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.”