All of his life Marcel found it difficult to go to sleep at night. After he had blown out the light, he would lie quietly in the darkness and think of the book he had been reading, of an event in history, of some memory from the past. Sometimes he would think of all the places in which he had slept—as a child in his great-aunt’s house in the provincial town of Combray, in Balbec on a holiday with his grandmother, in the military town where his friend, Robert de Saint-Loup, had been stationed, in Paris, in Venice during a visit there with his mother. He remembered always a night at Combray when he was a child. Monsieur Swann, a family friend, had come to dinner. Marcel had been sent to bed early, where he lay for hours nervous and unhappy until at last he heard Monsieur Swann leave. Then his mother had come upstairs to comfort him. For a long time, the memory of that night was his chief recollection of Combray, where his family took him to spend a part of every summer with his grandparents and aunts. Years later, while drinking tea with his mother, the taste of a small sweet cake suddenly brought back all the impressions of his old days at Combray. He remembered the two roads. One was Swann’s way, a path that ran beside Monsieur Swann’s park, where lilacs and hawthorns bloomed. The other was the Guermantes way, along the river and past the château of the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes, the great family of Combray. He remembered the people he saw on his walks. There were familiar figures like the doctor and the priest. There was Monsieur Vinteuil, an old composer who died brokenhearted and shamed because of his daughter’s friendship with a woman of bad reputation. There were the neighbors and friends of his grandparents. Most of all, he remembered Monsieur Swann, whose story he pieced together slowly from family conversations and village gossip. Monsieur Swann was a wealthy Jew, accepted in rich and fashionable society. His wife was not received, however, for she was his former mistress, Odette de Crecy, a prostitute with the fair, haunting beauty of a Botticelli painting. It was Odette who had first introduced Swann to the Verdurins, a vulgar family that pretended to despise the polite world of the Guermantes. At an evening party given by Madame Verdurin, Swann heard played a movement of Vinteuil’s sonata and identified his hopeless passion for Odette with that lovely music. Swann’s love was an unhappy affair. Tortured by jealousy, aware of the vulgarity and pettiness of the Verdurins, determined to forget his unfaithful mistress, he went to Madame de Saint-Euverte’s reception. There he heard Vinteuil’s music again. Under its influence he decided, at whatever price, to marry Odette. After their marriage, Swann drifted more and more into the bourgeois circle of the Verdurins.
When he went to see his old friends in Combray and in the fashionable Faubourg Saint-Germain, he went alone. Many people thought him both ridiculous and tragic. On his walks Marcel sometimes saw Madame Swann and her daughter, Gilberte, in the park at Combray. Later, in Paris, he met the little girl and became her playmate. That friendship, as they grew older, became an innocent love affair. Filled also with a schoolboyish passion for Madame Swann, Marcel went to Swann’s house as much to be in her company as in Gilberte’s, but after a time, his pampered habits and brooding, neurasthenic nature began to bore Gilberte. His pride hurt, he refused to see her for many years. Marcel’s family began to treat him as an invalid. With his grandmother, he went to Balbec, a seaside resort. There he met Albertine, a girl to whom he was immediately attracted. He also met Madame de Villeparisis, an old friend of his grandmother and a connection of the Guermantes family. Madame de Villeparisis introduced him to her two nephews, Robert de Saint-Loup and Baron de Charlus. Saint-Loup and Marcel became close friends. While visiting Saint-Loup in a nearby garrison town, Marcel met his friend’s mistress, a young Jewish actress named Rachel. Marcel was both fascinated and repelled by Baron de Charlus; he was not to understand until later the baron’s corrupt and depraved nature. Through his friendship with Madame de Villeparisis and Saint-Loup, Marcel was introduced into the smart world of the Guermantes when he returned to Paris. One day, while he was walking with his grandmother, she suffered a stroke. The illness and death of that good and unselfish old woman made him realize for the first time the empty worldliness of his smart and wealthy friends. For comfort he turned to Albertine, who came to stay with him in Paris while his family was away. Nevertheless, his desire to be humored and indulged in all of his whims, his suspicions of Albertine, and his petty jealousy finally forced her to leave him and go back to Balbec. With her, he had been unhappy; without her, he was wretched. Then he learned that she had been accidentally killed in a fall from her horse.