Proust provides the best introduction to any Proustian topic, so let's begin this brief note on the Proustian simile with three increasingly complex examples from A la recherche du temps perdu:
As the spectrum makes visible to us the composition of light, so the harmony of a Wagner, the colour of an Elstir, enable us to know that essential quality of another person's sensations into which love for another person does not allow us to penetrate. -- The Captive
Faced with the thoughts, the actions of a woman whom we love, we are as completely at a loss as the world's first natural philosophers must have been, face to face with the phenomena of nature, before their science had been elaborated and had cast a ray of light over the unknown. Or, worse still, we are like a person in whose mind the law of causality barely exists, a person who would be incapable, therefore, of establishing a connexion between one phenomenon and another and to whose eyes the spectacle of the world would appear as unstable as a dream. -- Within A Budding Grove
As, from a long way off, the sight of the jutting crag from which it dives into the pool thrills with joy the children who know that they are going to see the seal, so, long before I reached the acacias, their fragrance which, radiating all around, made one aware of the approach and the singularity of a vegetable personality at once powerful and soft, then, as I drew near, the glimpsed summit of their lightly tossing foliage, in its easy grace, its coquettish outline, its delicate fabric, on which hundreds of flowers had swooped, like winged and throbbing colonies of precious insects, and finally their name itself, feminine, indolent, dulcet, made my heart beat, but with a social longing, like those waltzes which remind us only of the names of the fair dancers, called aloud as they enter the ballroom. -- Swann's Way
The Proustian simile is a perfect example of how Modernism "makes it new" by taking its methods from the oldest archaeological layers of the Western tradition. For Proust's trademark similes are merely modernizations of the epic simile, a stylistic hallmark that descends from Homer through Virgil to Dante and onward to the Renaissance epicists and their Romantic descendants. As 19th-century archaeologists dug through the Turkish dirt to bring before modern eyes the ruins of a city Andromache knew and Agamemnon burned, so Proust descended to the birthing place of Western literature and from that hillside still stinking of putrefying python pulled forth such similes as this classic comparison of young girls to flowers from Within A Budding Grove:
...these young flowers that at this moment were breaking the line of the sea with their slender hedge, like a bower of Pennsylvania roses adorning a cliffside garden, between whose blooms is contained the whole tract of ocean crossed by some steamer, so slow in gliding along the blue, horizontal line that stretches from one stem to the next that an idle butterfly, dawdling in the cup of a flower which the ship's hull has long since passed, can wait, before flying off in time to arrive before it, until nothing but the tiniest chink of blue still separates the prow from the first petal of the flower towards which it is steering.
This is an especially complex example, beginning with a metaphor that likens the band of girls strolling along the shore to "young flowers" before modulating, at "like," into the epic simile that consumes the rest of the passage. Proust (or should we say Moncrieff?) departs here from the classic "as...so" form he uses elsewhere, but conceptually there is little difference between Proust's comparison of Albertine's "little band" to a bouquet and Homer's comparison of doomed warriors to falling leaves. The major, specifically Modernist difference lies in the way the vehicle subsumes the tenor. The roses all but erase our readerly vision of the group of seaside girls. Albertine and her friends are lost behind an image of flowers that reads very much like a close description of a canvas by Monet or Cezanne. (Proust's painter Elstir, whom the narrator meets in this volume, seems a composite of Monet, Whistler and Cezanne.) The radical flattening of space in Proust's image--the vastness of the sea contained in a flower garden and a tiny insect placed in parallel with an ocean-going steamship--is as much a stylistic signature of Cezanne as the epic simile is of Proust. It fairly screams Modernism. But the writer is not content to relax into the echoes of this exclamation. He pushes things further and animates the image, showing us the moving tanker, the flying Nabokovian blue (for what else could it be?), and in so doing he trades the brush of Monet for the camera of Lumiere. Perhaps unintentionally, the way genius often follows its muse, Proust brings his text of memory (both personal and literary) forward into the cinematic century of its composition.
More could be said about this passage. Most obviously, one might comment upon the butterfly as an image of the narrator's erotic desire, floating promiscuously over the group as a whole before coming to rest on Albertine--a desire that might feel subjectively like the 'buzzing blooming confusion' of an insect but look to an outside observer more like the lumbering progress of an oil tanker... And even more could be said. More can always be said about great art. That's why any acceptable commentary on the entire Recherche would surely run to at least 14 volumes. Better to just read Proust and puzzle it out for ourselves.