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The Magic of Robert-Houdin: an Artist's Life by Christian Fechner

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2003)


Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin was a singular human being. Watchmaker, mechanical wizard, inventor, author, scientist, family man, entrepreneur—and, of course, magician. No one who considers him or herself a conjuror can fail to be able to quote Robert-Houdin's famous and oft debated remark that "the magician is an actor playing the part of a magician" (even if the few words which follow—that he is "not a juggler"—seem largely forgotten). That he has had lasting influence on the art of conjuring is unquestionable; but how and why remains a mystery to many if nor most contemporary magicians.

French film producer, collector, and amateur magician Christian Fechner now tries to answer that question in less than a thousand pages. Having amassed the largest private collection of Robert-Houdin materials, combined with unprecedented research into other sources in their mutual homeland, M. Fechner has assembled a monumental work as paean to his hero.

From the foldout four-page family tree to the pages of test drawn from Robert-Houdin's personal diary, no reader will come away from these volumes without being steeped in the sensation of new discovery and revelation that abounds within their pages. The author makes use of his collection and his research to provide broad context about the history of French conjuring and the era in which the story is set. Early chapters are, for example, devoted to the Parisian magic dealer, Alexander Roujol, and "the King's Conjuror," M. Comte, Robert-Houdin's predecessor in presenting magic on the Paris stage in a theater of his own. A 10-page chapter about Robert-Houdin's first arrival in Paris in 1830 contains no less than 10 period illustrations of cups-and-balls workers.

Among the first of the book's countless new disclosures concerns a character known only as "M. David" of Bordeaux, a wealthy "cloth merchant" and amateur magician who kept four extensive notebooks about magic, recording the programs (and including the playbills) of the many magicians he saw in the late 18th century. M. Fechner devotes a small chapter of several pages entirely to the subject of this mysterious individual, and no sooner are we introduced to this previously unknown character, we proceed to the author's questioning, if not virtual debunking, of Robert-Houdin's tale (in his Memoirs of Robert-Houdin) of his first magical mentor, Torrini (a.k.a. Edmond de Grisy).

Throughout, the mass of primary source material is astounding, much of which is clearly depicted in illustrations (i.e., images of hand-written letters; photos of apparatus; original drawings and diagrams; family photographs; original photographs of Robert-Houdin used as studies for eventual illustrations in Secrets of Conjuring and Magic; even images of title pages of Robert-Houdin's personal copy of the original 1858 edition of his memoirs, one of only four complete copies remaining in existence), and the rest of which is heavily referenced in extensive footnotes. Although the author mentions that the resource of Robert-Houdin's personal diaries would have extended the resulting text "by a few thousand pages," some of the most insightful material actually comes from the subject's personal correspondence. His generous responses to queries from amateur magicians, his warm personal writings to his family, and his precise, tactically admit, sometimes tough and occasionally wry business letters go far in revealing the nature of the man behind the myth.

One is also struck by the depth and variety of Robert-Houdin's talents and interests. Certainly he wrote one of the most readable "pot-boilers" in all of magic's literature, namely his Memoirs, which still remain inordinately entertaining today. Likewise his Secrets of Conjuring and Magic is one of the most important works of the liter-ature of conjuring; no budding magician born within a half-century of its publication could have failed to have been enamored of it, and only Hoffmann's Modern Magic could compete with its popularity and influence. Although the book remains eminently readable today, every generation of developing magi finds itself formed in the crucible of such critical works—be it the Vernon/Gannon books of the 1950s and '60s, the Dingle and Roth works of the 1980s, and so forth. Robert-Houdin's Secrets was equally profound for those who fell under its spell.

Robert-Houdin's most lasting influence might well be felt in the form of these published works on conjuring, but of course we recognize that he was far more than that. His program of Soirees Fantastiques at the Theatre Robert-Houdin was filled with his own original creations, including such effects as "The Inexhaustible Bottle," "The Fantastic Orange Tree," "The Miraculous Fishing," and of course, The Ethereal Suspension" this latter a far cry from the con-temporary Broomstick illusion, but rather a mystifying feat both then as now, as witnessed by its recent recreation by Toronto's David Ben in his The Conjuror. Many of these tricks were copied by his contemporaries, as is often recounted in detail (and palpable outrage) by M. Fechner. As an inventor, Robert-Houdin had few peers perhaps none in his own lifetime and matched only the most creative magical originators yet to come, men like Selbit, DeKolta, LeRoy, and Germain.

Robert-Houdin's skills as a mechanical technician were also remarkable; his original automata comprised a significant portion of his performance program. Many if not most of these might more properly be considered pseudo-automata, for despite their ingenious mechanical components, these were secretly operated by off-stage or concealed assistants. It is the combination of conjuring thinking and mechanical inventiveness which helped Robert-Houdin achieve such a remarkable effect with these contrivances.

What magicians may know the least about concerning Robert-Houdin's talents would likely fall in the area of his scientific inventions. He sold the Theatre Robert-Houdin and essentially retired from the stage after little more than a decade's ton (notwithstanding a brief "comeback" of 30 performances in 1852 to thwart the impending plans of his copyist competitor, Robin), although its income and reputation continued to serve him throughout his lifetime. After first passing into family hands, and then seeing one of his son's on its stage long after his death, the theater would eventually come to be owned by George Melies, the conjuring pioneer of the cinema, who visited the theater as a young boy and would come to be responsible for it until its closing more than half a century after its founder's death. But this final segment of Robert-Houdin's life was far from idle, for the successful businessman, having amassed a comfortable if nor extravagant fortune, was now able to turn his attentions to science.

His explo-rations of the field of ophthalmologic instruments included the invention of the iridoscope; the dioscope; the pupiloscope; the pupilometer; the diopsimeter; the optometer; and the retinoscope, all discussed, and many illustrated, in the pages of the text. There is extensive discussion of his experiments with electricity and the many electrical contrivances he put to use in his home, and his pioneering work with electric lighting raises questions of whether or not he was one of the inventors of the incandescent bulb; although this seems unlikely, his efforts were certainly contemporaneous with the cutting-edge pursuit of this break-through. Toward the end of his days he continued his exploration of practical and scientific invention, including optics, and even the pursuit of a functional odometer for horse-drawn carriages!

The scope of this work borders on the ungraspable, and the quantity of detail is daunting. Famous episodes from the Memoirs are of course thoroughly covered, including Robert-Houdin's exploits in Algiers that served to make his name, along with his trick, "The Light and Heavy Chest," the stuff of legend. The struggles and personal losses of his life, including the deaths of children and his first wife, are addressed here in appropriate and affecting detail. The intricacies of lawsuits protecting against illegitimate use of his name, of dealings with publishers and contracts with the purchasers of his theater and apparatus all are recounted in extensive detail, and no summary can do justice to the range of this story or the materials which substantiate it. And so it becomes necessary to step back and attempt to see the final product in its whole form just as that product attempts to see a man in a form that, one hopes, is larger than the pieces that comprise him.

That the book is exquisite in both derail and appearance is inarguable; anyone who has seen M. Fechner's previous book, entitled (notably) Soirées Fantastiques which includes descriptions and details of his inventive if impractical award-winning F.I.S.M. illusion act will be pleased to note that the author/publisher has sought to match the remarkable production standards of that work (The English edition is limited to 1000 copies, 800 of which are available commercially here in the U.S.) The sheer quantity of Robert-Houdin information is unprecedented; equally important is the abundantly clear fact that the author has acquainted himself intimately with the source materials and is deeply familiar with its elements. Of these claims there can be little argument.

the work is not without its flaws, and they are concentrated in a handful of areas. Most obvious perhaps is that the author is not a professional writer, and the magnitude of the task before him is a daunting one that challenges his literary abilities. This is not merely a matter of suffering by translation; in fact, all indications are that the translation is very good, albeit with some misses here and there ("humoristic" is the kind of error that shows up more than once). But the consistency of written voice makes it clear that even in his native language, the author's style is inescapably stodgy. He often provides much detail but fails to make a clear point, which must be assembled with effort by the reader. At other times he makes points he considers obvious but which may only seem so to him. It seems clear that in fact there are a number of underlying agendas at work to (a) establish Robert-Houdin as truly "the father of modern magic"; (b) portray the Memoirs as being a deliberately entertaining story, never intended as a literal historical record; and (c) debunk Houdini's notorious Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.

Ironically, however: (a) true or not, if you ask the average magician who Robert-Houdin was, he is likely to pronounce him "the Father of modern magic"; (b) the memoirs is an obvious entertainment that considers the truth purely an inspirational source; and (c) no serious or even semi-serious student of magic takes Houdini's Unmasking terribly seriously as a work of unbiased scholarship.

This is not to say that the Unmasking is not deserving of responsible debunking, but the author is at times coy about his intentions, albeit no less transparent, with his sidelong references to "King of Handcuffs" and the like. But while Houdini turned to many primary sources in his own work his biased misinterpretations notwithstanding he also often attacked Robert-Houdin on the basis of inaccuracies in the Memories, hence it is also valid to point out that this was not a volume of academic history. The problem with all of this however is that M. Fechner is so intent upon establishing Robert-Houdin as this towering figure that it becomes difficult to get through this rose-colored lens that the author places upon the material, and see one's own way clear to the subject. The author appears so defensive about potential charges of hagiography that he overwhelms the readers with footnotes establishing every fact but that a fact is established is not the same as establishing the author's interpretation, yet he rarely if ever acknowledges the difference. This eventually becomes wearisome when we are constantly informed of Robert-Houdin's own inner motives and mental process, even though a reading of the diaries makes it clear (and indeed the author acknowledges) that Robert-Houdin was not a man given to examining or expressing his own feelings, except in rare occasions when it came to concern for his family. It would be pleasant and useful for a reader to he pro-vided with the facts, and the contexts in which they occur, yet still be permitted to draw one's own conclusions in the end. This privilege we are quite forcefully and relentlessly denied.

Although the author would have us believe that his is a dispassion-ate account uncolored by his personal regard for his subject, he never passes up the opportunity to insert a glowing adjective. This not only reveals his perspective, but also helps contribute to the stuffy tone of the writing; a writer friend once pointed out to me that "it's the verbs, not the adjectives" that make for good writing, and M. Fechner could benefit from a similar lesson. Nothing connected to Robert-Houdin ever simply occurs; rather it is always "brilliant" or "exemplary" or the like. He is portrayed as a man of the highest moral principles, yet when he fabricates (or worse) in the Memoirs it is always for good and sound reason, carefully explained away by the biographer. This constant (in effect) mind-reading of the subject combined with defensive interpretations at every turn eventually become a barrier that serves to distance the reader from the material.

This is a book that wants desperately to be loved or at least, wants its subject to be loved but like an insecure lover, serves only to cause the object of its desire the reader to recoil to safer ground. Examples abound: when the quite rational and skeptical Robert-Houdin is brought to a seance by a wealthy benefactor who happens to be a believer, he refuses to commit himself one way or the other in his follow-up notes, using noncommittal wording that could be safely interpreted (or misinterpreted) by anyone reading it. The biographer explains to us how these notes reflect a clever strategy, and why such a strategy was wise and be assured, the reasons arc not difficult to grasp—and we are informed that in Robert-Houdin's refusal to communicate the truth as he knows it, he is in fact being made a confederate (of the phony medium) "against his will." But of course, being a man possessed of free will, he becomes a confederate purely by his own choice; to avoid being so, he need only speak the truth. That there were many reasons to avoid this is obvious, and indeed, many a more common man, motivated by self-interest rather than the courage of one's convictions, would have done the same, then as now. But then, as now, there were others who might have spoken up, had they chosen to. My point is in fact not at all to judge Robert-Houdin in these actions or to conclude what he should have done, but radio that it should be up to the reader to judge, and the outcome is open to some debate. But the author wishes to supercede that part of the process, and ram his version of the truth down our gullets before we have the chance to take further breath.

The issue is complex. In a nod toward fairness, the author points out, for example, Mat if the character of Robert-Houdin's magical mentor, Torrini, is in fact a fiction, that it was "historically improper" to insert Torrini's name among a list of great con-jurors in the history of magic. yet in literally the same breath we are advised that "this was a brilliant procedure" and "we can understand why he did so." Once again, others may share this conclusion—but some may not, whether or not the author permits it, Robert-Houdin's occasionally critical commentary of other magicians is defended with a quote from the 18th-century polymath. Beaumarchais, to wit: "Without the freedom to condemn, there can be no flattery." Certainly no critic can argue with that, but we are faced with an author who actually poses the question, "Can [Robert-Houdin] be blamed for [his criticism of Bosco's mistreatment of animals]?" and then answers the question with the epigram. This is no dispassionate reporter—this is an activist!

And so it is "for the great pleasure of his readers" that Robert-Houdin creates a fictionalized account of the origins of the Van Kempelen chess-playing automaton; when his first wife dies we are told that her "tasteful wardrobe was free from any excessive vanity"; we are advised that "when the author uncharacteristically uses a sarcastic tone two or three times in his memoirs, it is always in regards to someone who has behaved unfairly with him on a financial, professional, or artistic level, although this is not explicitly stated."; that when Robert-Houdin's older son, Emile, took part in the shows at the newly opened theater, he "brilliantly aided the conjurer in numerous experiments"; and in a footnoted remark that the English reviews of Robert-Houdini’s run at the St. James Theater in London have "strangely remained unpublished" in the literature of conjuring, we are then provided with no less than nine pages of such reviews, rendered in reduced, footnote-sized type. At the same time, other great names in magic, from Compars Herrmann to John Henry Anderson, rarely earn a mention unless it is in connection with their imitation or theft of Robert-Houdin's material—a fact worthy of note wherever pertinent, alas, but for a book that attempts to offer background context to its story, it seems inadequate (if not ungenerous) to define such men in these terms alone. Perhaps the provision of one graphic example of a cups-and-balls worker instead of 10 from the author's collection might have left space for some occasionally more balanced reportage.

If this assessment seems ungrateful or unappreciative, no such conclusion is intended. This work is a magnificent contribution to the literature and history of conjuring. No reader this one included can come away without a newfound appreciation for its subject, and it must also be pointed out that these two volumes do not address the technical side of Robert-Houdin's conjuring works in detail; that subject has been reserved for the next two-volume set, slated for later this year! It is quite possible that that text, addressing details of Robert-Houdin's magic that have doubtless never been closely examined before, may well lead to new insights into the creator's influence on the magic of his time and beyond. When Robert-Houdin stripped his stage relatively bare, changed his own uniform into that of ordinary evening dress, and took it upon himself to communicate a new level of respect for magic in its very presentation, he set forth a vision that would serve magicians into the modern era, right through to Doug Henning's tie-dyes, Penn & Teller's gray business suits, and the apparatus-free magic of the tee-shined David Blaine. We learn something of Robert-Houdin's influences upon conjuring in these first two volumes, and we stand to learn even more in the next two.

And perhaps even more importantly, we do manage to learn some-thing of the human being behind the conjuror in these pages; not only the superman of letters, science, and worldly adventure, but the humanity of a father and husband who suffered, as do most of us, at the hands of life's randomness and loss. The closing pages of this book are among its most powerful, when the author steps aside and provides us with 24 pages of Robert-Houdin's personal accounts, taken from his diaries, of the occupation of his home village of Blois, during the Prussian-Franco War. Within months of the death of his soldier son in August of 1870, from December 10 until March 12 of the following year, we read the struggle of an aging, sophisticated, moral, generous man made to suffer the depredations of military siege his home invaded, his belongings demolished or taken, his wealth preyed upon. On she first day of the siege, 65 men enter and remain in his home men that must somehow be housed, and dined, and indeed even wined. The next day the manor's owner survives on a handful of rice, cooked in his bedroom "without butter or salt." In the weeks ahead there is often no news at all of the war outside, and somehow he retains his passion for life and invention by developing a sort of miniature snowplow to guide a path in the bitter cold, and continuing his work in optics. Eventually the armistice will come and not long after that, our own hero's final fall. No magician no person can help but be moved by these tales, and for this, and for the lasting contribution of this chapter in the history of magic, we can only thank the author and his biographer.

Two volumes • 863 pages • 1113 illustrations • Clothbound with dustjacket • Published by Christian Fechner and distributed in the United States by The Miracle Factory • 2003 • $250