As the novel begins, Yasha Mazur, a magician “religious and heretical, good and evil, false and sincere,” has just returned from a series of performances in the country; he has come home to spend the holidays with his wife, Esther. One evening while he is out walking, he has a vision of Emilia Chrabotzky, his mistress in Warsaw. The next morning, Pentecost, Yasha sleeps late, and when Esther returns from synagogue, he takes her to bed.
The holiday over, Yasha readies his horses and wagon and leaves for Warsaw. On the way, he stops outside Piask to pick up Magda Zbarski, his assistant and mistress. Because Yasha supports their family, Elzbieta Zbarski, Magda’s mother, obliges him to stay with them overnight. Passing through Piask the next day, Yasha visits Zeftel Lekach, another of his mistresses, who begs him to take her to Warsaw with him. A central idea of the book underlies Yasha’s numerous and complicated affairs: By seeing many women and being a different Yasha to each of them, he hopes to forestall the inevitable responsibilities that accompany a choice—but the complexities of his promiscuity become too great.
Once in Warsaw, he drops Magda off in the apartment he maintains there and visits Emilia. Significantly, although exuding confidence in himself and his skills everywhere else, Yasha loses confidence whenever he visits Emilia. During the visit, her daughter Halina enters, and Yasha begins to recognize increasing feelings...
(The entire section is 524 words.)