Having now completed "Un amour de Swann", I thought I would add a few of my own reflections to the many and varied comments made by the group.
In the French title of this book, the subject is "un amour" — a "love" or "love interest" — of Swann's. At this point, we know very little about Swann, except that he is a well-to-do gentleman living in Paris at the end of the 19th century.
His "work", though he would not use the term, is that of an art historian specializing in Vermeer (featured in an article in today's New York Times). In his time, with no Internet, no color photographs, no slides, an art historian would need to travel to museums to study the actual paintings. Most of the intellectual work would be carried out during the day for reading and writing are much easier with sunlight than with gaslight.
In the evenings, with no movies or television, Swann and those of his social milieu would go to the theater or to the opera or to a concert or to soirées at various "salons".
Marriages were arranged to further one's social standing and to produce heirs. They were not based on "love" although couples over time might develop a strong bond and an appreciation of one another (cf. Downton Abbey).
For many men, "physical love" even "passion" was to be found outside of marriage with a mistress or a courtesan. And so it is with Swann... and this book describes the evolution of his feelings in his "affair" with Odette.
The over-reaching theme of Proust's work is reflected in the title: A la recherche de temps perdu, that is going back to specific moments in time. How does this happen? What are the keys that unlock the memories buried in our subconscious? In the first book, it is the sense of taste: the narrator is suddenly carried back to Combray when he tastes the madeleine dipped in tea.
In this book, the key is our sense of hearing: a musical motif from a slow lyrical movement of the imaginary Vinteuil sonata takes Swann back to those happy moments of his courtship of Odette. Gradually that motif is implanted in his mind through varied repetitions... at this time of no recordings, one would hear a piece of music only while it was actually being performed. However, most homes had pianos, and educated women could read music and play simplified scores... thus Odette would entertain Swann by playing "their" theme.
It would seem that Proust is exploring a phenomenon that we today recognize and identify as "They are playing our song." Or maybe I am showing my age -- for in the 1950s, with no iPods or personal sound systems, songs were mainly played over the air: on the radio, on a jukebox, or by a live band. Popular songs lasted a few weeks and then were gone. When I now hear The Platters sing "The Great Pretender", I am immediately taken back to a not-so-successful (for me) New Year's Eve party in Denver. And when I hear Perry Como's "Round and Round", I find myself at a college dance hall.
Of course, Proust goes into even deeper analysis of this power of a musical motif. He focuses not on songs, which are easily remembered because of their lyrics and a repetitive melody, but on "classical" music, in this case a sonata for violin and piano. How is it that when one hears such a complex piece, one's mind recalls but a single motif? How often does one need to hear a piece to find that motif? And why, after many hearings, does one focus on that motif and not on others? And why is another listener not immediately struck by that motif? These are all questions that Proust invites us to ponder.