The prestige, p.1
Also by Christopher Priest
Part One: Andrew Westley
Part Two: Alfred Borden
Part Three: Kate Angier
Part Four: Rupert Angier
Part Five: The Prestiges
About the Author
For Elizabeth and Simon
‘A magnificently eerie novel’ Sunday Times
‘Priest’s mesmeric power is formidable’ Independent
‘A taut, twisting, prize-winning story of two magicians and their fin-de-siècle rivalry that taints successive generations of their respective families . . . an unexpectedly compelling fusion of weird science and legerdemain’ Kirkus
‘The Prestige is a brilliantly constructed entertainment, with a plot as simple and intricate as a nest of Chinese boxes . . . a dizzying magic show of a novel, chock-a-block with all the props of Victorian sensation fiction’ Washington Post
Also by Christopher Priest
Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972)
Inverted World (1974)
The Space Machine (1976)
A Dream of Wessex (1977)
The Affirmation (1981)
The Glamour (1984)
The Quiet Woman (1990)
The Prestige (1995)
The Extremes (1998)
The Separation (2002)
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
Real-Time World (1975)
An Infinite Summer (1979)
The Dream Archipelago (2009)
The idea that magic costs is at least as old as the story of Faust. In writing The Prestige (1995), Christopher Priest (1943–) took this idea and enriched it with many more things: the iconic gaslit world of Victorian-Edwardian England, a deep engagement with the art of stage magic, and his own abiding questions about how much the tellers of stories should be trusted. Earlier Priest novels such as The Affirmation (1981) or The Glamour (1984) have unreliable narrators who lead you into dizzying labyrinths where nothing is certain, not even the ‘I’ who is telling you the story. In The Prestige, Priest found a subject that both fitted these preoccupations and turned outwards to a wider felt world.
The Prestige is probably Priest’s most famous novel, having been filmed memorably by Christopher Nolan in 2006. Anyone who reads the novel after seeing the film will find much that’s familiar, and some things that aren’t. The novel starts in contemporary England – unlike the movie, which stays entirely in the period setting. The contemporary narrator, Andrew Westley, says early on that for as long as he can remember, ‘I have had the feeling that someone else is sharing my life’. It’s this search for an apparent double or twin that sets off the action of the novel. Through this frame, the central narratives of two rival stage magicians are uncovered. Each of them, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, tells their story in turn. (Significantly, in a novel filled with proliferating doubles and twins, each ends their story with the same words.) Each has a seemingly impossible illusion at the heart of their stage act, and their narratives are in part an accounting, a setting-out of the costs exacted as a result.
Central to understanding both of their stories is an anecdote told by Borden early on about how Ching Ling Foo, a celebrated Chinese magician, achieves his most famous trick. Ching Ling Foo also, it’s clear, pays a price for what he does. This is linked to another explanation that Borden gives slightly later, about the three stages of any magic trick. These are the setup, the performance itself, and the effect or prestige. This last stage – the rabbit pulled out of the hat or the miraculously transported man – is not an abstract idea, but a literal thing. The rabbit, or the transported man, is the prestige. But doubled meanings proliferate around this word as the story goes on. The fantastic is, in general, the field that makes abstract ideas (death, say) literal. Here, Priest takes the idea of a literal prestige and places it at the heart of his story.
It’s suggestive that the main narrative is set at the turn of the twentieth century – a century that also ended up filled with Faustian bargains with science. When scientific advance enters the story, in the person of the inventor Nikola Tesla, he brings with him our knowledge of everything else that was to follow. (In this sense, historical narratives like Borden’s or Angier’s are always exercises in irony. As readers, we know what’s to follow and how much their lives and deeds will turn out to matter.) Tesla clearly knows the danger of the knowledge he brings – unlike those who end up using it. Angier’s decisions, and Borden’s, end up being so tainted by their obsessive rivalry that everything else fades into the background for them. This is made clear when one considers the gap between their public and private selves. They both keep the costs of their bargains as secret as possible, and these secrets in the end become prisons for them.
All this is to pass over, however, Priest’s sheer skill in telling the tale. The gradual release of information is beautifully timed. Borden’s narrative, and the strange Pact that governs it, is particularly enthralling, a code that can only be cracked in retrospect. Priest is also unshowily skilful in bringing to life this world of the past, and the place stage magic occupied in it. Borden’s and Angier’s desire to succeed in this world seems natural and inevitable. It’s also striking how much of a difference is made by the class backgrounds of the two magicians – Borden’s upwardly-mobile anxieties versus Angier’s aristocratic assurance.
Angier’s heritage comes to the fore in the novel’s final, contemporary section – again, not part of the movie. This both answers many of the questions raised so far and raises new o
It began on a train, heading north through England, although I was soon to discover that the story had really begun more than a hundred years earlier.
I had no sense of any of this at the time: I was on company time, following up a report of an incident at a religious sect. On my lap lay the bulky envelope I had received from my father that morning, still unopened, because when Dad phoned to tell me about it my mind had been elsewhere. A bedroom door slamming, my girlfriend in the middle of walking out on me. ‘Yes, Dad,’ I had said, as Zelda stormed past with a boxful of my compact discs. ‘Drop it in the mail, and I’ll have a look.’
After I read the morning’s edition of the Chronicle, and bought a sandwich and a cup of instant coffee from the refreshment trolley, I opened Dad’s envelope. A large-format paperback book slipped out, with a note loose inside and a used envelope folded in half.
The note said, ‘Dear Andy, Here is the book I told you about. I think it was sent by the same woman who rang me. She asked me if I knew where you were. I’m enclosing the envelope the book arrived in. The postmark is a bit blurred, but maybe you can make it out. Your mother would love to know when you are coming to stay with us again. How about next weekend? With love, Dad.’
At last I remembered some of my father’s phone call. He told me the book had arrived, and that the woman who had sent it appeared to be some kind of distant relative, because she had been talking about my family. I should have paid more attention to him.
Here, though, was the book. It was called Secret Methods of Magic, and the author was one Alfred Borden. To all appearances it was one of those instructional books of card tricks, sleight of hand, illusions involving silk scarves, and so on. At first glance, most of what interested me about it was that although it was a recently published paperback, the text itself appeared to be a facsimile of a much older edition: the typography, the illustrations, the chapter headings and the laboured writing style all suggested this.
I couldn’t see why I should be interested in such a book. Only the author’s name was familiar: Borden was the name I had been born with, although when I was adopted my name was changed to that of my adoptive parents. My name now, my full and legal name, is Andrew Westley, and although I have always known that I was adopted I grew up thinking of Duncan and Jillian Westley as Dad and Mum, loved them as parents, and behaved as their son. All this is still true. I feel nothing for my natural parents. I’m not curious about them or why they put me up for adoption, and have no wish ever to trace them now that I am an adult. All that is in my distant past, and they have always felt irrelevant to me.
There is, though, one matter concerning my past that borders on the obsessive.
I am certain, or to be accurate almost certain, that I was born one of a pair of identical twins, and that my brother and I were separated at the time of adoption. I have no idea why this was done, nor where my brother might be now, but I have always assumed that he was adopted at the same time as me. I only started to suspect his existence when I was entering my teens. By chance I came across a passage in a book, an adventure story, that described the way in which many pairs of twins are linked by an inexplicable, apparently psychic contact. Even when separated by hundreds of miles or living in different countries, such twins will share feelings of pain, surprise, happiness, depression, one twin sending to the other, and vice versa. Reading this was one of those moments in life when suddenly a lot of things become clear.
All my life, as long as I can remember, I have had the feeling that someone else is sharing my life. As a child, I thought little of it and assumed everyone else had the same feelings. As I grew older, and I realised none of my friends was going through the same thing, it became a mystery. Reading the book therefore came as a great relief as it seemed to explain everything. I had a twin somewhere.
The feeling of rapport is in some ways vague, a sense of being cared for, even watched over, but in others it is much more specific. The general feeling is of a constant background, while more direct ‘messages’ come only occasionally. These are acute and precise, even though the actual communication is invariably non-verbal.
Once or twice when I have been drunk, for example, I have felt my brother’s consternation growing in me, a fear that I might come to some harm. On one of these occasions, when I was leaving a party late at night and was about to drive myself home, the flash of concern that reached me was so powerful I felt myself sobering up! I tried describing this at the time to the friends I was with, but they joked it away. Even so I drove home inexplicably sober that night. It must be a psychic mechanism of some kind, which we use without understanding it. No one to my knowledge has ever satisfactorily explained it, even though it is common and well documented between twins.
There is in my case, however, an extra mystery.
Not only have I never been able to trace my brother, as far as official records are concerned I never had a brother of any kind, let alone a twin. I do have intermittent memories of my life before adoption, although I was only three when that happened, and I can’t remember having a brother at all. Dad and Mum knew nothing about it; they have told me that when they adopted me there was no suggestion of my having a brother.
As an adoptee you have certain legal rights. The most important of these is protection from your natural parents: they cannot contact you by any legal means. Another right is that when you reach adulthood you are able to ask about some of the circumstances surrounding your adoption. You can find out the names of your natural parents, for instance, and the address of the court where the adoption was made, and therefore where relevant records can be examined.
I followed all this up soon after my eighteenth birthday, anxious to find out what I could about my background. The adoption agency referred me to Ealing County Court where the papers were kept, and here I discovered that I had been put up for adoption by my father, whose name was Clive Alexander Borden. My mother’s name was Diana Ruth Borden (née Ellington), but she had died soon after I was born. I assumed that the adoption happened because of her death, but in fact I was not adopted for more than two years after she died, during which period my father brought me up by himself. My own original name was Nicholas Julius Borden. There was nothing about any other child, adopted or otherwise.
I later checked birth records at St Catherine’s House in London, but these confirmed I was the Bordens’ only child.
Even so, my psychic contacts with my twin remained through all this, and have continued ever since.
The book had been published in the USA by Dover Publications, and was a handsome, well-made paperback. The cover painting depicted a dinner-jacketed stage magician pointing his hands expressively towards a wooden cabinet, from which a young lady was emerging. She was wearing a dazzling smile and a costume which for the period was probably considered saucy.
Under the author’s name was printed: ‘Edited and annotated by Lord Colderdale.’
At the bottom of the cover, in bold white lettering, was the blurb: ‘The Famous Oath-Protected Book of Secrets’.
There was a longer and more descriptive blurb on the back cover:
Originally printed in London in 1905, by the specialist publishers Goodwin & Andrewson, this book was sold only to professional magicians who were prepared to swear an oath of secrecy about its contents. First edition copies are now exceedingly rare, and virtually impossible for general readers to obtain.
Made publicly available for the first time, this new edition is completely unabridged and contains all the original illustrations, as well as the notes and supplementary text provided by Britain’s Earl of Colderdale, a noted contemporary amateur of magic.
The author is Alfred Borden, inventor of the legendary illusion THE NEW TRANSPORTED MAN. Borden, whose stage name was ‘Le Professeur de Magie’, was in the first decade of this century the leading stage illusionist. Encouraged in his early years by John Henry Anderson, and as a protégé of Nevil Maskelyne’s, Borden was a contemporary of Houdini, David Devant, Chung Ling Soo and Buatier de Kolta. He was based in London, England, but frequently toured the United States and Europe.
While not strictly speaking an instruction manual, this book with its broad understanding of magical methods will give both laymen and professionals startling insights into the mind of one of the greatest magicians who ever lived.
It was amusing to discover that one of my ancestors had been a magician, but I had no special interest in the subject. I happen to find some kinds of conjuring tedious; card tricks, especially, but many others too. The illusions you sometimes see on television are impressive, but I have never felt curious about how the effects are in fact achieved. I remember someone once saying that the trouble with magic was that the more a magician protects his secrets, the more banal they turn out to be.
Alfred Borden’s book contained a long section on card tricks, and another described tricks with cigarettes and coins. Explanatory drawings and instructions accompanied each one. At the back of the book was a chapter about stage illusions, with many illustrations of cabinets with hidden compartments, boxes with false bottoms, tables with lifting devices concealed behind curtains, and other apparatus. I glanced through some of these pages.
The first half of the book was not illustrated, but consisted of a long account of the author’s life and outlook on magic. It began with the following words:
‘I write in the year 1901.
‘My name, my real name, is Alfred Borden. The story of my life is the story of the secrets by which I have lived my life. They are described in this narrative for the first and last time; this is the only copy.