In this Woody Allen’s short story, an unhappily married humanities professor Kugelmass, making no progress with his analyst, seeks help from a magician called Persky. The magician says he can send the man into the world of any book he wants. All Persky needs do is toss in a book, tap three times and person will be projected into the wished novel. Kugelmass chose Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary.
KUGELMASS, A PROFESSOR of humanities at City College, was unhappily married for the second time. Daphne Kugelmass was an oaf. He also had two dull sons by his first wife, Flo, and was up to his neck in alimony and child support.
“Did I know it would turn out so badly?” Kugelmass whined to his analyst one day. “Daphne had promise. Who suspected she’d let herself go and swell up like a beach ball? Plus she had a few bucks, which is not in itself a healthy reason to marry a person, but it doesn’t hurt, with the kind of operating nut I have. You see my point?”
Kugelmass was bald and as hairy as a bear, but he had a soul.
“I need to meet a new woman,” he went on. “I need to have an affair. I may not look the part, but I’m a man who needs romance. I need softness, I need flirtation. I’m not getting younger, so before it’s too late I want to make love in Venice, trade quips at ’21,’ and exchange coy glances over red wine and candlelight. You see what I’m saying?”
Dr. Mandel shifted in his chair and said, “An affair will solve nothing. You’re so unrealistic. Your problems run much deeper.”
“And also this affair must be discreet,” Kugelmass continued. “I can’t afford a second divorce. Daphne would really sock it to me.”
“But it can’t be anyone at City College because Daphne also works there. Not that anyone on the faculty at C.C.N.Y. is any great shakes, but some of those coeds …”
“Help me. I had a dream last night. I was skipping through a meadow holding a picnic basket and the basket was marked ‘Options.’ And then I saw there was a hole in the basket.”
“Mr. Kugelmass, the worst thing you could do is act out. You must simply express your feelings here, and together we’ll analyze them. You have been in treatment long enough to know there is no overnight cure. After all, I’m an analyst, not a magician.”
“Then perhaps what I need is a magician,” Kugelmass said, rising from his chair. And with that, he terminated his therapy.
A couple of weeks later, while Kugelmass and Daphne were moping around in their apartment one night like two pieces of old furniture, the phone rang.
“I’ll get it,” Kugelmass said. “Hello.”
“Kugelmass?” a voice said. “Kugelmass, this is Persky.”
“Persky. Or should I say The Great Persky?”
“I hear you’re looking all over town for a magician to bring a little exotica into your life? Yes or no?”
“Sh-h-h,” Kugelmass whispered. “Don’t hang up. Where are you calling from, Persky?”
Early the following afternoon, Kugelmass climbed three flights of stairs in a broken-down apartment house in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Peering through the darkness of the hall, he found the door he was looking for and pressed the bell. I’m going to regret this, he thought to himself.
Seconds later, he was greeted by a short, thin, waxy-looking man.
“You’re Persky the Great?” Kugelmass said.
“The Great Persky. You want a tea?”
“No, I want romance. I want music. I want love and beauty.”
“But not tea, eh? Amazing. O.K., sit down.”
Persky went to the back room, and Kugelmass heard the sounds of boxes and furniture being moved around. Persky reappeared, pushing before him a large object on squeaky roller-skate wheels. He removed some old silk handkerchiefs that were lying on its top and blew away a bit of dust. It was a cheap-looking Chinese cabinet, badly lacquered.
“Persky,” Kugelmass said, “what’s your scam?”
“Pay attention,” Persky said. “This is some beautiful effect. I developed it for a Knights of Pythias date last year, but the booking fell through. Get into the cabinet.”
“Why, so you can stick it full of swords or something?”
“You see any swords?”
Kugelmass made a face and, grunting, climbed into the cabinet. He couldn’t help noticing a couple of ugly rhinestones glued onto the raw plywood just in front of his face. “If this is a joke,” he said.
“Some joke. Now, here’s the point. If I throw any novel into this cabinet with you, shut the doors, and tap it three times, you will find yourself projected into that book.”
Kugelmass made a grimace of disbelief.
“It’s the mess,” Persky said. “My hand to God. Not just a novel, either. A short story, a play, a poem. You can meet any of the women created by the world’s best writers. Whoever you dreamed of. You could carry on all you like with a real winner. Then when you’ve had enough you give a yell, and I’ll see you’re back here in a split second.”
“Persky, are you some kind of outpatient?”
“I’m telling you it’s on the level,” Persky said.
Kugelmass remained skeptical. “What are you telling me-that this cheesy homemade box can take me on a ride like you’re describing?”
“For a double sawbuck.”
Kugelmass reached for his wallet. “I’ll believe this when I see it,” he said.
Persky tucked the bills in his pants pocket and turned toward his bookcase. “So who do you want to meet? Sister Carrie? Hester Prynne? Ophelia? Maybe someone by Saul Bellow? Hey, what about Temple Drake? Although for a man your age she’d be a workout.”
“French. I want to have an affair with a French lover.”
“I don’t want to have to pay for it.”
“What about Natasha in War and Peace?”
“I said French. I know! What about Emma Bovary? That sounds to me perfect.”
“You got it, Kugelmass. Give me a holler when you’ve had enough.” Persky tossed in a paperback copy of Flaubert’s novel.
“You sure this is safe?” Kugelmass asked as Persky began shutting the cabinet doors.
“Safe. Is anything safe in this crazy world?” Persky rapped three times on the cabinet and then flung open the doors.
Kugelmass was gone. At the same moment, he appeared in the bedroom of Charles and Emma Bovary’s house at Yonville. Before him was a beautiful woman, standing alone with her back turned to him as she folded some linen. I can’t believe this, thought Kugelmass, staring at the doctor’s ravishing wife. This is uncanny. I’m here. It’s her.
Emma turned in surprise. “Goodness, you startled me,” she said. “Who are you?” She spoke in the same fine English translation as the paperback.
It’s simply devastating, he thought. Then, realizing that it was he whom she had addressed, he said, “Excuse me. I’m Sidney Kugelmass. I’m from City College. A professor of humanities. C.C.N.Y.? Uptown. I-oh, boy!”
Emma Bovary smiled flirtatiously and said, “Would you like a drink? A glass of wine, perhaps?”
She is beautiful, Kugelmass thought. What a contrast with the troglodyte who shared his bed! He felt a sudden impulse to take this vision into his arms and tell her she was the kind of woman he had dreamed of all his life.
“Yes, some wine,” he said hoarsely. “White. No, red. No, white. Make it white.”
“Charles is out for the day,” Emma said, her voice full of playful implication.