Eisenheim The Illusionist by Steven Millhauser, 1989
The magic trick:
Only hinting at Eisenheim’s personal background or biography
Remember that one year when there were two turn-of-the-century period dramas about magicians out in theatres at the same time? Man, that was weird.
Well, if you ask me, there was no comparison. The Illusionist was wayyy better than The Prestige, and we have this amazing Millhauser story as explanation.
And before I really get started here, can I please just say: how awesome is it that we finally have a short story magic trick about a magic trick short story?!?! Amazing.
OK, so, back to Eisenheim. This is a biography. But in essence, it’s really a professional biography. The story doesn’t delve too much into his private life or personal background, sticking instead to the narrative of his remarkable career as an illusionist. As a result, the brief bits of personal information become like gold to the reader who is eagerly trying to figure out the how and why behind his performances. The backstory about a failed romance – likely doomed by anti-Semitism – is particularly telling. The personal backstory information never substantiates beyond rumor or suggestion, though, leaving the reader tantalizingly unfulfilled. The illusion remains just that. And that’s quite a trick on Millhauser’s part.
He was forty or forty-one, an age when a man takes a hard look at his life. He had never married, although romantic rumors occasionally united him with one or another of his assistants; he was handsome in a stern way, wealthy, and said to be so strong that he could do thirty knee-bends on a single leg. Not long after his move to the Wienerwald he began to court Sophie Ritter, the twenty- six-year-old daughter of a local landowner who disapproved of Eisenheim’s profession and was a staunch supporter of Lueger’s anti-Semitic Christian Social party; the girl appears to have been in love with Eisenheim, but at the last moment something went wrong, she withdrew abruptly, and a month later married a grain merchant from Graz. For a year Eisenheim lived like a reclusive country squire.
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After having enjoyed the movie version of The Illusionist (again, after having watched it a few years ago), I just today read the short story by Steve Millhauser. Delighted to find that it was not written in first person, I was initially reminded of Isak Dinesen’s Winter’s Tales and Seven Gothic Tales by the long dense paragraphs as well as his stylistic panache; however, having been hoping to discover what techniques and tricks of the trade the author employed to set up and execute the tale of a thwarted childhood romance between Eduard and Sophie, I was ultimately disappointed to find that the movie version actually has a stronger and really more beautiful plot line than Millhauser’s original story.