The reader who is planning to read Proust for the first time is no doubt nervous about how to tackle such a notoriously difficult writer. As a former first time reader, I can offer a short list of ideas that may be helpful.
Should you prepare by reading one of Proust’s biographies first, or at least alongside the novel? I would not recommend it. Of course if you should become a Proust enthusiast, you will read at least one of them. I have read William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust, am halfway through Jean-Yves Tadié’s Marcel Proust, A Life and I understand that George D. Painter’s Marcel Proust, A Biography is quite good. These biographies are full of insights into how much of the Search is autobiographical and who each of the characters may be based on. The problem is, generally speaking, once you know that M. Leblois de Charlus is based on the Parisian gourmand M. Avoir du Pois, you are worse off by muddying the Proustian character and learning next-to-nothing about the latter. The same point may be made about Proust himself: the biographical Proust is far less interesting than his novel. The Search is a direct look into the deepest recesses of his soul, a view not afforded by the best biography. The Proust left to us in letters and biographies is frankly a disappointment. I believe Proust himself would readily acknowledge this. You will be shocked by the passages where the narrator will condemn friendship as simply a diversion from the hard, solitary work of art. Proust’s reputation as a social lightweight was such that André Gide refused to read or consider publishing Swann’s Way. Wait on the biographies.
The same made be said for reading critical texts. I find it a joy to read reviews of Search by people who are more insightful than me. This blog is filled with pages that I have typed out of books by everyone from obscure academics to Samuel Beckett. Sample them here, but you don’t need an expert to explain what is happening in the novel. Proust’s prose is very clear, never obscure (albeit somewhat lengthy in places). You will not need critical help, at least in the way you might with Joyce’s Ulysses.
But the structure of the novel will at first be puzzling. You will need to read the whole thing, not just Swann’s Way, to get a clear grasp on the overall plan. Spoiler Alert! This is the whole plot: a youth longs to be a writer, but first he must overcome some illusions, which he does after witnessing a number of social events and observing and participating in love affairs marked by extremes of jealousy. The first thing you will notice is that there is virtually no plot. You will not find yourself turning pages late into the night to see what finally happens at the soirée. Proust is for slow, in the moment, readers.
The novel is written in three voices, which in fact are all the same person. In the opening passages you will hear from an older man you may consider the Narrator at a point in his life not far from when he writes the novel you are reading. Shortly afterward you will meet a young boy, who the Narrator later names Marcel. Although this is the young Narrator, the point of view is strictly that of Marcel. The narrator rarely foreshadows the experiences of Marcel. You will move at Marcel’s pace through the novel. And occasionally Proust himself makes a sort of postmodern appearance, but that is rare. And then there is the problem of Swann in Love. Nominally, Marcel is recounting a love affair that happened before he was born and that he has later learned about. But it reads like an omniscient point of view, like an inserted novella. I remember being so deeply disappointed over this shift when I first encountered it; I had so totally suspended belief that I felt I was reading a real memoir up to that point.
Lastly, you will at times be confounded by the number of characters. The aristocracy will each have several names, as in Russian novels. (Get a copy of Patrick Alexander’s Who’s Who in Proust if necessary). But Proust has such a wonderful quality of dialogue writing that you will come to hear the characters distinctly. He was famous at the time for his pastiches, delivered live at parties when of contemporaries in society or in newspapers when of literary figures. He could perfectly mimic anyone. With authors he would read them until he had learned their inner music; he could then sing their prose in his head. This gift gives his characters their immediately recognizable voices. Unfortunately, Marcel almost never says a word, which leads you to wonder how he got invited out so much.
Relax and have a good read.