by Nancy Means Wright

Would you like to have tea with Emma Bovary? A tete-a-tete with Hamlet’s Ophelia? That is, before Emma gets involved with the manipulative Rodolphe or Ophelia drowns. Maybe you could warn Emma about feckless men or keep Ophelia from falling into “the weeping brook.” Maybe you could change the whole outcome!

Woody Allen’s fictional character, Professor Kugelmass, had his chance. In Allen’s short story “The Kugelmass Episode,” the protagonist is bald, aging,  and desperate to begin an affair to enliven his humdrum life with a humdrum wife. He meets a magician named Persky, and the astonished professor soon finds himself walking through a cabinet door into Yonville, France–and into Emma Bovary’s passionate arms. He has made sure, of course, to return to his real life before page 120 when she “hooks up with this Rodolphe character.”

For months he has a thrilling time. Until one day…  Well, more about his story anon.

My own experience at living inside a book–other than the writing of it–begins with Shape of the Sky by Shelagh Connor Shapiro, a beautifully written novel about a small Vermont town called Resolute, which is trying to raise money by hosting a rock festival.  A few days before the fete is to begin, a female music fan is found dead in the woods. And the discovery of the young woman makes state trooper Kozlowski grieve for a favorite sister who disappeared when he was a boy.

The trooper’s ruminations about his sister reminded me of the time my 9-year-old daughter went missing in the woods for 24 hours; the whole town joined in the search, and a dozen deadly scenarios beat through my brain. So I couldn’t stop turning the novel’s pages to discover a killer–and to anticipate a sibling reunion. The author was careful to fully develop her characters and to raise question after question–then let events come to a slow, dramatic resolution.

I had been twice interviewed on author Shapiro’s Write The Book radio show for my Wollstonecraft mysteries, and was delighted with the public’s warm reception of her debut novel.  Wanting to share my enthusiasm with the world, I wrote blurbs on social media and talked up the book to everyone I knew. I felt so close to the characters that I wanted to be in the book.  I wanted to see the trooper and his missing sister together again, just as I’d been ultimately reunited with my lost daughter.

I had my chance to live in someone else’s story when my grandson, Connor,  a freshman at Middlebury College, was accepted into the celebrated all-male, a cappella Dissipated Eight singers. Founded in 1953, the group, now twelve men, is highly popular, adding new members as seniors graduate. They’ve sung with the Yale Whiffenpoofs, Princeton Nassoons, and have released a dozen award-winning albums. They sing blues, folk, barbershop, Beatles and Grateful Dead tunes, and do all manner of antics like breaking into crazy dance or piling onto a giggling spectator’s lap.

I wanted a local audience for the group, so I promoted the event in print and on radio and more than 150 music lovers braved a January ice storm to come to our Unitarian Universalist church to hear the young men sing. My  talented grandson got a laugh from the audience when he unexpectedly leapt off the stage to drop to his knees and sing a love song to me, his old granny.

And I was seized with a Kugelmass moment: I was living in a book! I was back inside Shapiro’s novel, Shape of the Sky, when crowds converge on tiny Resolute to hear the rock music,  I was about to see, I hoped, the heroic cop reunited with his long lost sister–praying she would not be the dead music fan.

Fortunately, I was able to walk out of that sanctuary-turned-music hall scot free and exalted. But poor Kugelmass’s adventure in a book had a more somber ending. Trying one last time to re-enter the cabinet after a blissful weekend with Emma, he tossed in a copy of Portney’s Complaint, rapped three times on the box–and there, alas, was the magician Persky doubled over with a heart attack. Kugelmass entered the cabinet just before it burst into flames, but to his horror, he was not in the Roth novel, but inside an old textbook, Remedial Spanish. And there he was: running for his life over a barren, rocky terrain as the verb tener (to have) raced after him on its spindly legs.”

So enjoy your  favorite book–read it over and over. But keep in mind Dante’s warning about the nine circles of hell: “All hope abandon ye who enter here.”


17 Responses

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading the blog. There are some great philosophical writings about life as a book and why this moment is divine, the only reality. author of Ghost Orchid, Bamboo Ring & more…

    • DK, I love the thought that living in a book is a divine moment–“the only reality.” And of course it can be! I’d like to read one or two of the philosophical writings on this subject. Thanks for you comment!

  2. Hi, Nancy,

    Reading a great book is a living experience for sure. The Dante quote you used is the one I placed at the beginning of my novel The Inferno Collection. I think the greatest compliment a writer can receive from a reader is that the reader lived inside the book.

    • Yes, it’s a great quote, isn’t it? Of course it’s all a metaphor, but I love the way Woody Allen’s character actually entered the book. Despite the disastrous ending, that is…

  3. Fun — and thought-provoking — post! Those 24 hours when your daughter was missing must have been horrible. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks, Lea. And those hours were frightening. But she was simply lost and then fell asleep. I feel for those poor mothers whose daughters were not found.

  4. What an inspiring blog 🙂 The mind runs wild with the theory doesn’t it? I think I’m a bit of a coward though, I doubt I would venture through to the inside of the book. I’m quite content living vicariously, tucked in bed, with a wonderful cup of coffee or glass of wine and the lights turned low. I’ve always loved the sound and feel of things raging outside (or inside a book) and knowing I’m safe 🙂


    • Very true, Lo, that you wouldn’t always be safe inside a book. An interesting thought to ponder, actually. Some books will hold you in their arms, and others will throw you out. And you won’t know which–until you’re, figuratively speaking, “inside” the pages.At the moment of writing it’s cold and snowy outside, and I’m quite happy to be inside my warm house reading an upbeat book.

  5. Nancy, you always come up with the most thought-provoking posts. I spent much of my young adult years wanting to participate in the events of my favorite characters. Since my series takes place locally, it feels as if my characters and I all hang out together as it is, and just like in real life, I have no control over what they do or say:-)

    • I think you’re a good example, Cindy, of an author who lives inside AND outside your book. And in that case, you have little or no control, true, over what they do or say! I suppose, in a sense, that we writers do live inside our own work, but can only peer in through the windows of other writers’ fictional lives.

  6. Excellent, thought-provoking blog, Nancy. The best books always make us feel we’re living inside them, don’t they? I was up half the night reading Nevada Barr’s “The Rope.” I don’t think I’d want to live in that one, thank you very much, but I did enjoy peeking into Ranger Anna Pigeon’s life.

    • And Nikki, I’ve just finished reading Dead Wake, a meticulously researched book about the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. It reads like fiction as the author swerves between the captain/passengers and the German submarine hunting boats to torpedo during WWI. The L’s loss was horrifying, and while reading and sleeping I was on that sinking ship, leaping into the shivering sea. Kept reminding myself: No, I’m home, home.

  7. Love your literary musings, Nancy! I think we authors live inside every book we write (and play the part of every character) over and over again. I once dreamed I was Kafka’s beetle! Thanks for the blog-jog.

    • A nightmare, Susan, to be Kafka’s giant cockroach! I can’t imagine he enjoyed the experience either. But yes, it’s a joy to live inside a dozen or more fictional heads in one’s writing–particularly, the point-of-view characters. Another reason I like to write from multiple POVs. Again, congratulations on your new novel!

  8. Leave it to Woody! Thanks for this, Nancy. One of my favorites of his stories is Purple Rose of Cairo — entering a movie!
    As for Dante — my high school Italian teacher had “Lasciate ogni speranza . . .” printed and hung over her classroom door during exams.

    • Oh, I haven’t read Purple Rose of Cairo! I’ll look for it. And a great quote for an exam! Ha. I’ll send it to my grandson, who’s studying Italian at Middlebury College. (He spent a whole gap-year working on a farm in Tuscany.) Thanks so much for coming by.

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