Like the Flaubert novel whose main character it appropriates, “The Kugelmass Episode” examines the futility of the quest for personal happiness. Although it is cast in a comic key, Woody Allen’s story, like Madame Bovary, is organized around a logic of disillusionment. Each stage of transcendence is a disappointment, and the more that Kugelmass, who has already been through two marriages at the outset of the story, reaches for something exotic that is beyond his grasp, the more miserable he becomes. It is appropriate that he is last seen hounded by the verb tener, a graphic reminder of the elusiveness of the heart’s desire: People cannot have what they want and do not want what they have.
Allen is best known for his achievements in film—as a prolific director, writer, and performer. Many of his cinematic works explore the complex relationship between art and life by being playfully metafictional; when characters mug to the camera or are themselves artists, the medium becomes aware of itself. “The Kugelmass Episode” is a similar fiction about fiction. Its interaction between “real” and invented characters anticipates the premise of Allen’s film The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), in which a film character walks off the screen and into a romance with a woman in the audience.
As a professor of humanities, Kugelmass is a professional reader of literature. Like Flaubert’s Emma, whose addiction to...
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