Now is that Odette? And is she in love with District Attorney Horgan? Or is that the wrong film?

I knew from the reviews that Time Regained was on the longish side but, by the time I tipped out of the Renoir cinema, I had the distinct impression that I'd been out of the country for the best part of a fortnight. I spent most of my first week in the back stalls, desperately trying to recognise people's names and faces. Was this Baron Charlus or Robert de Saint-Loup? And had I already encountered this person who was now talking so earnestly to Gilberte? It reminded me of a scene from Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce, in which an elderly couple are lying side by side in bed.

The man is reading intently and, after a few moments, his wife shows a cursory interest in his book. "It's Tom Brown's Schooldays," he tells her. "It's very good. Would you like to hear a bit?" She nods unenthusiastically, and he proceeds to read out a lengthy passage about the time when Jenkins minor came into the dormitory and found Ellis major talking to Tomkins about how Sturridge had let everyone down on the cricket field. His wife listens with growing exasperation. Eventually she intervenes. "Who are all these people?" she asks with wonderful indignation.

By the end of Time Regained, I'd easily sorted out who Tomkins and Sturridge were and why Gilberte kept turning into her own mother, but an evening of relative nominal incomprehension was hardly enhanced by arriving home to a note on the kitchen table saying: "If you don't get in too late, give Charlotte a ring. There's new trouble with Adrian and she's wondering whether to go back to James. He's now left Sally for good. Remember Sally?"

I took the note into the living room and studied it carefully. It probably wasn't too late to ring Charlotte, but was I really the ideal person to advise her on how to handle her emotional relationships with Adrian and James and Sally when I'd never met Sally in my life and could remember nothing about James except his tendency to repeat the phrase "zero-sum situation"?

I flicked on the television. The late-night film was already well under way. People came into shot and talked and disappeared. Had I seen the film before? It was all so dark and claustrophobic that it was difficult to get a fix on the plot, but I recognised the occasional face. That was certainly Harrison Ford playing Rusty, and he was definitely suspected of having killed someone else called Carolyn, but my efforts to work out whether or not he was guilty were constantly thwarted by my inability to grasp the precise relationship between Rusty, District Attorney Horgan and a policeman called Lipranzer. I changed channels and found the Australian tennis. Clarity at last. A cast list of two and frequent reminders between sets of which one of the bulky ladies with tight skirts was Lindsay Davenport.

Poor old Marcel might have been tormented by the manner in which a musical chord or a trick of light could send his mind racing back to Odette and Swann and Mama, but he really had a straight run compared to those of us in these promiscuous times who are bombarded by almost daily developments in the lives of scores of friends and acquaintances - as well as the fictional goings on of the cast of thousands who make up our regular ration of popular culture. How nice to live in more minimalist days, when one could return home to a note in which all the protagonists were instantly familiar: "Dear Marcel. Interesting news. Odette has remarried and begun an affair with the Duc de Guermantes. Remember the Duc de Guermantes?"

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The Prime Minister loses control