Since I did not read this in the original French (my French has long lapsed into something barely passable), I feel like I cannot say anything about the language. BUT certainly the descriptive passages must be there in the original and so, I will start with my complete and total annoyance with the overblown masturbatory natural scenes. I just am not a lover of flowers (or trees or seascapes) as such. I understand that some people are and that Proust is certainly making a point about the ephemeral natural beauty that surrounds us (especially given his ending: "the places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment.") and which is just as fleeting as life and love, but do we have to take so much time (and so many words..really!) to describe it? My least favorite part of this book were these extensive descriptions.
That said, the rest of the book was delicately full of heartbreak. I'm not sure why the title is in search of lost time (or remembrance of things past); really this is just an ode to unrequited love and almost a portrait of the Jezebel seducer. First, it is Marcel's adoration of his mother (and certainly she loves him more than any of the other women, but she cannot and will not encourage his obsessive clinging). Then, we have Swann's complete surrender to Odette (he abandons everything important for her, despite..or because of..her obvious indifference). Finally, we have Marcel's equal adoration of Gilberte (some sort of genetic power over men passed down from mother to daughter).
How dare I (as I type this I realize the accusation that is potentially forthcoming) say this, but thematically this was too simple. Where are the heartbreaking men in this book? Why is it that we see the same theme elaborated three times? Granted, it was beautifully elaborated and (more below) there are some great statements and quotes (again, how much to credit the translator?), BUT I felt like there was so much left out. Life is so much more than unrequited male love for female object. We needed to see some balance; certainly not with these characters achieving their desires, that would have been too trite, but it would have been nice to see other types of love or other instances in which we have women chasing after men.
Ultimately, I think the entire theme of the novel can be summed up with Swann's regret over not thoroughly enjoying the early years with Odette: "People don't know when they are happy. They're never so unhappy as they think they are...people did not know when they were unhappy, that they were never so happy as they supposed."
Yes, it is true that in most relationships there is a pursuer and a pursued and that the quickest way to gain someone's heart oftentimes is to pretend disinterest. Human nature is to want what we cannot have and to immediately devalue that which we have achieved. "Sometimes when, after kissing me, she opened the door to go, I longed to call her back, to say to her 'Kiss me just once again', but I knew that then she would at once look displeased," (Marcel about his mother).
Marcel, himself, makes the comparison between himself and Swann: "no one perhaps could have understood my feelings at that moment so well as himself; to him, that anquish which lies in knowing that the creature one adores is in some place of enjoyment where oneself is not and cannot follow--to him that anquish came through love."
"All that is necessary is that our taste for her should become exclusive...in the moment when she has failed to meet us...an irrational, absurd desire, which the laws of civilized society make it impossible to satisfy and difficult to assuage--the insensate, agonising desire to possess her." The moment in which Swann falls in love is simply the moment that he cannot obtain Odette.
And then, of course, we have the lover knowing that he should portray indifference to "play the game" and attempt to hold onto the object of his desire: "having feigned for so long, when in Odette's company, a sort of indifference, he had not now, by a demonstration of jealousy, given her that proof of the excess of his own passion which, in a pair of lovers, fully and finally dispenses the recipient from the obligation to love the other enough." And the fabulous paradox that "To determine not to think of it was but to think of it still, to suffer from it still." How often have we all told ourselves fifteen times a day (an hour, a minute) to no longer think of that which we desire. Of course, in the thinking to not, we are of course struck by the desire.
Finally, we come to Marcel as the lover as he grips the true nature of his relationship with Gilberte: "the morrow would not be different from all the days that had gone before; that Gilberte's feeling for me, too long established now to be capable of alteration, was indifference; that in my friendship with Gilberte, it was I alone who loved."
Simultaneously, Proust deals with class envy. Marcel's family are disgusted by snobs (more on the sour grapes theme here except with social connections rather than love as the object of desire), and allow Swann into their group because they are not aware that he does have quite a bit of class-capital. "Had there been such a thing as a determination to apply to Swann a social coefficient peculiar to himself, as distinct from all the other sons of other stockbrokers in his father's position, his coefficient would have been rather lower than theirs." He is admitted because they think he is slightly lower than themselves (even though this is not true), but Odette (who is much lower than themselves is not admitted).
Again, in describing Marcel's great-aunt "Whenever she 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."
In describing Legrandin, Marcel comments that "Mamma would be greatly delighted whenever she caught him red-handed in the sin, which he continued to call the unpardonable sin, of snobbery" and later describes the way in which snobs can be detected (but of course that they can never self-identify): they will imagine that they admire characteristics other than social standing in those who have high social standing, but will not notice (or will deride) the same characteristics in others of lower standing. Simultaneously, Marcel notes that "my father's understanding with the supreme powers was too complete." Is this not a form of snobbery in itself? The fact that Marcel's dad is well connected and can use those connections seems to be a form of social capital that they (as a family) have set up to despise.
Proust also has some great thoughts on Goffman's backstage work (or Shakespeare's "all the world is a stage"); he describes our social vs. real personality as such: "even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people." Certainly, Swann presents himself in two groups (with Marcel's grandparents and with the Verdurins) as have a much lower standing than he actually has in society.
Along with this, there are some great comments about our inability to (not only know or understand truly but also) accept the actualization of another person. We tend to see everyone in (narcissistic) terms of ourselves: "I imagined, like everyone else, that the brains of other people were lifeless and submissive receptacles with no power of specific reaction to any stimulus which might be applied to them." We have trouble anticipating others' reactions as different than what we would want them to be. Further, Proust goes on to acclaim the novelist as being able to allow us to care about other's misfortunes (and successes) in a way that we cannot for actual living beings: "none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a 'real' person awaken in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the picture was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of 'real' people would be a decided improvement. A 'real' person, profoundly as we may sympathize with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, he remains opaque, offers a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift."
Simply put, we lack the imagination to believe in other people's lives; the novelist can give us this imagination by allowing us to understand the truth of what occurs in their fictional characters' minds.
In opposition to this, "Other people are, as a rule, so immaterial to us that, when we have entrusted to any one of them the power to cause so much suffering or happiness to ourselves, that person seems at once to belong to a different universe." The act of allowing another person to control our own emotional well being is alien to our way of thinking. Love, itself is not rational or "normal" in this sense.
I was startled by the lesbianism (and its extreme vilification). First, Mlle Vinteuil has a lesbian lover and her father refuses to accept it (and Proust's describes the behavior as not only evil pursuit of pleasure, but capital "E" Evil). Later, one of Swann's biggest fears (jealousies) in regards to Odette is whether she had "done that with other women." Apparently the fact that she has been (essentially) an upper class prostitute for lots and lots and lots (and lots) of men doesn't bother him nearly as much as the idea that she has had sex with women.
He also has a great quote on the passage of time (although certainly not a new concept): "even from the point of view of mere quantity, in our life the days are not all equal. To reach the end of a day, natures that are slightly nervous, as mine was, make use, like motor-cars, of different 'speeds'. There are mountainous, uncomfortable days, up which one takes an infinite time to pass, and days downward sloping, through which one can go at full tilt, singing as one goes."
In sum, it was a dense, richly packed and important read. Not always an enjoyable read, hence the 4 (and not 5) star rating.