Steven Millhauser – In the Reign of Harad IV

reignharad01Another fun story right in Millhauser’s wheelhouse.

The first sentence pretty much sums it up:

In the reign of Harad IV there lived at court a maker of miniatures, who was celebrated for the uncanny perfection of his work.

As with Thirteen Wives, it is somewhat predictable how the story will play out, but the journey is such fun that it doesn’t matter.

The unnamed Master is richly rewarded by the King.  In addition to 2 apprentices, he has a residence in the palace, and an ermine robe that entitles him to take part in official ceremonies.

For a toy palace, he had created a miniature orchard including a basket of apples which was no larger than a cherry pit.  Upon each apple was a delicate stem, and on one stem, a perfect tiny fly.  This achievement opened up a new world to him.  In his next carving, he was driven to reduce the entire basket to the size of a cherry pit, its contents still ornamented by stem and fly.

The tale of his “invisible” fly makes him even more renowned.  Special lenses were required for the creation and appreciation of his masterpieces.  Astounding as these were, the Master could tell that the King was ready for him to get back to more traditional works.  The Master, however, was committed to constructing a miniature of the entire toy palace — itself already miniature of the King’s home, standing chest-high — which would be so small as to be invisible to the naked eye.  Each of its 600 rooms would be precisely miniaturized, down to the silver utensils in the drawers.

After discovering that his apprentices could satisfy the King’s more pedestrian carpentry needs, the Master was liberated to retreat further into his his shrinking world.  Soon they had their own apprentices, and the Master pursued his dream of an entire miniature city.

One day the new apprentices came calling to see the new city.  The Master allowed them to view the city through the special lens.  He had by now, however, moved beyond the visible world and there was nothing they could see.  Still, they lauded him for his craftsmanship, and took their leave.

The maker of miniatures, knowing that they had seen nothing, that their words were hollow, and that they would never visit him again, returned with some impatience to his work; and as he sank below the crust of the visible world, into his dazzling kingdom, he understood that he had travelled a long way from the early days, that he still had far to go, and that, from now on, his life would be difficult and without forgiveness.

I guess it’s pick-your-metaphor.  Is the Master descending into madness?  Has he just gotten old, humored by younger people, and is just turning inward to his own thoughts? Or is just a dude who makes really small stuff?


Still available online as of this date.

Steven Millhauser – Thirteen Wives

I sent this to my Kindle some time ago and forgot about it, but this morning, I accidentally tapped the icon.  Since I had just written about Millhauser’s Eisenheim the Illusionist, I decided to see what this one was about.

It starts out simply enough with a narrator saying, “I have 13 wives.”  OK, simple in sentence structure, but not so much in implications.  Anyone who has read Millhauser knows this is not going to be a story about Mormons.   You know to expect a detailed description of life with each, and to not expect much of an arc to the characters or story.  And that is fine — nobody expects show-tunes out of Dylan.

He continues on to very briefly describe their collective living and dining arrangements in a one-paragraph introduction.  There are a few sentences that leave the story open to interpretation.

Even though I married my wives one after the other, over a period of nine years, I never did so with the thought that I was replacing one wife with a better one, or abolishing my former wives by starting over. Never have I considered myself to be a man with thirteen marriages but, rather, a man with a single marriage, composed of thirteen wives.

Millhauser then begins a numbered list.  I don’t remember him ever doing that even though his style certainly lends itself to that format.

Rather than recap the 13 essays of his wives — and there is no wrap-up following #13 — I will just say that each wife is lovingly and fully rendered; much more than some deserve.  But this is not a schmaltzy, romantic ode to Big Love or the individual women.  There are eccentricities and quirks to be found, preternatural empathy, and some defying of the laws of physics.  But the latter instances are grounded by being mixed in with more traditional relationships.

There seems to be a lot of speculation online as to whether he is describing one woman over a period of time, the multiple facets of one woman at one point in time, or actually 13 distinct wives as advertised.

There seems to be more evidence to support the 13 wives theory, but ultimately I don’t think it matters.  As usual, Millhauser puts his universe on the table and you can dig in or not.  There is enough to go around.

I rate this 11 wives.

At least as of today, it is available online here.

The Illusionist (2006)

illusionistcover01A Steven Millhauser twin spin!

The movie uses a flashback sequence to start in the same scene as the short story.  As a boy, Eisensheim encountered a traveling magician who performed miraculous tricks.  In the short story, he starts with coins from the boy’s ear; in the film, it is a frog, which is an improvement.

After a bit more conjuring and levitation, the wizard disappears, and by some accounts also the tree he was lounging under.  And maybe he also made off with the boy’s personality, because young Aaron Taylor-Johnson grows up to be the charisma-free star of Godzilla.

Paul Giamatti plays the role he always plays, Paul Giamatti.  In this case his character is Inspector Walther Uhl, who appears in both versions.  It is confusing to call Paul Giamatti by that other name when he is clearly Paul Giamatti, so lets just call him Inspector Giamatti.

The film and short story share the same early illusions.  As Eisenheim takes the stage, he removes  his black gloves, throws them in the air and they become ravens.  Both versions contain the Orange Tree illusion where Eisenheim plants a seed, grows a small tree and produces oranges in a few seconds.  The 2nd part of the trick has trained butterflies flying in with a handkerchief.  It is a callback to a handkerchief a volunteer gave him, but it just seems strangely separate from the Orange Tree trick part of the illusion.

illusionisttree01The film mostly stays with the source material as a large mirror is wheeled on stage, and a volunteer is taken from the audience.  Eisenheim directs the woman through a series of movements.  Naturally, the mirror image reflects those movements; until it doesn’t.  In both versions, but in slightly different ways, the volunteer’s reflection is stabbed as the actual volunteer watches motionless.  This miracle is disconcerting to the entire audience — the 5% at the necessary angle to view the illusion, and the 95% who fear they grossly overpaid for their seats.

Around this time, the film makes its biggest departure away from the short story.  True, the story as written might not have supported a feature-length film.  The filmmakers could have gone in at least two directions — playing up the fantastic elements of the story, or shoe-horning in a love triangle among Eisenheim, the Crown Prince of Austria, and the volunteer who was the Prince’s fiancee Sophie.  While still a great movie, I wish they had gone for option #1.

In the short story, the illusions get darker.  In Book of Demons, the titular book bursts into flames releasing “hideous dwarfs in hairy jerkins who ran howling across the stage.”  In Pied Piper, he causes a group of children to vanish.  When they return, some claimed to have been in a heavenly place, but others claimed to have “been in hell and seen the devil who was green and breathed fire.”  If there had been more of this, but still grounded by an abbreviated romance — GOLD!

The  rest of the film mostly plays out the love triangle which does not exist in the short story.   There is a murder, political intrigue, framing, suicide, more magic.  And mostly a happy ending.  Inspector Giamatti even turns out to be an OK guy.

illusionistjessicaThis is not the usual  blueprint for Steven Millhauser’s stories.  He frequently begins with a premise of something very big, or something very small, or something physically impossible and beats that premise to death.  But I mean that in the best possible way; examining the phenomena from many different angles, creatively tackling the implications.  It might be a town that maintains an exact duplicate of itself, women’s dresses that are as big as houses, paintings that seem to move, or an illusionist with who performs impossible feats.

The premise is the thing for Millhauser.  You don’t go in looking in for a love triangle with the Crown Prince of Austria.  I hope to cover more of his work later.

Post-Post Leftovers:

  • On Amazon, this is categorized as Movies & TV > Blu-Ray > Romance.  Such a lost opportunity.
  • Sophie’s name is mentioned exactly once in the short story.
  • Although in both versions, Eisenheim is clearly performing impossible feats, the short story makes more of a case for the supernatural.  The Orange Tree illusion, however, actually has an historical basis, even if it was tarted-up with the trained butterflies.
  • I read this in the collection We Others: New and Selected Stories.  I am happy to support the arts, but putting out a collection of 21 short stories where 14 have been previously collected is just effectively forcing me to pay 3 times as much for the new material.  Well, not forcing exactly, as I actually set foot in a public library for the first time in years.  Sorry, Steve-o.
  • And don’t get me started on the trade paperback scam.
  • I don’t generally give actors much credit for their craft, but you can pretty much depend on Edward Norton to be great in anything he does.
  • Handkerchief is a strange word; it is literally a hand kerchief.  But a kerchief is specifically defined as being a woman’s scarf.  It is one of those strangely literal words like fireplace that say just what they are with an almost caveman simplicity.  Ummm . . . . fire . . . place!