Friday, December 01, 2006


On the literary legitimization of legerdemain (celebrating two new editions of the old).

As in religions, the mytologies and legends of show-business are often started by biographies. Vocation and careers are said to be initiated at tender age by the noctural reading or the daydreaming of life and adventures of stage saints.We often forget that the so-called “father of modern magic” Robert-Houdin ( Jean-Eugene Robert, 1805-71) owes his worlwide fame more to the infinite editions and translations of his mémoirs, than to his effective performing career (shorter than other average long-life performers). His autobiography (Confidences d'un prestidigitateur- une vie d'artiste,1858) is a literary operation (enhanced by fiction) for a precise project: the social legitimation of magic elevated to the bourgeois “artiste” world from the outlaw vagabond jongleurs.
This vision evolved with more technical works. If later he wrote a treatise on gambling in the literary tradition of unmasking frauds (Les Tricheries des Grecs dévoilées ; l'art de gagner à tous les jeux, 1861), and after his career a pamplet on the built-in subterfuges of his haunted villa in Blois (Le Prieuré, organisations mystérieuses pour le confort et l'agrément d'une demeure,1867), more surprises was awaiting.
In the very last years of his life, he conceived two works that perhaps changed forever the concept of « magic literature ». Those two books ( Comment on devient sorcier. Les secrets de la prestidigitation et de la magie,1871, and Magie et physique amusante, postumous, 1877) are the first exemples of technical magic books not as pampleths to reveal “secrets” of sorcerers, nor simple pastimes. They are instead conceived as the divulgation of legitimate learning tools for everybody in the society willing to learn an harmless theatrical art.
For the first time, the subtle mechanics of hand dexterity and object mistification are described within the psycological frame of a true artistic context. A new art for a new world, when the industrial revolution was creating the concept of leisure, and the rise of photography was revolutioning the illusory reproduction of reality, the visual perception of the things and of the world. Monsieur Robert lived long enough to witness the progress of sophisticated science over simple mechanic. He slowly transformed himself from an horologist into an oftalmologyst. This contrast between the craft of automata and the evanescent mistery of new science is the most fascinating contribute of Robert-Houdin to the challenge of magic with the movies for her last “golden age”. It is a curious case if the Lumiere bros. photographic studio was installed in the floor above Robert-Houdin’s small theatre, and Georges Méliés inherited this same with his secrets.
Robert-Houdin books are the pillars on which the golden age of stage magicians was built between the XIX and XX centuries.
The erudite and boring notes above, may have stimulated some curiosities in bibliophily. An this brings us too into the subjects of actuality of the present post.
Until today, Robert’s books have been more or less availables, in various editions, but generally abridged. The complete editions have been preserved in some collection or libraries around the world.
Today, two centuries after the pioneer’s death, those works are the object of two distincts publishing efforts. One is French, the other American. The French publisher “Omnibus” presented few weeks ago the first ever complete edition of Robert-Houdin four books. It is an economic paperback edition conceveid for the general audience (as the author’s intention was, before the rising of the “magic fraternity” hypocrisy), at the bargain prize of 24 Euros for more than 900 pages (check it on In the last few days, a very beautiful essay on the books appeared on Le Monde with the prestigious signature of Christian Fechner. You don’t read French? Coincidentally, last October, the magic publishing house Miracle Factory ( animated by Toddd Karr, presented a very elegant and sophisticated English translation, rich in illustrations and enhanced with commentaries by experts.

A pedantic appendice to our notes: Robert-Houdin wrote also a treatise on oftalmology: Note sur de nouveaux instruments propres à l'observation des divers organes de l'oeil ainsi qu'à la manifestation des images entoptiques (1867) . It is not included in none of the two new edition, but we honestly thinks that it should not be a a remarkable loss for the readers.


Dug North said...

Houdini, though he had taken his stage name as a tribute to Robert-Houdin, later wrote an entire book trying to discredit him. Entitled, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, it is available as a free (and large) download from Google books.

Gregory Smith said...

Dear Senor Ritis
I enjoy visiting your site, very interesting and indept reading. As an old circus performer myself I have been trying to track down some old circus friends that I have lost touch with. We toured together in the Far East with Chipperfields back in the 80's. They are an Italian family by the name of Perris. They performed a foot juggling and foot ladder balanceing routine. There where 3 sisters, Mom and Dad and a son named Sergio (whom I became close friends with). Do you know of them? Bit of a long shot I know. Many thanks. Gregory Smith

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