This was the first serious quarrel since we had begun filming. Should I say “we”? As I was living in the house, and extremely curious about everything connected with the film, they let me hang around while they worked, and even gave me a job; as an historian I kept an eye on detail and did not allow the film-makers to stray too far from the period of Louis Philippe and his Paris, or at least no farther than artistic licence and necessity allowed. I had foreseen a quarrel. I was not seventy-two years old for nothing, and I knew Magnus Eisengrim very well. I thought I was beginning to know a little about the great director Jurgen Lind, too.
The project was to make an hour-long film for television about the great French illusionist. Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, who died in 1871. It was not simply to mark this centenary; as Lind had said, it would doubtless make the rounds of world television for years. The title was Un Hommage a Robert-Houdin—easily translatable—and its form was simple; the first twelve minutes were taken up with the story of his early life, as he told it in his Confidences d’un prestidigitateur, and for this actors had been employed; the remainder of the hour was to be an historical reproduction of one of Robert-Houdin’s Soirees Fantastiques as he gave it in his own theatre in the Palais-Royal. And to play the part of the great conjuror the film-makers and the British Broadcasting Corporation had engaged, at a substantial fee, the greatest of living conjurors, my old friend Magnus Eisengrim.
If they had filmed it in a studio, I do not suppose I should have been involved at all, but the reproduction of Robert-Houdin’s performance demanded so much magical apparatus, including several splendid automata which Eisengrim had made particularly for it, that it was decided to shoot this part of the picture in Switzerland, at Sorgenfrei, where Eisengrim’s stage equipment was stored in a large disused riding-school on the estate. It was not a difficult matter for the scene designers and artificers to fit Robert-Houdin’s tiny theatre, which had never seated more than two hundred spectators, into the space that was available.
This may have been a bad idea, for it mixed professional and domestic matters in a way that could certainly cause trouble. Eisengrim lived at Sorgenfrei, as permanent guest and—in a special sense—the lover of its owner and mistress, Dr. Uselotte Naegeli. I also had retired to Sorgenfrei after I had my heart attack, and dwelt there very happily as the permanent guest and—in a special sense—the lover of the same Dr. Uselotte, known to us both as Liesl. When I use the word “lover” to describe our relationship, I do not mean that we were a farcical manage a trois, leaping in and out of bed at all hours and shrieking comic recriminations at one another. We did occasionally share a bed (usually at breakfast, when it was convenient and friendly for us all three to tuck up together and sample things from one another’s trays), but the athleticism of love was a thing of the past for me, and I suspect it was becoming an infrequent adventure for Eisengrim. We loved Liesl none the less—indeed rather more, and differently—than in our hot days, and what with loving and arguing and laughing and talking, we fleeted the time carelessly, as they did in the Golden World.
Even the Golden World may have welcomed a change, now and then, and we had been pleased when Magnus received his offer from the B.B.C. Liesl and I, who knew more about the world, or at least the artistic part of it, than Eisengrim, were excited that the film was to be directed by the great Jurgen Lind, the Swedish film-maker whose work we both admired. We wanted to meet him, for though we were neither of us naive people we had not wholly lost our belief that it is delightful to meet artists who have given us pleasure. That was why Liesl proposed that, although the film crew were living at an inn not far down the mountain from Sorgenfrei, Lind and one or two of his immediate entourage should dine with us as often as they pleased, ostensibly so that we could continue discussion of the film as it progressed, but really so that we could become acquainted with Lind.
We should have known better. Had we learned nothing from our experience with Magnus Eisengrim, who had a full share, a share pressed down and overflowing, of the egotism of the theatre artist? Who could not bear the least slight; who expected, as of right, to be served first at table, and to go through all doors first; who made the most unholy rows and fusses if he were not treated virtually as royalty? Lind had not been on the spot a day before we knew that he was just such another as our dear old friend Magnus, and that they were not going to hit it off together.
Not that Lind was like him in external things. He was modest, reticent, dressed like a workman, and soft of speech. He always hung back at doors, cared nothing for the little ceremonials of daily life in a rich woman’s house, and conferred with his chief colleagues about every detail. But it was clear that he expected and got his own way, once he had determined what it was.
Moreover, he seemed to me to be formidably intelligent. His long, sad, unsmiling face, with its hanging underlip that showed long, yellow teeth, the tragedy line of his eyelids, which began high on the bridge of his nose and swept miserably downward toward his cheeks, and the soft, bereaved tone of his voice, suggested a man who had seen too much to be amused by life; his great height—he was a little over six feet eight inches—gave him the air of a giant mingling with lesser creatures about whom he knew some unhappy secret which was concealed from themselves; he spoke slowly in an elegant English only slightly marked by that upper-class Swedish accent which suggests a man delicately sucking a lemon. He had been extensively educated—his junior assistants all were careful to speak to him as Dr. Lind—and he had as well that theatre artist’s quality of seeming to know a great deal, without visible study or effort, about whatever was necessary for his immediate work. He did not know as much about the politics and economics of the reign of Louis Philippe as I did, for after all I had given my life to the study of history; but he seemed to know a great deal about its music, the way its clothes ought to be worn, the demeanour of its people, and its quality of life and spirit, which belonged to a sensibility far beyond mine. When historians meet with this kind of informed, imaginative sympathy with a past era in a non-historian, they are awed. How on earth does he know that, they are forced to ask themselves, and why did I never tumble to that? It takes a while to discover that the knowledge, though impressive and useful, has its limitations, and when the glow of imaginative creation no longer suffuses it, it is not really deeply grounded. But Lind was at work on the era of Louis Philippe, and specifically on the tiny part of it that applied to Robert-Houdin the illusionist, and for the present I was strongly under his spell.
That was the trouble. To put it gaudily but truly, that was where the canker gnawed. Liesl and I were both under Lind’s spell, and Eisengrim’s nose was out of joint.
That was why he was picking a quarrel with Lind, and Lind, who had been taught to argue logically, though unfairly, was at a disadvantage with a man who simply argued—pouted, rather—to get his own way and be cock of the walk again.
I thought I should do something about it, but I was forestalled by Roland Ingestree.
He was the man from the B.B.C., the executive producer of the film, or whatever the proper term is. He managed all the business, but was not simply a man of business, because he brooded, in a well-bred, don’t-think-I’m-interfering-but manner, over the whole venture, including its artistic side. He was a sixtyish, fattish, bald Englishman who always wore gold-rimmed half-glasses, which gave him something of the air of Mr. Pickwick. But he was a shrewd fellow, and he had taken in the situation.
“We mustn’t delude ourselves, Jurgen,” he said. “Without Eisengrim this would be nothing—nothing at all. He is the only man in the world who can reproduce the superlatively complex Robert-Houdin automata. It is quite understandable that he looks down on achievements that baffle lesser beings like ourselves. After all, as he points out, he is a magnificent classical conjuror, and he hasn’t much use for mechanical toys. That’s understood, of course. But what I think we’ve missed is that he’s an actor of the rarest sort; he can really give us the outward form of Robert-Houdin, with all that refinement of manner and perfection of grace that made Robert-Houdin great. How he can do it, God alone knows, but he can. When I watch him in rehearsal I am utterly convinced that a man of the first half of the nineteenth century stands before me. Where could we have found anyone else who can act as he is acting? John? Too tall, too subjective. Larry? Too flamboyant, too corporeal. Guinness? Too dry. There’s nobody else, you see. I hope I’m not being offensive, but I think it’s as an actor we must think of Eisengrim. The conjuring might have been faked. But the acting—tell me, frankly, who else is there that could touch him?”
He was not being offensive, and well he knew it. Eisengrim glowed, and all might have been well if Kinghovn had not pushed the thing a little farther. Kinghovn was Lind’s cameraman, and I gathered he was a great artist in his own right. But he was a man whose whole world was dominated by what he could see, and make other people see, and words were not his medium.
“Roly is right, Jurgen. This man is just right for looks. He compels belief. He can’t go wrong. It is God’s good luck, and we mustn’t quarrel with it.”
Now Lind’s nose was out of joint. He had been trying to placate a prima donna, and his associates seemed to be accusing him of underestimating the situation. He was sure that he never underestimated anything about one of his films. He was accused of flying in the face of good luck, when he was certain that the best possible luck that could happen to any film was that he should be asked to direct it. The heavy lip fell a little lower, the eyes became a little sadder, and the emotional temperature of the room dropped perceptibly.
Ingestree put his considerable talents to the work of restoring Lind’s self-esteem, without losing Eisengrim’s goodwill.
“I think I sense what troubles Eisengrim about this whole Robert-Houdin business. Its the book. It’s that wretched Confidences d’un prestidigitateur. We’ve been using it as a source for the biographical part of the film, and its certainly a classic of its kind. But did anybody ever read such a book? Vanity is perfectly acceptable in an artist. Personally, I wouldn’t give you sixpence for an artist who lacked vanity. But it’s honest vanity I respect. The false modesty, the exaggerated humility, the greasy bourgeois assertions of respectability, of good-husband-and-father, of debt-paying worthiness are what make the Confidences so hard to swallow. Robert-Houdin was an oddity; he was an artist who wanted to pass as a bourgeois. I’m sure that’s what irritates both you men, and sets you against each other. You feel that you are putting your very greatfully realized artistic personalities to the work of exalting a man whose attitude toward life you despise. I don’t blame you for being irritable—because you have been, you know; you’ve been terribly irritable tonight—but that’s what art is, as you very well know, much of the time: the transformation and glorification of the commonplace.”
“The revelation of the glory in the commonplace,” said Lind, who had no objection to being told that his vanity was an admirable and honest trait, and was coming around.
“Precisely. The revelation of the glory in the commonplace. And you two very great artists—the great film director and (may I say it) the great actor—are revealing the glory in Robert-Houdin, who perversely sought to conceal his own artistry behind that terrible good-citizen mask. It hampered him, of course, because it was against the grain of his talent. But you two are able to do an extraordinary, a metaphysical thing. You are able to show the world, a century after his death, what Robert-Houdin would have been if he had truly understood himself.”
Eisengrim and Lind were liking this. Magnus positively beamed, and Lind’s sad eyes rolled toward him with a glance from which the frost was slowly disappearing. Ingestree was well in the saddle now, and was riding on to victory.
“You are both men of immeasurably larger spirit than he. What was he, after all? The good citizen, the perfection of the bourgeoisie under Louis Philippe that he pretended? Who can believe it? There is in every artist something black, something savouring of the crook, which he may not even understand himself, and which he certainly keeps well out of the eye of his public. What was it in Robert-Houdin?
“He gives us a sniff of it in the very first chapter of his other book, which I have read, and which is certainly familiar to you, Mr. Ramsay,”—this with a nod to me—”called Les Secrets de la prestidigitation et de la magie—”
“My God, I read it as a boy!” I said.
“Very well. Then you recall the story of his beginnings as a magician? How he was befriended by the Count de l’Escalopier? How this nobleman gave a private show in his house, where Robert-Houdin amused the guests? How his best trick was burning a piece of paper on which the Archbishop of Paris had written a splendid compliment to Robert-Houdin, and the discovery of the piece of paper afterward in the smallest of twelve envelopes which were all sealed, one inside the other? It was a trick he learned from his master, de Grisy. But how did he try to make it up to l’Escalopier for putting him on his feet?”
“The trap for the robber,” I said.
“Exactly. A thief was robbing l’Escalopier blind, and nothing he tried would catch him. So Robert-Houdin offered to help, and what did he do? He worked out a mechanism to be concealed in the Count’s desk, so that when the robber opened it a pistol would be discharged, and a claw made of sharp needles would seize the thief’s hand and crunch the word ‘Voleur’ on the back of it. The needles were impregnated with silver nitrate, so that it was in effect tattooing—branding the man for life. A nice fellow, eh? And do you remember what he says? That this nasty thing was a refinement of a little gubbins he had made as a boy, to catch and mark another boy who was pinching things from his school locker. That was the way Robert-Houdin’s mind worked; he fancied himself as a thief-catcher. Now, in a man who makes such a parade of his integrity, what does that suggest? Over-compensation, shall we say? A deep, unresting doubt of his own honesty?
“If we had time, and the gift, we could learn a lot about the inner life of Robert-Houdin by analysing his tricks. Why are so many of the best of them concerned with giving things away? He gave away pastries, sweets, ribbons, fans, all sorts of stuff at every performance; yet we know how careful he was with money. What was all that generosity meant to conceal? Because he was concealing something, take my word for it The whole of the Confidences is a gigantic whitewash job, a concealment. Analyse the tricks and you will get a subtext for the autobiography, which seems so delightfully bland and cosy.
“And that’s what we need for our film. A subtext. A reality running like a subterranean river under the surface; an enriching, but not necessarily edifying, background to what is seen.
“Where are we to get it? Not from Robert-Houdin. Too much trouble and perhaps not worth the trouble when we got it. No. It must come from the working together of you two great artists: Lind the genius-director and Eisengrim the genius-actor. And you must fish it up out of your own guts.”
“But that is what I always do,” said Lind.
“Of course. But Eisengrim must do it, as well. Now tell me, sir: you can’t always have been the greatest conjuror in the world. You learned your art somewhere. If we asked you—invited you—begged you—to make your own experience the subtext for this film about a man, certainly lesser than yourself, but of great and lasting fame in his special line, what would it be?”
I was surprised to see Eisengrim look as if he were considering this question very seriously. He never revealed anything about his past life, or his innermost thoughts, and it was only because I had known him—with very long intervals of losing him—since we had been boys together, that I knew anything about him at all. I had fished—fished cunningly with the subtlest lures I could devise—for more information about him than I had, but he was too clever for me. But here he was, swimming in the flattery of this clever Englishman Ingestree, and he looked as if he might be about to spill the beans. Well, anyhow I would be present when, and if, he did so. After some consideration, he spoke.
“The first thing I would tell you would be that my earliest instructor was the man you see in that chair yonder: Dunstan Ramsay. God knows he was the worst conjuror the world has ever seen, but he introduced me to conjuring, and by a coincidence his textbook was The Secrets of Stage Conjuring, by the man we are all talking about and, if you are right in what you say, Mr. Ingestree, serving! Robert-Houdin.”
This caused some sensation, as Eisengrim knew it would. Ingestree, having forced the oyster to yield a little, pressed the knife in.
“Wonderful! We would never have taken Ramsay for a conjuror. But there must have been somebody else. If Ramsay was your first master, who was your second?”
“I’m not sure I’m going to tell you,” said Eisengrim. “I’ll have to think about it very carefully. Your idea of a subtext—the term and the idea are both new to me—is interesting. I’ll tell you this much. I began to learn conjuring seriously on August 30, 1918. That was the day I descended into hell, and did not rise again for seven years. I’ll consider whether I’m going to go farther than that. Now I’m going to bed.”