The Art of Modern Conjuring: For Wizards of All Ages

by Professor Henri Garenne

Published by Clarkson Potter

206 pages, 2001

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Abra Cadabra

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


I lived for a number of years -- the number required to attain my undergrad degree, actually -- in an American university town of some size. University towns have a certain flavor all their own: they invite a kind of hilarity which is not surprising considering the median age of most citizens. On a Saturday night you could wander through the town's core and visit any number of great restaurants, ice cream parlors, movie theaters and small shops. And between all of these pastimes -- if the season was right and the weather was clement -- you'd see any number of interesting buskers. Singers and jugglers, sure. And people who'd do a sketch of you for ten bucks. I remember one midterm period where the same mime tried to perform a romantic sidewalk wedding ceremony on me and no fewer than three different girls in a four week period. (I disallowed it every time: even pretend weddings don't come free.)

Of all the acts I saw, one stands out in my mind in particular. And not because of the stellar nature of the act, but because of my own -- and my date's -- reaction to it. We were strolling along, ice creams in hand, when we came across quite a crowd that had gathered around a large box. On closer inspection, the object of interest proved to be a magician who had set up to cut a woman in half (he brought his own woman). In addition to doing the trick for coins tossed, he had a placard up that let it be known that every half hour -- between performances -- for five dollars all comers could clamber up a ladder to his crude stage and peer inside the box to see how the ancient trick was done.

"Wanna?" I cried enthusiastically, ready to peer, as it were, behind the curtain.

My date, an art student, was shocked at the very idea. "Oh no," she told me, "I believe in magic. I want to believe in magic. I want it to stay magic. But you can go ahead."

But how could I? Were I to take that five-dollar trip and have the magic stripped away, how could I face the fair damsel upon my return? And, let's face it, at 22 there's little that's more important to a lad than the good thoughts of the lady of the moment.

I returned the next night, alone. And the night after that. But the magician and his box were gone and with it my opportunity. To be honest, I pretty much forgot all about the incident until The Art of Modern Conjuring: For Wizards of All Ages perched on the edge of my desk, its old-timey cover inviting me back into a world I'd all but forgotten. Originally published in 1886, The Art of Modern Conjuring is the genuine article: the real deal. And though it was written when the world was younger, there's little in magic that has changed through the years. At least in this non-technologically based magic that involves passing pennies through oranges, making handkerchiefs disappear or change a bottle of wine into a vase of flowers. (Though this last doesn't seem like such a great idea to me, at all.)

Part of the charm of The Art of Modern Conjuring is in its authenticity, hailing as it does from the era of Harry Houdini when anything at all was possible. The book's handsomely embossed gold-tone cover and archaic language set the tone for a magical experience:

Having devoted much time to the study and practice of the art of Conjuring and Illusions, I have determined to write this treatise upon the "dark" art. Conjuring is an art that has been known for many ages; and people were foolish enough to believe in those days, that the performer, or magician, had dealings with a certain dark gentleman whom we will not name.

Dealings with the devil aside, Garenne makes it clear that his book is intended for the junior and novice members of the parlor trick set:

I have written this work not as an exposure of the art of Conjuring and Magic, but simply to act as a guide for amateurs and young beginners; therefore I shall enumerate many tricks and illusions that my young friends can perform at home amongst their numerous friends.

He also outlines more elaborate tricks and illusions that require "specially constructed apparatus" but warns that these are tricks that "the amateur would do well not to attempt, as they are only suitable for performance on a stage." Which just goes to show: they've been saying "don't try this at home" for a long time now.

Garenne covers palming, card tricks, tricks with coins, tricks with rings, tricks with handkerchiefs, tricks with balls, tricks with hats, a whole section on tricks that don't fit into other sections, stage tricks and illusions, "spiritualistic illusions" -- as in seances and manifestations -- and thought reading.

What's completely missing from The Art of Modern Conjuring is a bit of a bio on the mysterious Professor Henri Garenne that penned it. If he was, in fact, some sort of master magician of his era, history seems to have forgotten him and, to be honest, I'd really like to know. Was he actually a professor? Was he a performing magician or was he the Aunt Jemima or Betty Crocker of the conjuring world? In any case, his 115-year-old book stands up quite well, providing inspiration and gentle instruction for "wizards of all ages." | September 2001


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.