Monday, 18 July 2016

The Prestige by Christopher Priest


published 1995


Prestige



I decided I had to see Angier's new illusion for myself, and when I heard at the end of October that he was starting a two-week residence at the Hackney Empire I quietly bought myself a ticket for the stalls. The Empire is a deep, narrow theatre, with long constricted aisles and an auditorium kept fairly well in the dark throughout the performance, so it exactly suited my purposes. My seat had a good view of the stage, but I was not so close that Angier was likely to spot me there.

I took no exception to the main part of his performance, in which he competently performed illusions from the standard magical repertoire. His style was good, his patter amusing, his assistant beautiful, and his showmanship above average. He was dressed in a well-made evening suit, and his hair was smartly brilliantined to a high gloss. It was during this part of his act, though, that I first observed the wasting that was affecting his face, and saw other clues that suggested an unwell state. He moved stiffly, and several times favoured his left arm as if it were weaker than the other.

Finally, after an admittedly amusing routine that involved a message written by a member of the audience appearing inside a sealed envelope, Angier came to the closing illusion. He began with a serious speech, which I scribbled down quickly into a notebook. Here is what he said:
Ladies and Gentlemen! As the new century moves apace we see around us on every side the miracles of science. These wonders multiply almost every day. By the end of the new century, which few here tonight shall live to see, what marvels will prevail? Men might fly, men might speak across oceans, men might travel across the firmament. Yet no miracle which science may produce can compare with the greatest wonders of all… the human mind and the human body.
Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I will attempt a magical feat that brings together the wonders of science and the wonders of the human mind. No other stage performer in the world can reproduce what you are about to witness for yourself!
With this he raised his good arm theatrically, and the curtains were swept apart. There, waiting in the limelight, was the apparatus I had come to see.


Prestige 2



commentary: The Prestige – as in the 2006 Christopher Nolan film featuring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman – is one of my favourites: wonderfully eerie and clever and mystifying, and despite its surprises and revelations, a film you can watch over and over again.

There are differences between book and film, and the book has a strange framing device in modern times – it is not really resolved, and I think Nolan did well to ditch it. But the book is just as fascinating and strange as the film. Both tell the story of competing magicians around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The two men get caught up in a ridiculous escalating war (given a better motive in the film) and at the heart of their rivalry is their wish to perform a Transported Man illusion: one where a person is visible at one moment, then re-appears somewhere else completely. They go about achieving this in quite different ways. To say more would be to spoiler.

It is clear that the author is very knowledgeable about the world of magicians, the illusions they perform and the historical era – and also that he has an amazing imagination: the story is intricate and powerful and also wide-ranging and very very clever.

Both film and book excel at creating an atmosphere, and tell their complex stories without too much confusion. I would highly recommend both…

The posters are from the Billy Rose collection at the NYPL.

Another great magician book is Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, on the blog a while back.

And of course Elly Griffiths’ second series (after Ruth Galloway) features illusionist Max Mephisto – see for example Zig Zag Girl, also with excellent magician pictures on the blogpost.









20 comments:

  1. I think the world of magicians and illusions is fascinating, Moira. And I can see how you'd think this was a good read/film. There's just something about that context that can captivate people. But then, it's designed for just that, isn't it? I'd suppose that the actual illusions came off qutie well in the film; it's a bit harder to make them work in a novel.

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    1. I saw the film first, and I've always wondered what I'd have thought if it had been the other way round. It's certainly true that the film does the illusions in the most awesome manner - from the quiet of a bouncing ball via top hats to something with a lot of flash and bangs...

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  2. I read the book first, then saw the film. I loved both, but you're quite right that they are very different. Thanks for the Elly Griffiths mention. Have just got into Ruth Galloway, and didn't know that there was another series. How exciting!

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    1. The second Griffiths series is very different from the Ruth books, but still very good - I hope you'll enjoy.

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  3. Something else I must read! I loved Carter Beats the Devil.

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    1. I think there's a very strong chance that someone who liked Carter will also like The Prestige.

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  4. Moira: I think I should read The Prestige. I love magic probably because I am so easily fooled. I sat in the front row of a cruise ship theatre barely more than a metre from a magician and could not figure out a single trick.

    In crime fiction The Vanished Man by Jeffery Deaver features a fiendish conjurer who uses illusion with great effect.

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    1. I'm just the same! Easily hypnotized too. I will look out for the book you mention, I do love all books about illusions.

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  5. Spooky timing, I watched the film Sunday and Monday night with my wife. Not my usual thing but I enjoyed it. I doubt I'll be reading the book though.

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    1. Sinister coincidence! I'll let you off the book then. I think it is a great film.

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  6. Moira, having seen the film with two fine actors, I'd be interested in reading the book. I liked the posters you chose from NYPL, which I plan to visit soon. I'm guessing the public library is a treasure trove of the arts.

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    1. You probably would like the book Prashant, and yes the acting in the film is excellent. I have only visited the NYPL as a book library and beautiful building, but their online collectios are amazing.

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  7. I loved The Prestige, but then I'm a sucker for all things magic. Didn't realize it was a book too.

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    1. Yes, magic just is always fascinating isn't it. I too will always go there...

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  8. Well, I've read both CARTER and THE PRESTIGE, and thanks to you I have the Elly Griffiths and am going to read it as soon as I get the chance. As far as THE PRESTIGE goes, I think everyone seems to have seen the film first, which must be a bit annoying for Christopher Priest. It's a very good movie.

    If I might make a suggestion, HIDING THE ELEPHANT by Jim Steinmeyer is a non-fiction book about the Golden Age of stage magic, which is basically the Victorian/Edwardian era. There is an enormous amount about the intense rivalry between magicians that is the background to THE PRESTIGE. It really is a fascinating book and has all the excitement and fascination of a really good thriller.

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    1. Mixed blessing for Priest, as presumably he then sold a lot more copies. I was intrigued to see how much he had written and how long his career was.
      Wlll look out for Steinmeyer. I had to check that he wasn't the guy who wrote songs for Meatloaf! (Jim Steinman)

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  9. Such a great book. Haunting and creepy and very imaginative. The way I like my fiction no matter what time period. I prefer it over the movie which is good but doesn't at all capture what my imagination conjured up while reading the book. I believe there is quite a bit not in the movie that made the book all the more memorable for me.

    CARTER THE MAGICIAN was very fun. I devoured that book. Gold's follow-up novel that came out eight years later is about Charlie Chaplin and was not as fun, IMO. Never finished it.

    There is a movie with Edward Norton that has a similar feel to it as THE PRESTIGE. It came out the same year as the movie of Priest's book, only a few months before: THE ILLUSIONIST. Not so much science fiction as with THE PRESTIGE, but a tinge of occult and rather mysterious. Based on a short story by a very good American writer Steven Millhauser who dabbles in fantasy every now and then. I highly recommend his stories and novels.

    Daniel Stashower's books with Houdini and his brother Hardeen who followed in his brother's footsteps and shadow are also great fun. Houdini tries to be a detective but his ego gets in the way. A witty portrayal of a man who was known for his vanity and ego. Hardeen turns out to be the detective who solves each case though his vainglorious brother takes all the credit.

    I attempted to read ZIG ZAG GIRL but it just didn't grip me at all. Took it out of the library and returned without ever getting past chapter two.


    Well, that's enough from me. Can you tell I'm just a tad obsessed with magicians and illusions in genre fiction and movies?

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    1. Totally understandable, and thanks for the tipoffs. I read something by Stashower and did like it. Will look out for Illusionist.
      It is just such a fascinating subject, and it always makes the hairs stand up when I read a great book about magic.

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  10. Very interesting. I had not heard of the book and not much about the movie. I might consider reading it someday; I like some fantasy but not always. And the movie sounds great... I like the actors, Jackman and Bale, and Michael Caine has always been a favorite.

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    1. I often say 'read the book first' when there is both, but in this case I would say see the film - I think you and Glen would like it.

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