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The Great Escaper : What’s the fascination with magicians like Houdini? IF they cheat death, maybe we can, too : THE LIFE AND MANY DEATHS OF HARRY HOUDINI, <i> By Ruth Brandon (Random House: $25; 352 pp.)</i>

<i> John Banville is the editor of the Irish Literary Times and the author, most recently, of "Ghosts."</i>

When I was a child I developed a brief but passionate interest in two shamanic figures, Houdini and Rasputin. In my mind they seemed two sides of the same coin, the Mad Monk a dark, primeval figure shambling out of the great Siberian wastes, Houdini the mysteriously cheerful prankster, more daemon than demon, first cousin to Chaplin’s malignly chirpy tramp. I can date this interest from the Tony Curtis movie based on Houdini’s life, which was made in 1952. That means I was 7, and had probably just come to a realization of the reality of death. And death, of course, minatory and ineluctable, was at the core of the fascination of both Harry Houdini and Gregory Rasputin, not only for me but for many millions of people--including, incidentally, Alexandra, Empress of All the Russias, who was a fan of both performers.

The mage who subjects himself to ritual death only to rise again from the grave is a figure as old as humankind. He is the sacrificial victim we push ahead of us into the maw of approaching annihilation. Somebody, we say, somebody has got to be able to defeat death on our behalf, if only by trickery. Rasputin had to be poisoned, shot in the skull and back, kicked in the head and then shoved under the ice of the frozen river Neva, before he gave up the ghost; and, seeing that he could survive so much, who would say for certain he was really dead? Houdini too, late in his career, went under a frozen river, but discovered he could save himself by breathing the shallow air-gap between the ice and the surface of the water.

The Empress Alexandra, were she still living, would have been impressed. When she met Houdini, during his tour of Russia in 1903, she refused to believe that his tricks were worked by sleight-of-hand and not magic. She was not alone in this refusal; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that exemplary Victorian, would have none of Houdini’s sensible denials: “It is said, ‘How absurd for Doyle to attribute possible psychic powers to a man who himself denies them!’ Is it not perfectly evident that if he did not deny them his occupation would have been gone forever? What would his brother magicians have to say to a man who admitted that half his tricks were done by what they would regard as illicit powers? It would be exit Houdini.” Dear me, how Holmes’ lip would have curled!

What the Empress and the writer were expressing was the need that millions felt, and will always feel, for evidence that there is something beyond this world with its pains and paltry effects, some occult region where dwell the peaceful dead, and where certain charmed beings may go to learn the arcana of the departed and return with something of their power. As Ruth Brandon has it, in her splendid and immensely intelligent biography, “The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini,” shamans derive from the extremity of their experience a knowledge denied to most other people. They have journeyed from horror and madness through countless dangers to rebirth and joy. They are healers, psychologists, repositories of ancient wisdom; they are feared and honored; they are outside society. They operate through performance--elaborate dramatic ceremonies during which they not only speak with spirits in their own languages, but become them. A shaman performs miraculous feats. In his own body, he descends to the underworld and returns unharmed. Siberian shamans enact this by diving through a hole in the ice and then resurfacing through it: a scene with which Houdini enthusiasts will be familiar.

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Houdini, it must be said, was a most unlikely figure to fill the role of shaman. He was born Ehrich Weiss in 1874, probably in Budapest, though he claimed his place of birth was Appleton, Wis., to which unlikely spot the family had moved to escape the rabid and highly dangerous anti-Semitism of Hungary. He was one of five boys, the son of Samuel Weiss, a self-styled rabbi, and the formidable Cecilia Steiner, the woman who was probably the one real love of Houdini’s life. The family’s history is lost in a fog of legend, much of it generated by Houdini and his younger brother Theodore, also a magician. As Ruth Brandon says, Houdini’s life, “which he never ceased to invent, was a gothic fiction, and the beginning of the story had to fit its continuation.”

Brandon is a shrewd and incisive biographer (probably a better one than Houdini merits), and the early chapters of her book are superb. She points out the “parallel between the unpredictable and (to the audience) mysterious world of magic and that of the poor immigrant, set down in a strange country.” Where the immigrant came from he understood how things worked, even if they usually worked against him; in the new world there is “a more or less total disorientation: a state in which the immigrant is at the mercy of every shark or petty official who chooses to impose upon him. Luck is the only logic.” The Weiss family, living a hand-to-mouth existence, moved to Milwaukee, where, when Houdini was 12, his father died, having first made young Ehrich promise to take care of his mother for as long as she lived. The death-bed injunction would be carried out with an enthusiasm, and a success, that would have astonished the father.

The other woman (I choose the term deliberately) in Houdini’s life was his wife Bess, whom he met when he was 20 and she, 16. Here is Houdini’s account of the wooing: “One day I was hired to give an exhibition at a children’s party in Brooklyn. At the close a little girl, about 16, said to me very bashfully, ‘I think you are awfully clever,’ and then, with a blush, ‘I like you.’ ‘How much do you like me?’ I said, ‘Enough to marry me?’ We had never seen each other before. She nodded. And so, after talking the matter over, we were married.” Theirs was an extremely odd marriage (Brandon speculates that it was unconsummated). At the very start Houdini hoisted Bess on to a pedestal from which she was not allowed to step down until Houdini’s death 32 years later. For all the oddity, however, they were devoted to each other, and Houdini, who found it hard to conceive of the reality of anyone’s existence other than his own, does seem genuinely to have loved his wife.

Houdini began his stage career in medicine shows and vaudeville, at the start in partnership with Bess; he worked later, and more naturally, as a soloist. His first specialty was escaping from handcuffs, a trick for which audiences had a surprising appetite. Later he developed more and more elaborate escape tricks. The world was mesmerized. Soon he was traveling all over America and Europe, earning thousands of dollars a week. His energy was boundless, his will seemingly unbreakable. He was a man obsessed.

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His main obsession was death. As Ruth Brandon puts it, “what Houdini was pursuing was proof of his own immortality.” Again and again he put himself in mortal peril, whether strapped into strait-jackets and thrown into frozen rivers, or locked in a coffin and submerged in a tank of water. More than once he came close to perishing. “Not that he did not fear death. The opposite was true. He was so haunted by it, the consciousness of it filled his thoughts so entirely, that his life was tolerable only if he could assure himself, time after time, that he could defeat it.”

In the end, however, exhausted perhaps by the lifelong struggle to escape what in his heart he most desired, he embraced death, continuing his stage performance for days while suffering from a ruptured appendix. He died of peritonitis at the age of 52. Bess, bereft and helpless without him, sought for years to summon up his spirit, with the help of numerous and mostly fraudulent mediums. The grave, however, remained silent.

As I read Ruth Brandon’s account of this singular life I kept having a sense of almost-recognition. What was it that was missing from Houdini’s life and work? At last it came to me: art. He had all the characteristics of an artist of genius--obsession, perfectionism, fierce will-power, a highly developed self-consciousness, patience, attention of detail, a longing for immortality--yet his mind and deeds were irredeemably banal. But then, banality of spirit is the chief characteristic of the shaman. Art is dangerous; magic is not.


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