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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, By Ruth Brandon (Random House: $25; 352 pp.)

October 30, 1994|John Banville | John Banville is the editor of the Irish Literary Times and the author, most recently, of "Ghosts."

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.

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."

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