's Preface” at the beginning of “The Way by Swann's”. I'd expect it would be included within the free sample available for kindle.
I'm about half-way through now, and I don't think it matters that I can't remember the beginning. I doubt if I shall live long enough to read the next five volumes. But these great long sentences are so perfectly constructed and balanced that (unlike those of Henry James) you very rarely have to go back and re-read them, and I find it doesn't matter that I can't even remember their beginning, let alone how the novel began!. I just let the purple prose wash over me, and enjoy the great surge of third-party nostalgia
This is a massive book, so it warrants splitting the review into a few categories
Presentation on Kindle
There are only four sections, so although the lack of a fully enabled contents page is annoying it is not a deal breaker. You can access the contents at the start of the book and follow the links from there. There are numerous scanning errors, the odd wrong letter, but they are easy enough to ignore. There are no extras to speak of.
There are at least two translations available, this is the earlier one by CK Scott Moncrieff (1922) and although it is certainly old fashioned, it is wonderfully fluid and evocative.
This is the first of seven volumes making up In Search of Lost Time. The entire book is a classic of Modernist literature, Le Monde rates it as the second best book of the twentieth century, under Camus, which does not seem entirely ridiculous. It is intensely introspective, the first half is the unnamed narator reminiscing about his childhood in the village of Combray, the third section tells of Swann an elegant well connected Jew who falls in and out of love with a courtesan, while in the fourth and final part, the young narator falls, obsessively, in love with Swann's daughter.
Not only is this a long book, but very little happens, it is filled with reflection and observations, rather than incident. I would suggest that if you are struggling, then just skip to the third section, Swann in Love, which is wonderfully acerbic and wry. You will miss the famous madeleines passage, but not too much else.
Despite its stellar reputation, once you get into the way of his writing, Proust is genial company. An easy, albeit uneventful read, with dazzling insights into an elegant, snobby world. The main problem for readers is that by the time he reaches the end of a sentence, or passage, you have forgotten how it started. Accordingly reading a summary of the book can be helpful to explain exactly what has happened.
Probably not for everyone, but well worth a try if you are curious, once I got into it, I was surprised at how easy a read it actually was.
Five hundred pages, four chapters, very few paragraphs and only about one full stop per page; this book requires the most intense concentration just to work out where you are in each sentence. Proust starts on one point and then, through sub-clauses, parenthesis, asides, recollections, similes, retrenchments, remembrances and speculations ends up at the punch line of a shaggy dog story or in jerking the plot forward almost exactly when you felt he had forgotten the point altogether. He never pauses for breath, so that this is not a book you can take to bed intending to read to the end of the chapter or next piece of the action because Proust simply rolls on and on, each thought connecting to the next like waves on a shore. It's perfectly possible to lose your place on a page, or to be distracted away from the text, and for it to make no difference to the connectedness of the narrative. But to skim along would be to miss the point, which is the unbelievable verve, panache, creativity and sheer gold-plated excellence of the writing - it is quite sublime and quite impossible for the lay man to describe accurately. The nearest I can get are the word paintings of the British Victorian art critic John Ruskin, which marvelously and concretely recreate the works of art or scenes Ruskin wished to bring to the reader's mind. Proust translated Ruskin into French - and may have absorbed his style - but Proust is looser, less stiffly British than Ruskin and brings emotional as well as descriptive colour to his prose.
Famously, Proust is said to be writing about memory and this is true but somewhat unhelpful to the new reader - I suspect that part of the reason people are put off reading Proust is the mystique and misdirection that surrounds his work ("ah, the Madeleine", you hear people in the know say, without enlightening the uninitiated). So, in brief then the plot concerns two (no, really three) love stories. The central plot is concerned with Charles Swann, a wealthy middle class socialite who falls in love with the courtesan Odette de Crécy. The reader knows her trade, everyone else in the story knows her trade but the story is told entirely from Swann's point of view and he does not want to know her trade; he is madly, hopelessly and inappropriately in love with Odette and the story follows their relationship. At first she appears to be infatuated with him but as the years pass she moves on and she treats him with contempt and disdain. His love never falters and, but we are not told how or when or what her motives are, he eventually marries her. This story is book-ended by the narrator's own tale of his love affair as a child with Charles and Odette's daughter, Gilberte. This story exactly reflects Swann's experience of unrequited love but the narrator, instead of marrying Gilberte to keep his memories of their relationship alive (which would be impossible as they are children), decides instead that it is better to have the memory than the person, so that he and Swann have the same experience but end up in different places. The third love affair is between the narrator as a boy and his mother, who is pulled away from her loving and sensitive son both by household and wifely duty and a sense that he should not be mollycoddled. The boy lives in hope for the slightest sign of affection from her, and so pre-cursing the later love affairs of both Swann and the boy.
It's no spoiler to have given you the plot outline, because what matters is how the stories unfold, which is entirely through sensation, sense, desire, experience, excitement, hope and disappointment. Proust does all the same things as other novelists, he has a cast of varied characters, he moves the plot through a sequence of key events, he provides moments of light and shade, of humour, anger, social commentary, poetry, ribaldry and sadness but he does it all with such a sensuous and lyrical world view that this is a work quite unlike any other I have read. It's not an easy read, I'm not even sure it's an enjoyable read, but it is absolutely remarkable and substantial.
Finally, I suspect that this book only really makes sense in French, because the vocabulary used and the complexity of the way sentences have been constructed must make translation nearly impossible. I read the original Montcrieff translation, which is quite beautiful. There is a newer Penguin Classics translation now entitled `The Way of Swann's" rather than "Swann's Way". But the title "Swann's Way" is a pun, being both the local name of a walk that goes past Swann's house and referring to Swann's journey or way through life; so I don't see how "The Way of Swann's", which is virtually meaningless in English, can be a better translation that the original Montcrieff. For that reason I stuck with the old School. (in French it's published as Du côté de chez Swann if you want to try your own translation)