Nabokov famously described The Search in his Lectures as, "The transmutation of sensation into sentiment, the ebb and tide of memory, waves of emotions such as desire, jealousy and artistic euphoria -- this is the material of the enormous and yet singularly light and translucid work." Which I probably agree with. The text as a whole does have a certain lightness despite its length and rather "heavy" subject matter.
Delauze, moreover, in his rather brilliant Proust & Signs (1972) curiously characterized Lost Time as, "a prophesy about the sexes, a political warning that reaches us from the depths of the Dreyfus Affair and the First World War, a cryptogram that decodes and recodes all our social, diplomatic, strategic, erotic, and aesthetic languages… a metaphysical treatise, a delirium of signs or of jealousy, an exercise in training the faculties."
For Deleaze, Lost Time was essentially an experimentation in the interpretation, through the complex mechanism of memory (in all its various permutations, see for example involuntary memory), of signs -- that is, gestures, sensations, loves, works of art -- which are released by the various objects of the novel.
We note that for Deleaze the genius of The Search is not only its ability to appropriate meaning to a specific object in a particularly original or profound way, but that its author invites the reader to take part in this process themselves. That is, of deciphering meaning, interpreting signs, uncovering truth. In the words of Deleaze, the text, taking on the form of a 'literary machine', is productive, self-sufficient.
Yes, Deleaze's ideas are as always very "curious," but his Signs have served as a useful guide for The Search, at least for me. For a more textual, formalistic approach to Proust (for example his use of the double metaphor) see Nabokov's Lectures.
Thematically if not also ascetically then we are faced broadly speaking with the interaction of time and memory in the search of truth, meaning, essence.
Which leads us to briefly to account for the narrative: divided into three unequal parts, the middle -- a love affair between a stylish, monocle-wearing aristocratic named M Swann and a somewhat devious yet 'well- kept' ex-courtesan called Odette (the future Mme Swann) -- takes up the bulk. The beginning and end retrace the narrator's childhood in a Parisian suburb called Combray, where the narrator's anticipation of his Mother's good-night kiss famously torments him (a foreglimpse of Swann's desperate affair with Odette) and he is introduced to one of his future love interests, the Swanns' daughter Gilberte, among other things.
Note: 'Swann's Way' (a.k.a. the 'Meseglise Way'), besides being the title of the novel, is an allusion to one of two routes, the other being the 'Guermantes Way,' which the narrator and his family take during their walks in the idyllic Parisian countryside, where the narrator first comes into contact with Gilberte.
Suffice it to say that, despite its rather slow start, long, rambling sentences, obscure metaphors and sentimentality bordering on over-the-top, Swann's Way lives up to its lofty expectation. It's fantastically written, rich in metaphors and flows expertly -- one might say geniusly even -- between narrative, dialogue and authorial asides on the nature of art and meaning of life.
It's also exceedingly (Post)modern in its preoccupation with pluralities, multiplicities, fragmentations (reality is fantastically sliced and diced by the author) and its exploration of the problem of part and whole, making up some of the most alluring passages of the novel:
For what we suppose to be our love or our jealousy is never a single, continuous and indivisible passion. It is composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, each of which is ephemeral, although by their uninterrupted multiplicity they give us the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity...
Moreover, the jelousy-filled love affair between Swann and Odette provides enough suspense and intrigue to keep the reader engaged. In short, Swann's Way is probably the richest, artistically satisfying and philosophically deep novels I've read since Anna Karenina. And despite being only a part, and a rather insignificant one at that, in a series, certainly stands on its own. Highly, highly recommended.