It was the age of levitations and decapitations, of ghostly apparitions and sudden vanishings, as if the tottering Hapsburg Empire were revealing through the medium of its magicians its secret desire for annihilation.” So writes Pulitzer Prize–winning author Steven Millhauser in “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” one of the finest stories in his 1990 collection The Barnum Museum.
Millhausen is a writer of uncommon grace and subtlety. His short stories are like intriguing, dusty daguerreotypes. “Eisenheim the Illusionist” is the tale of a brilliant Jewish magician in early-20th-century Vienna who challenges the domain of the deities and packs theaters with fans who turn into supplicants. The story has been made into the film The Illusionist, adapted and directed by Neil Burger (Interview with the Assassin) and starring the great and often overlooked American actor Edward Norton.