Having done the deed, I can appreciate Morgan Meis's advice on the subject:
Early readers of the novel can be forgiven for not immediately liking Swann’s Way. In a recent article for The New York Times, Edward Rothstein quotes an evaluation of Swann’s Way from the publishers who first rejected the book. The evaluator complains, “I cannot understand how a man can take 30 pages to describe how he turns round in his bed before he finally falls asleep.”
Many readers of Proust have noticed that he was a writer who took his time. Walter Benjamin once observed that Proust, as a man and writer, loved to multiply complications. Benjamin compares Proust’s love of complication to an anonymous letter that goes: “My dear Madam, I just noticed that I forgot my cane at your house yesterday; please be good enough to give it to the bearer of this letter. P.S. Kindly pardon me for disturbing you; I just found my cane.”
Proust wrote literature with the same sensibility as the man who composed that letter. This can make it difficult to read Proust unless you are attuned to that sensibility. “Attunement” is a good word for what it takes to learn to read Proust — music played a significant role in Proust’s life and writing. The critic Edmund Wilson was one of the first writers to notice the importance of music in understanding Proust. Wilson wrote an essay about Remembrance of Things Past for The New Republic back in 1928. In the essay, Wilson argued that, “Like so many other important modern writers, Proust had been reared in the school of symbolism and had all the symbolist's preoccupation with musical effects. Like many of his generation, he was probably as deeply influenced by Wagner as by any writer of books.” Wilson goes on to note that the opening chapter of Remembrance of Things Past is titled “Overture.” Proust was structuring his giant work of literature like a symphony. Over the last few generations of literary scholarship there have been countless attempts to explain just how to interpret each chapter and volume of Remembrance of Things Past along musical lines. You can read, for instance, that Swann’s Way can be broken down into the exposition, development, and capitulation of the sonata-allegro form of musical composition.
But these works of scholarship probably take the musical influence too literally. Wilson is right that Proust was heavily influenced by Symbolism and that he loved music. All this means is that Proust listened to the music of his time, particularly works from composers like Saint-Saens and Gabriel Fauré. He liked the way this music made him feel and he wanted to write literature that evoked the same feeling. What is that feeling? I’d recommend listening to works like Fauré’s First Violin Sonata and Saint-Saens’ Sonata No. 1 for Piano and Violin. Either of those works (there are other candidates) may have been the inspiration for the famous “little phrase” of music by the fictional composer Vinteul in Swann’s Way. In the novel, M. Swann becomes obsessed with this piece of music and asks his beloved, Odette, to play it for him over and over again.
The little phrase of music becomes important to Swann because it reminds him that his love for Odette is not a “digression without importance,” but something, “on the contrary, so far superior to everyday life as to be alone worthy of the trouble of expressing it.” Proust goes on to explain that, “Swann had regarded musical motifs as actual ideas, of another world, of another order, ideas veiled in shadows, unknown, impenetrable by the human mind, which none the less were perfectly distinct one from another, unequal among themselves in value and in significance.”
The subject of Swann and the little musical phrase by Vinteul inspired Proust into one of his rhapsodies of language. Such rhapsodies break out every few chapters in Remembrance of Things Past. Swann, wrote Proust, “knew that his memory of the piano falsified still further the perspective in which he saw the music, that the field open to the musician is not a miserable stave of seven notes, but an immeasurable keyboard (still, almost all of it, unknown), on which, here and there only, separated by the gross darkness of its unexplored tracts, some few among the millions of keys, keys of tenderness, of passion, of courage, of serenity, which compose it, each one differing from all the rest as one universe differs from another, have been discovered by certain great artists who do us the service, when they awaken in us the emotion corresponding to the theme which they have found, of shewing us what richness, what variety lies hidden, unknown to us, in that great black impenetrable night, discouraging exploration, of our soul, which we have been content to regard as valueless and waste and void.”
The passage does not stop there. The discussion of music and the “little phrase” goes on for several more pages of equally breathless prose. When Proust writes like this, when he breaks into his rhapsodies, the sentences get longer. He uses more (and lengthier) subordinate clauses. The sentences are like great piles of words with all the folds and layers of an unspooled bolt of fabric spilling onto the floor. Those sentences, those great unspooling sentences, are the “little phrases” of Proust’s novel. Proust figured out how to write in a way that could create the same emotions that he felt when listening to the contemporary composers he loved. Proust was experimenting with sentences just as the composers were experimenting with musical phrases. Fauré, for instance, was messing around with whole tone scales and various early techniques of polytonality to create a specific emotional feel in his music. Just listen to this clip of Michelangeli playing Debussy’s Danseuses de Delphes (Debussy was a student of Fauré) to hear the dreamy effect of whole tone scales.
The point is that composers in Proust’s time were experimenting with the “syntax” of music in order to capture a specific feeling. That feeling is dreamy and indistinct by nature. So, it is hard to talk about. Just listen to the Debussy again. Proust has his own words to describe the feeling that this music evokes. He lays it out in the passage quoted above. He says this music awakens in us, “the emotion … of … richness … [that] lies hidden, unknown to us, in that great black impenetrable night … of our soul.”
The third-to-last paragraph is an especially useful guide for Proust-readers.