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The Essential Robert-Houdin by Todd Karr

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2007)


Just as every schoolboy was once raised to know that George Washington was the father of our country, chopped down a cherry tree, and could not tell a lie about it, it seems that every magician knows that Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin was the father of modern conjuring, freshly costumed the stage magician in common evening wear, and put down the Marabout rebellion with his trick of the "Light and Heavy Chest." Although Robert-Houdin was not the first stage magician to cast off traditional wizard's garb, our general sense of the man seems a bit more accurate than our Washingtonian dogma. Of course, both men are far more complex creatures than the fables would have it, and we have a wealth of information available to help as discover the truth behind the tales; in the case of Robert-Houdin, much of that information has been penned by the great French conjuror himself. Todd Karr now provides us with The Essential Robert-Houdin as a potent single-volume gathering of the master's literary output.

Most of these works, while perhaps not terribly difficult to obtain, are not available in current editions, and so the book serves double duty, not only providing a convenient single-volume compendium, but also rendering the entire Robert-Houdin oeuvre readily available to contemporary students who may have not yet had the chance to read some of these landmark texts. Editor Karr explains in his opening "publisher's note" that he intends the volume as a "practical textbook of technique first and as a history book second," and so the collected works are not presented in chronological order based on their original dates of publication, but rather begin with Robert-Houdin's most important practical manual, The Secrets of Conjuring and Magic, and in fact conclude with his famous Memoirs.

Every generation of magicians is raised on certain canonical texts, and well into the first third of the 20th century, give or take, Robert-Houdin's Secrets of Conjuring and Magic, along with Hoffman's Modern Magic, comprised the core curriculum. Times change and so do such defining books, but Robert-Houdin's Secrets is still a book that warrants reading by anyone who imagines him or her-self a conjuror or conjuror-to-be. Time and time again, as one turns the pages, the maestro speaks clearly of timeless principles of conjuring. Just a few pages into the book, in his chapter of "General Principles," for example, the author cautions against using "an excessive amount of gesture in order to cover their manipulations," and urges practitioners to use another approach: "The more simple and natural the movements of the performer, the less likely is the spectator to detect the trick." Pointing out that this approach requires a higher degree of dexterity than the use of distracting and contrived movements, Robert-Houdin thus tells us something about being natural, decades before Dai Vernon would adopt the principle from Dr. Elliott and thereafter make it his mantra. And Robert-Houdin closes this very chapter with his proscription against the wearing of long robes and high-crowned hats: "[T]he ordinary dress of a gentleman is the only costume appropriate to a high-class conjuror." The guideline lives today in Penn & Teller's signature gray business suits.

Only a few pages later the author also makes his famous statement that "A conjuror is not a juggler; he is an actor playing the part of a magician, an artist whose fingers have more need to move with deftness than with speed." The apparent simplicity of this axiom nevertheless continues to be debated today. My own opinion is that the master's intent was a much simpler one than is often attributed to him; his focus was in making the case that magic is more than an exercise in—as Maskelyne would late write in Our Magic—"more or less intelligent skill."

In considering the contemporary relevance of Robert-Houdin's Secrets, it is almost unsettling to read his advice concerning the shift, that "You should never make the pass immediately after having had the card replaced in the pack ...unless ... you ... [are) able to make the pass in an absolutely invisible manner." These words, written 138 years ago, are simply correct. Similarly wise is the author's subtle counsel that, in preparation for the Classic Force, it may be wiser to ask the spectator to "take" a card rather than to "choose" one, since "(t)he word choose implies a liberty of action which it is better not to suggest too strongly." One is reminded of one of Vernon's favorite aphorisms, drawn from Leonardo da Vinci: Details make for perfection, but perfection is no detail.

Amid the card sleights, Robert-Houdin also describes both the "modern method" of the Top Change as well as the "old method," and although many magicians seemed to maintain a dubious preference for the "old method" (some to this very day), the "modern" again, circa 1848! remains clearly superior.

And while many advancements have unarguably been made since the appearance of this classic text, it is worth noting that David Ben, in his show, The Conjuror's Suite, utilized a version of Robert-Houdin's "The Ladies' Looking Glass," complete with the originator's spectacular climax, the genuinely bare-handed mid-air catch of two cards from an unprepared deck tossed into the air.

There is much more card magic, coin magic, and work on the Cups and Balls, but suffice it to say that Secrets of Conjuring and Magic remains my favorite Robert-Houdin text. Hence if for no other reason than having a copy ready at hand along with the editor's occasional added notes of clarification and translation, and the rich addition of artwork, portraits, handbills, and other related illustrations drawn primarily from Mr. Karr's personal collection as far as I am concerned it is just cause for purchasing this marvelous volume.

But of course there is much, much more to come. The next entry is Professor Hoffman's 1882 translation of Robert-Houdin's Card-Sharping Exposed, and while you certainly won't be able to master the Second Deal from the primitive description provided, typical of the era's literature, nevertheless this is one of several standard cheating exposures of the time that will always be of interest to aficionados of the subject.

Next up is Secrets of Stage Conjuring, the volume that Robert-Houdin's family assembled and published posthumously in 1877. A reprint of this work was produced by Magico about a decade ago and briefly reviewed in these pages (January 1995 Genii; here Mr. Karr, in his role as editor, has "decided to include only the strongest material from" the original text. Readers will find that material to include details of the inventor's legendary "Light and Heavy Chest," detailed reportage on the spiritualistic methods of the Davenport Brothers, and an in-depth analysis one of the best extant of the Pepper's Ghost illusion. Robert-Houdin was an expert in optics and so truly understood the arcana of the magical ghost.

The next work is The Priory, a monograph describing Robert-Houdin's home, and many of the ingenious mechanical inventions he equipped his estate with after his retirement from performing. Concentrating on mechanical tinkering for purposes invariably practical and sometimes also fun, the grounds included an elaborate system of door-bells that announced visitors from a gate a full quarter-mile from the house, and alarms that helped keep the estate secure at nightfall or when the residents were absent.

Finally, of course, we come to the Memoirs of Robert-Houdin. Published in 1858, four years after his retirement from the stage of his Parisian theater, the famous book is a fictionalized sometimes highly so account of Robert-Houdin's life in magic. In his story, the author creates the character of a magician of legendary proportion, Torrini, along with his fictional friend, Antonio. Torrini serves as mentor and magical inspiration for the author, who after a circuitous life path manages to transform himself from watchmaker and mechanical tinkerer into France's greatest and most famous magician, despite a professional stage career of little more than a decade.

Despite the editor/publisher's claim that the Memoirs "may be the finest work of literature ever written by a magician," well, permit me to gently demur. While I have returned to Secrets of Conjuring and Magic countless times over the years, always engaged by its author's clear voice, rooted in the duality of craft's pragmatism and art's contemplation, this is the first time in many years I have reread the Memoirs. And while I see more clearly than ever why the book seized the imaginations of young magicians of the 19th and early 20th century who were raised on it, I confess I'm not likely to return to it again anytime soon. To me, the Memoirs is a boy's book, while Secrets (ironically its predecessor), is an adult book because Secrets is a work grounded in the real, while Memoirs is very much a work of the fantastical.

By this, I do not merely mean to say that Secrets was simply practical whereas Memoirs is a fiction. Much of the latter work is based in truth, for one thing; and for another, Secrets goes beyond the mere practical, and speaks from that voice filled with both idealistic joy and down-to-earth realism that a professional performer must live with if he is to defeat the daily challenges of his chosen work.

I like the Robert-Houdin I first met in Secrets, and I liked him even more in his journals and letters that I read in Christian Fechner's monumental The Magic of Robert-Houdin; an Artist's Life (reviewed in January 2003 Genii). I confess I am less enamored of the Robert-Houdin portrayed in the Memoirs, given as he is to periodically swathing himself in self-approbation and promotion, a tendency to aggravate these flaws by adding periodic doses of unconvincing false humility, along with occasionally trashing his predecessors and competitors, and even revealing a brief dash of racism. (And cautious though we must be of judging the past by the present, there have always been those individuals who were ahead of the moral curve, others who lagged behind it, and the vast majority merely riding the wave of the given period. Even well before the American Revolution there were those in Great Britain who, for example, were appalled by the treatment of American slaves.)

So it seems to me that the Memoirs is a boy's book in the way that Ian Fleming's James Bond novels are boys' books; while I confess to still harboring great affection for those stories, I read all 12 of the original Fleming books when I was about 11 or 12 years old, and I would rather savor my fond memories than attempt a revisiting today. The comparison is apt, however, when you consider Robert-Houdin's tale of Torrini's imagined telescoping and collapsing carriage that converts to an intimate theatre; is it really any different than James Bond's marvelously tricked-out Aston Martin (albeit that the latter's minimal special features in the novel Gold finger were greatly elaborated for film)? The Memoirs is a swashbuckling adventure tale, but if you want to talk about great works in the conjuring literature, it cannot hold an electrically-sparked candle to David Bamberg's remarkable Illusion Show.

The literary merits of Robert-Houdin's Memoirs aside, there's no question that magicians will be reading the book for many ages to come. Todd Karr's occasional clarifying notes are invariably helpful (and I far prefer the fact that he added them in the Memoirs as chapter end notes, rather than as the parenthetical notes inserted in Secrets of Conjuring and Magic each one repeating the editor's name to distraction, a variance of choice I find a bit mysterious). Indeed, prestidigitators will doubtless be feasting on the legacy of Robert-Houdin for generations to come, and I cannot imagine a better gift for any conjuror budding or veteran than this fabulous volume.

The Essential Robert-Houdin • Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin • Edited by Todd Karr • Hardbound with dustjacket • 664 pages • more than 350 illustrations • 2006