The BOOKPRESS November 1998

Magic Imperialsim

Cushing Strout

The Magician’s Wife.
Brian Moore.
Dutton, 1998.
230 pages, $23.95.

In histories of conjuring, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (for whom Harry Houdini named himself) plays a large role as the father of modern magic, appearing as a performer in a gentleman’s evening clothes instead of in the fancy robes and bizarre hats worn by earlier magicians. He also was a master clock-maker and inventor of ingenious automata and original illusions, such as androids who answered questions, singing birds, and butterflies who pulled a borrowed and vanished handkerchief from a sectioned orange. Such achievements were enough to justify his large place in the annals of conjuring, but his most remarkable performance took place in Algeria when he was on a political mission in 1856 for France. The French government hoped that by performing magic for the chieftains of the principal tribes he would counteract the influence of the Marabouts, a sect priding itself on its wonder-working powers, who were advising the tribal leaders to break their ties with France.

When he performed for the desert tribes, Robert-Houdin produced cannonballs from an empty hat, passed coins from his hands to a closed and suspended crystal chest, and by command, made it impossible for a muscular Arab to lift a wooden cash box from the floor. (Robert-Houdin was versed in electromagnetism and planted an induction coil in the metal handle of the box.) In the finale, a young Moor stood on a table (with a trapdoor) and was covered with a cloth cone. Then when a plank was slid under the cone and it was carried forward by the magician and his assistant, the cone tottered and fell empty to the stage. "There was pandemonium in the theater," writes Milbourne Christopher in The Illustrated History of Magic, "as terrified spectators rushed to the exits." Four days later, Christopher observes, the Arab leaders, wearing robes symbolic of their loyalty to France, presented the magician with a scroll extolling his magic. Two years later, Robert-Houdin wrote his widely-known memoirs, in which some sixty years ago, as a young informal apprentice to an older amateur magician, I first gapingly read about the Frenchman’s Algerian triumph.

I was intrigued to discover recently that one of my favorite contemporary novelists had made this episode the centerpiece of his latest novel, The Magician’s Wife. The Irish novelist, Brian Moore, who emigrated to Canada and now lives as a Canadian citizen in California, has written many compelling stories about the interrelationship between politics and religion. They cover a wide range, from the struggles of Jesuit Missionaries in the Canadian wilderness of 17th-century New France (Black Robe), to communist Eastern Europe and the political troubles of the Church (The Color of Blood). Moore has a gift for narrative suspense, and these novels often have the pace and intrigue of superior spy and mystery stories; but these qualities are seamlessly merged with moral and religious reflection in a way that readily explains why he is Graham Greene’s favorite modern novelist. There is nothing conventional and orthodox in the religious dimensions of these stories, and they might all bear Jorge Luis Borges’ epigraph to Moore’s No Other Life: "God moves the player, he, in turn, the piece. But what god beyond God begins the round of dust and time and dream and agonies?"

It might seem odd that Robert-Houdin’s theatrical story should become an occasion for the imaginative use of Moore’s artistic talents. In the histories of conjuring the episode is given no deep implications whatever, but in Moore’s telling it reveals meanings for a modern reader that are entirely missing from earlier accounts. At the end of his story, Moore notes that in the summer of 1857, French armies "subdued the tribes of Kabylia, thus completing the conquest of Algeria by France," while in the summer of 1962, "Algeria officially declared its independence, ending the French presence in that country." These are like two strokes of a clock, not the ingenious and entertaining invention of Robert-Houdin, the son of a watch-maker and maker of "mystery clocks," but one made by Brian Moore that keeps historical time.

Moore’s fictional couple, Henri and Emmeline Lambert, retrace the same expedition to Algeria as the one made by Robert-Houdin and his second wife. Like Robert-Houdin, Henri Lambert is an accomplished inventor of automata as well as a master magician, but it is Emmeline Lambert who occupies the moral center of the story. A provincial, no-longer-devout Catholic, who had worked before her marriage as a nurse in the clinic of her father, she finds herself circumscribed and isolated in marriage to a man who is absorbed in his work as a performer and inventor. After reluctantly agreeing to join her husband in the social life of the court, which his political mission has made available to them, Emmeline becomes aware of the erotically tinged attentions paid to her by a Colonel Deniau, chief of the Bureau Arabe. Gradually, the people and geography of Algeria have a seductive influence in separating her from her old moorings, and she becomes increasingly aware of the extent to which her husband’s gifts are used, as her own beauty is, by those with political objectives of foreign conquest. Her faded youthful religious feeling is to some extent revived by her wonderment at the daily devoted prayers of the Muslims, whose God seems to be far more real to them than the Christian God is to the French.

Emmeline’s awakening has reverberations for her conduct that give a new turn to the famous story of her husband’s mission. As the plot unfolds, she becomes concerned about the impact of the mission on the Algerians and responds in a way that jeopardizes the mission. For his part, her husband, for all his skill and bravery amid challenging circumstances, cannot escape paying a personal physical price, which Robert-Houdin never paid. Without any overt editorializing, Moore explores the psychological, political, and moral dimensions of the famous episode that underlies his story. Henri Lambert performs exactly the same tricks in Algeria as Robert-Houdin did, but Moore’s story transcends the magician’s place in the annals of conjuring by viewing the magician’s deeds within the historical context of French imperialism. Moore has mastered here, as in his other novels, the artist’s difficult trick of marrying invention with historical credibility.

I can think of only one other novel that bears comparison with Moore’s in quality as a historically serious story based on an actual magician: Frances L. Shine’s Conjuror’s Journal: Excerpts from the Journal of Joshua Medley (1978), a man described in the subtitle as Conjuror, Juggler, Ventriloquist, and Sometime Balloonist. Shine, a graduate of Radcliffe and Cornell, invented a character, as she explains, that "owes much to Richard Potte, the mulatto conjuror who was America’s first native-born magician." He was born in 1783 of a slave mother and an unknown white father; made considerable money as a performer, and built a mansion on the site where he is buried at Potter Place, New Hampshire. Shine first learned about him from Robert Olson of the Old Sturbridge Museum; and Olson today performs (as I have seen) in costume at conventions of magicians, doing the sort of magic that Potter himself might have done. Shine’s fictional account is much more humorous than Moore’s, but it is infused with a serious concern for the magician’s search for his parentage, his marriage to a white woman, his pietistic religion, and his embittered sensitivity to social exclusion because of his color, a betrayal in his eyes of the expectations nourished by the American Revolution. I had never heard of the novel until I found it in a bookstall at a magicians convention. It deserves to be known to a much wider audience.

Cushing Strout is Professor Emeritus of American Studies at Cornell University.

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