The Knife Thrower: and Other Stories (Anglais) Broché – 22 février 1999
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"An American writer of surpassing skill.... [Millhauser] renders the impossible itself with precision." —Chicago Tribune
"As Gothic as Poe and as imaginative as Fantasia, Millhauser's deceptive fables are funny and warm. But they're dark as dungeons, too.... He bewitches you." —Entertainment Weekly
Présentation de l'éditeur
With the panache of an old-fashioned magician, Steven Millhauser conducts his readers from the dark corners beneath the sunlit world to a balloonist's tour of the heavens. He transforms department stores and amusement parks into alternate universes of infinite plentitude and menace. He unveils the secrets of a maker of automatons and a coven of teenage girls. And on every page of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, Millhauser confirms his stature as a narrative enchanter in the tradition of Nabokov, Calvino, and Borges.
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WHEN WE LEARNED that Hensch, the knife thrower, was stopping at our town for a single performance at eight o'clock on Saturday night, we hesitated, wondering what we felt. Lire la première page
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Of the seven Millhauser books that I own, this is, I believe, the best of them. The Barnum Museum, another collection of short stories, would be a close second, with the idiosyncratic novel Edwin Mullhouse being the third contender.
Writing a recommendation for this book is intimidating. Millhauser possesses a distinctive literary genius, and I most certainly do not. It feels something like trying to write a musical tribute to Beethoven or to Miles Davis; a doomed effort to try to describe a great work in the same medium wherein the original artist maneuevers much more expertly.
Perhaps an analogy will help. I'm told that someone once asked of Einstein what was the source of his genius. He said (I'm told) that he never got over being a child, never got over asking all sorts of childish questions. Why does the Earth go around the sun? Why is water wet? What is time? What is light? Except that, as an adult, he was also in possession of the intellectual tools available to adults: higher mathematics, and an abundance of scientific knowledge. He just kept playing with his lifelong fascinations, but with his education, he could go further to find answers.
Millhauser reminds me of that in some ways. He retains the child's fascination with all of the elements of imagination: with carnivals, and fortune-tellers, and fairy tales, and arcades, and cartoons, and urban legends, and comics, and strange museums. But as a brilliant adult writer, he can probe the meaning of it all, and can gain a perspective on such things that a child cannot.
Many of the selections in this book of short stories probe such questions: what excites our imagination? what adds color and mystery to the world? are these things a constructive stimulation or a form of decadence? how can we keep the flame of such fascinations alive? should we?
The first story in this group addresses those questions more straightforwardly than most: in fact, slightly too straightforwardly for my taste, as it's not my favorite of this particular collection. It is the story of a knife thrower who comes to town to amaze with his feats of skill and daring, which both delight and terrify. The story lulls you in with the fairly-whispered excitement of the prospect of such a performance, and wonders when escapism and morbidity have gone too far.
I prefer some of the subtler stories in this collection that probe a similar theme. The final piece, "Beneath the Cellars of Our Town," concerns a labyrinth of subterranean stone passageways, the "meaning" of which is similarly wondered about, but only after their description in realistically vivid detail.
One of my favorite stories in this collection is the magnificent "Clair de lune." This story tells of a moonlight walk of a teenager unable to sleep.
The nocturnal exploration is a common theme in Millhauser. Midnight climbs out windows, into the moonlight-splashed nights, occur in more than one of his tales. The protagonist steps out into a looking-glass mirror world, of which he gets a magic and forbidden glimpse as others sleep.
I have often wondered whether Millhauser was influenced by a similar story by Bruno Schulz in "The Street of Crocodiles." In that story, a schoolboy must leave a theater early to get something from home for his family, and his journey takes him to his school, which he enters to see strangely illuminated and empty. To see his daytime classrooms from "the other side of night," as it were, is an exceptionally vivid experience.
So too for Millhauser's protagonist in "Clair de lune." He says of his experience: "The shadows of telephone wires showed clearly on the moonwashed streets. The wire-shadows looked like curved musical staves. On a brilliant white garage door the slanting, intricate shadow of a basketball net reminded me of the rigging on the wooden ship model I had built with my father, one childhood summer."
Who can read of such imagery without being reminded of some similar formative memory in youth, when one first traveled alone in some time or place that had remained previously hidden and mysterious?
Another more direct form of magic is exhibited in "Flying Carpets," when another young protagonist is given a flying carpet, like those that have begun to appear elsewhere around the neighborhood. Just like a new bicycle, it takes a bit of practice to learn how to use the thing, but soon the narrator is floating out his bedroom window, looking down amazedly at the rippling shadow of his carpet on the grass below.
The story and the emotions that it conveys won't be unfamiliar to most grown-up children; Millhauser paradoxically makes the story more real, more deeply felt by the reader, by injecting literal magic into the story. In your memory, your first bike is more like a magic carpet, and the only way to fully capture that is to remember it that way.
Among my favorites in this collection is "Paradise Park," an underground theme park that was destroyed by fire in 1924. (I wonder whether Millhauser mined old Kennywood Park lore for some of his material here, for such names as Luna Park and the Old Mill have a historical reality to them.) All sorts of attractions and thematic reconstructions fill Paradise Park: a Zulu village, a Ferris wheel, a Chinese temple, a burning skyscraper, a replica of the square in Marrakech, and much else.
As someone who has had more than his own share of daydreams of the theme park he would build if he had unlimited money, time and creative control, I devoured all of this in big, hungry gulps. Many of Millhauser's stories speak to such dreams, although with widely divergent treatments. Sometimes his tales stick close to the realm of the achievable, detailing the marketing of magic by carnivalists, department store owners, cartoonists, or crafters of mechanical toys. Other times they are more literally magical, as in his "flying carpets" story. At other times Millhauser probes only the dreams themselves; one protagonist in a Millhauser story (not in this book) decides that his "art" will simply be the imagining of things, and the construction of nothing.
Sometimes Millhauser writes about the ways that our imaginations impose magic on things that may be more mundane. The "Sisterhood of Night" recalls the hysteria of the Salem witch trials, and reminds us of the enduring power of imagination to take us to dark places.
Millhauser is occasionally described as probing the dark recesses of imagination, and the broken downside of dreams. That element is certainly present, but I will say for my part, that I regard Millhauser as more celebratory of human imagination than he is cautionary. I find in his work a deep and fundamental respect for even the crass hawkers of magic, from the designers of arcade machines to the organizers of freak shows. Millhauser asks us to remember that the imagination is a thing to be treasured, and pleads for its survival against age and modernism.
Even those stories that do have a mundane, contemporary setting, such as The Dream of the Consortium, also contain something of the mysterious as well. In this story, an ordinary shopping mall becomes a world of Moorish courtyards and Aztec pyramids. In The Sisterhood of the Night, a secret society of girls, not so unusual in itself, manages to encompass the mysterious when the girls slip out of their homes to indulge in nothing more than silence. In Clair de Lune, a boy finds himself at a baseball game. But this is a nocturnal baseball game, played by girls who are dressed as boys. Flying Carpets is a fascinating story that details both the joys and the problems inherent in that particular mode of travel.
At first glance, Millhauser's stories might appear to be little more than surreal melodramas, stories that definitely have virtues but stories that also cause the reader to give up in despair. This, however, is certainly not the case. Millhauser, like Kafka, draws us effortlessly into the shimmering worlds of his imagination through his poignant and expert use of detail and the elegance and beauty of his poetic prose.
In five of these twelve stories, Millhauser uses the first person plural to wonderful effect and effectively allows his narrators to speak, not only for themselves, but for their community as well.
The title story, one of the collection's best, centers around a knife thrower named Hensch and the single performance given by Hensch and his assistant which involves a series of increasingly dangerous tricks. Like the audience, we remain uncertain about what it is we really witness as the story draws to a surprising close.
Those already familiar with Millhauser's work will be reminded of his gorgeous story, Einsenheim the Illusionist which also follows the path from ordinary to extraordinary. Other stories in this fascinating collection also bear a debt to Millhauser's earlier work, most notably The New Automaton Theater which is reminiscent of Millhauser's novella, August Eschenburg. Both offer a biography of a master automaton maker. While August Eschenberg finds himself trumped by a fellow creator, the central character in The New Automaton Theater, Heinrich Graum, stops work at the height of his success and remains silent for a period of a dozen years. When Graum finally does return to the theater he finds something very surprising and disturbing has happened to his work.
Although the first person plural seems to dominate these stories, some of the most vivid and intimate are written in the first person singular. In, A Visit, the narrator goes to see an old friend in a remote town and finds that he is married, quite happily, to a very large frog. As implausible as this story sounds, it becomes quite believable, mostly due to Millhauser's extraordinary talent for visual detail.
No Way Out is the sometimes humorous story, reminiscent of South American writer Julio Cortazar, in which a man learns the dubious distinction of honor versus dishonor.
Balloon Flight, 1870 is an account of an attempt to escape occupied Paris in a balloon. The narrator is at first exhilarated by his new perspective of the world from the air, but as the balloon ascends to 10,000 feet, he begins to experience dread, instead.
Like the narrator of Balloon Flight, 1870, Millhauser is an author whose protagonists are always seeking escape, by ascending into the air or burrowing into the earth or perfecting their art, e.g., knife throwing. Sometimes these protagonists go too far, but in their struggles between the real and the surreal, art and life, they help to shed light on both the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of our own daily lives as well.
This is the kind of brilliant tone that Stephen Millhauser's stories evoke. That part of us that knows just enough about the world to imagine the wildest possibilities, and believe they just might come true. I treasure these stories because nothing else I've read has captured this feeling so well for me.
A child's father warmly gifts his son with a rolled-up Persian carpet, the way other fathers might give a catcher's mitt. Of course, it's a magic flying carpet, and all the coolest neighborhood kids have one. Ironically, the carpet ends up challenging the boy's innocence.
What makes this story, and others, so ultimately fantastical is that Millhauser treats them as mundane reality. It's presented as unquestionable fact that this story's world, while satisfyingly realistic in all the right ways, happens to be a world where flying carpets are real - the kind of world any of us might remember wanting to live in.
Other examples...a teenager sneaks out of the house in his pajamas, wanders down the road in the moonlight toward his crush's house; to do what, he's not sure, but he finds the magical and the mundane intertwined in ways he can't understand.
A French military courier takes off in a hot-air balloon in the midst of war, and ponders the beautiful and dangerous miniature land below through the fog.
Millhauser's writing is vivid, literary and tightly crafted. But for me he's not a writer like TC Boyle where you might re-read a sentence half a dozen times, marveling at its mastery and efficient impact. Millhauser's writing is like a blanket that you slowly sink into. There are certainly admirable passages that glow with vivid description, but it's the overall effect that's most important. It's like a subtle perfume that slowly drifts to your nostrils with intoxicating effect.
I love this book, and I definitely prefer it to another of his collections, "Dangerous Laughter." There are a few stories here that are merely good, but I found the rest to be sublime.
PS FYI, the "Santa" scenario I began with is an example and not from the book.