Master of the escape, conqueror of chain-wrapped contraptions, self-liberator from handcuffs and jail cells – and from his own humble roots – the great American magician Harry Houdini met his match on Canadian soil: blows to the stomach – in the dressing room of the Princess Theatre in Montreal – that, the story goes, killed him a few days later.
It is the beginning of Houdini’s end that forms the basis of novelist Steven Galloway’s much-anticipated followup to his 2008 novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo. The Confabulist reimagines the life and death of one of the world’s most sensational illusionists. And in alternating chapters, it tells the story of Martin Strauss, a character Galloway invents as the thrower of the Montreal punches that became the stuff of legend.
“Houdini’s death has always really interested me,” Galloway explains during an interview in his book-filled office at the University of British Columbia, where he is acting chair of the Creative Writing program. Even more intriguing to the novelist: “What would it be like to be the guy who punched Harry Houdini in the stomach?”
On the wall over Galloway’s desk is an enormous whiteboard – actually a giant old window rescued from a demolished house in New Westminster, the Vancouver suburb where the novelist, 38, lives with his wife and two daughters – its glass pane marked up by a detailed timeline of Houdini’s life, scrawled out in black marker.
Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874, the son of a rabbi. The family moved to the U.S. when Houdini was a boy. He began performing magic as a teenager with his brother and later with his wife, Bess. A top-notch self-promoter, he would become a vaudeville sensation and, ultimately, world-famous.
Houdini used that fame as a platform for his fervid takedown of spiritualism – a hugely popular movement at the time, which professed that the dead could communicate with the living through mediums. Attending seances and exposing their fakery, he was so reviled by the spiritualists that his death – of peritonitis related to a ruptured appendix on Oct. 31, 1926 – has become fodder for conspiracy theorists, who believe the spiritualists may have been behind the Montreal assault.
“Unless you believe the conspiracy theories, it was probably just some guy who thought it would be a funny, dumb-ass thing to do,” says Galloway. The real life punch is attributed to McGill University student J. Gordon Whitehead, who was visiting the magician after a Houdini presentation debunking spiritualism. Experts have since said that the punches did not in fact kill Houdini but may have aggravated – or helped disguise – an existing case of appendicitis. As Galloway explains, Bess convinced a medical examiner to attribute her husband’s demise to the blows: An accidental death paid out more in life insurance.
Using these facts, Galloway has created a fantastical new tale that interlaces history with imagination.
He has some personal reasons to explore notions of lives rebuilt and reimagined. “I’m adopted, and when you’re an adopted kid one of the things you are constantly doing is inventing alternate narratives. Even if you’re perfectly happy with the life you have … you’re aware of the fact that there are other people out there who gave birth to you and might be your brothers or sisters – that there was theoretically an entirely alternate life you might have lived.”
The question of the unreliability of memory is a major theme in the book. The Confabulist opens with a scene in which Strauss is told he has a rare condition that affects his brain’s ability to store and process memories, forcing it to invent new ones. The doctor’s prognosis: “You will in essence, Mr. Strauss, lose your mind.” And so the character rushes to tell his Houdini story while he can still remember it.
Or is it already too late?
At the moment he punches Houdini, Galloway’s Strauss is in a heightened emotional state; the punch appears to come out of nowhere. And yet it changes everything for him: He must disappear and leave Montreal, and the woman he loves, behind. He makes his way to New York, where his life will again intersect with the Houdinis.
The story is a marked departure from 2008’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Galloway’s gorgeous and searing account of four people caught in the 1990s siege of the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including a cellist who defies the horror by playing in the spot where a mortar-shell attack killed 22 people lining up for bread.
(The Confabulist is less a departure from Galloway’s second book, Ascension, about a fictional Hungarian refugee turned high-wire star.)
Cellistwas a sensation, selling more than 200,000 copies in Canada, and 700,000 internationally; was published in 22 territories; and was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Giller. It is still going strong – selected by the Toronto Public Library as its one book to read this year.
When asked how he landed on Houdini for his new novel, Galloway says he was fascinated by the showman’s iconic status, but also by the fact that Houdini himself was a sort of fiction. “Most magicians are kind of made-up characters, but him more than any. He’s a Hungarian Jew pretending to be Mr. America. Most of what he said about himself biographically was a total, total lie. So I just kind of arrived there and never left.”
Along the way, Galloway conjured fictional details for his factual skeleton, in passages such as one that tells of an unpleasant meeting with Arthur Conan Doyle, a noted spiritualist; and in a bizarre scene in which Bess returns Houdini’s mistresses’ love letters to their writers.
Still, the author was meticulous in his research. Along with visiting Houdini’s Harlem brownstone, the Brooklyn cemetery where he is buried, and a Jewish Museum show about the escape artist, Galloway has a shelf full of Houdini books. “That part was so much fun. Compared to researching The Cellist of Sarajevo, where I got to go talk to people about the worst part of their lives ever, I had to read about magic tricks.”
In one final nod to the ways in which fact and fiction can each engender the other, Galloway has himself become a bit of a magician – although hardly one of Houdiniesque abilities. At a high-end press lunch in New York earlier this year, the novelist attempted to palm a coin – and it ended up in his salad. Although he’s had more success with his children as his audience, performing a coin-in-the-bottle trick, he has twice now managed – spoiler alert – to spend the foldable quarter required.
So, about to embark on weeks of publicity for the new book – out in Canada on April 29 – he’s put his magic on hiatus. “Not unless on the airplane I can master some fool-proof tricks,” he says. “It’s really embarrassing to screw them up.” Even a literary confabulist knows that sometimes you have to accept the limits of your reality.