The Kugelmass Episode Summary
Psychoanalysis is incapable of curing the civilized discontent of Professor Sidney Kugelmass. He feels frustrated in his second marriage—to a woman whom he regards as an overweight oaf—and pressured by the alimony and child support that he must pay his first wife. He longs to transcend the banality of his existence and fantasizes doing so in an adulterous affair with a glamorous woman.
His opportunity comes with an unexpected phone call from a tinker in Brooklyn who dubs himself “The Great Persky.” Persky has constructed a cabinet that can somehow transport its occupant into the world of a literary work. All Persky need do is toss in a book, tap three times, and whoever is inside will find himself within that book’s fictional universe.
Kugelmass decides that he wants to pursue a romance with Emma Bovary. He pays Persky twenty dollars, and soon after getting inside the cabinet with a paperback of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), finds himself in the Bovary house in provincial Yonville. Kugelmass and Emma spend a romantic afternoon alone together in the French countryside, which ends when he must return to meet his wife Daphne at Bloomingdale’s. Kugelmass goes back to nineteenth century Yonville many times during the next several months. He and Emma become passionate lovers.
Fascinated by Kugelmass’s tales of the world from which he comes, Emma is eager to visit it. Persky manages to transport both of them back to New York City, where they pass a rapturous weekend at the Plaza Hotel. On Monday morning, Kugelmass must return to his wife and his job, and he brings Emma to Persky’s house to have her dispatched back to Yonville. This time the cabinet does not work, however, and Emma must spend the week ensconced at the Plaza Hotel, while Persky desperately attempts to repair his invention and Kugelmass, afraid that his liaison will be discovered, begins to panic. By the time Emma is able to return whence she came, her relationship with Kugelmass has disintegrated. He is now reconciled to a banal life with Daphne in twentieth century America.
Nevertheless, three weeks later he returns to Persky to seek another romantic adventure, an affair with one of the beautiful women in Philip Roth’s sexually explicit Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). The cabinet malfunctions, however, killing Persky, and substituting an old Spanish textbook for Portnoy’s Complaint, so that a terrified Kugelmass finds himself pursued at the end by the irregular verb tener (“to have”).
‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ opens with Kugelmass, a middle-aged, unhappily married humanities professor seeking the advice of his analyst, Dr. Mandel. He is bored with his life, and he needs to have an affair. His analyst disagrees, however, telling him ‘‘there is no overnight cure’’ for his troubles, adding that he is ‘‘an analyst, not a magician.’’ Kugelmass then seeks out a magician to help him solve his problem.
A few weeks later, he gets a call from The Great Persky, a two-bit magician/entertainer who shows him a ‘‘cheap-looking Chinese cabinet, badly lacquered’’ that can transport the professor into any book, short story, play, or poem to meet the woman character of his choice. When he has had enough, Kugelmass just has to give a yell and he is back in New York. At first Kugelmass thinks it is a scam, then that Persky is crazy, but for $20, he gives it a try. He wants a French lover, so he chooses Emma Bovary. Persky tosses a paperback copy of Flaubert’s novel into the cabinet with Kugelmass, taps it three times, and Kugelmass finds himself at the Bovary estate in Yonville in the French countryside.
Emma Bovary welcomes Kugelmass, flirting with him as she admires his modern dress. ‘‘It’s called a leisure suit,’’’ he replies romantically, then adds, ‘‘It was marked down.’’’ They drink wine, take a stroll through the countryside, and whisper to each other as they recline under...
(The entire section is 1,161 words.)