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Clever And Pleasant Inventions by J. Prevost

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii August, 1998)


Clever and Pleasant Inventions is the first known book dedicated entirely to conjuring, apparently in any language. Although it was published in France the same year as Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft appeared in England, Scot was primarily concerned with debunking rampant claims of witchcraft; conjuring was an aside, a supporting scrap of evidence. Yet while Scot's Discoverie has been produced in countless editions, including most recently by Kaufman and Company, precious few magicians of any era since have had the opportunity to read Prevost's important work; we are informed in footnote that "fewer than six copies have been located as of this writing," and other than a facsimile privately issued in 1987, there have, remarkably, been no other reprintings or translations into other languages. Hermetic Press, along with professional translator Sharon King, have done the community of magic a superlative service in providing this exquisitely thought out and gracefully produced edition.

This edition begins with an informative historical introduction by collector and Prevost expert Jacques Voignier, followed by an interesting translator's introduction by Sharon King (who holds the copyright to this introduction as well as to the translated text, a fact apparently accidentally overlooked and currently not noted elsewhere in the volume), who provides a valuable cultural and time-sensitive perspective on the book, and then an explanatory publisher's note from Stephen Minch. Thereafter we find the rest of the book set in typestyles that go far in recreating the sensation that one is reading a seventeenth century work, while at the same time rendering the material accessible and pleasurable for the reader. Hence while one can almost forget at times that one is reading what is in fact not a reproduction but a recreation, and one that is true to the layout and design of the original, at the same time the publishers chose to dispense with the original ampersands and elongated s's typical of sixteenth century printing, and have also converted to modern pagination and have added wider margins, all choices which make the book exceedingly easy to read. What's more, over a hundred carefully constructed annotations have been appropriately relegated to the back of the book, as their insertion in the body of the text as footnotes would have deeply marred the otherwise authentic feel of the book. Those annotations should not be overlooked; they provide enormous detail, clarifying the mistakes and uncertainties of centuries-old production errors. Other antiquarian reproductions could certainly benefit from this kind of careful shepherding by publishers. Top this package off with a multipiece cloth hardcover and matching endpapers, and this is a truly lustrous production that will be dear to the heart of any book lover.

Although the production especially warrants the foregoing attention, the content of the volume is of course the real prize. Students will recognize what is now popularly known as the Coloring Book, which also appeared concurrently in Scot's Discoverie. Ditto the Grandmother's Necklace, provided here in two variations. We learn to apparently swallow a knife at the dinner table in what is now truly time-honored fashion. We learn the impromptu paddle trick done with wetted paper pieces on the sides of a table knife (a popular routine today with John Carney, for one). There is a version of the Ring On Stick; Torn and Restored Thread; the appearance of a word on the hand of the performer when ashes are rubbed on the skin (the method here being advanced preparation with urine, not the modern wax crayon or soap); the comedy funnel (complete with collapsible awl!), later repeated (along with other entries) in Hocus Pocus Junior [page 322 ] and, in this case, Ady's Candle in the Dark [page 305 ]; a transposition of bells with a hidden bell as noisemaker concealed up the sleeve, also seen elsewhere and a principle later exploited by T. Nelson Downs and subsequently by David Roth.

There are also all manner of counterintuitive stunts, tricks with magnets, betchas, mathematical tricks, and more. Prevost was clearly an enthusiast and kept up with the latest developments in all such pastimes and diversions. He attempted to entertain the reader with his "humorous descriptions" and to guide them with encouragements to practice and cautions not to repeat certain tricks lest their methods be discovered. Interestingly enough, there are no card tricks included, nor is there discussion of the Cups and Balls, save a brief reference by way of analogy to a method. Prevost clearly intended this work to be followed by a sequel, in which he perhaps planned to include such material, but no such follow-up work has ever come to light. We are fortunate he gave us this one, however, and grateful to Hermetic Press for finally bringing it to light after lo! these many centuries. This is a thorough delight by every conceivable measure!

5" X 7-1/2" cloth hardbound; 232 pages; illustrated with woodcuts; 1998; Publisher: Hermetic Press, Inc.