Magazine article The Christian Century

Magic

Magazine article The Christian Century

Magic

Article excerpt

IT WAS THE AGE of levitations and decapitations, of ghostly apparitions and sudden vanishings, as if the tottering Hapsburg Empire were revealing through the medium of its magicians its secret desire for annihilation." So writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser in "Eisenheim the Illusionist," one of the finest stories in his 1990 collection The Barnum Museum.

Millhausen is a writer of uncommon grace and subtlety. His short stories are like intriguing, dusty daguerreotypes. "Eisenheim the Illusionist" is the tale of a brilliant Jewish magician in early-20th-century Vienna who challenges the domain of the deities and packs theaters with fans who turn into supplicants, The story has been made into the film The Illusionist, adapted and directed by Neil Burger (Interview with the Assassin) and starring the great and often overlooked American actor Edward Norton.

Since the 22-page story is more of a character study than a narrative, Burger was forced to expand the story and even invent some supporting characters. He adds various plot twists to drive the action. Some of the additions and changes work quite well, especially those that provide a sense of how Eisenheim fits into the shadowy world of the empire. The inclusion of a love interest for the magician doesn't work nearly as well.

We meet Eisenheim as a young man struggling to carve out a living as a cabinetmaker. He falls in love with Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), who is from a wealthy Viennese family. The powers that be will not allow such a mismatch. Eisenheim leaves Vienna, encountering a strange man on the road who introduces him to the spiritual side of magic.

When Eisenheim returns to the city years later, after honing his skills in the Orient and the great capitals of Europe, he is a polished illusionist whose tricks challenge audiences and fellow magicians alike. …

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