Monday, 27 December 2010

The Prestige, by Christopher Priest

Borden and Angier as portrayed by Christian Bale (left) and
Hugh Jackman.
Well, first of all, let's start with the fact that I bought Priest's The Prestige a long time ago, probably not long after it published in 1995; but, for whatever reason, I didn't read it – or rather I started and then put it down. It remained on my bookshelf for many years and is still there now, the difference being that, as of 26 December 2010, it has been read and, I must say, it's up there with the very best of all the books I've read. Why? Because of the way it was written, the fact that it was well-researched – or at least I assume it was – and because the characterisation is so rich and the story so authentically told. For a book set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but written in the late twentieth century, it manages the conceal its youthful nature through the style of the writing, a lot of which is in diary form and conveys the thoughts of the two main characters – that of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier – both of whom are magicians, one who calls himself the Professor de Magie and the other, The Great Danton.

In essence, the book documents the rivalry between the two men and how they each attempt, on numerous occasions, to sabotage the other's act. In fact, that word 'attempt' is misleading as Borden, more so than Angier, manages successfully to sabotage Angier's act and, in the process, causes him great harm. One of Borden's early attempts results in the loss of Angier's unborn child, although later he inadvertently saves Angier from drowning when one of his illusions goes wrong.

The main theme of the book, however, is the quest of both men to discover the secrets of each other's main illusion, that of teleportation from one location to another. In Borden's case we discover that body doubles are involved in his New Transported Man, something Angier finds hard to believe (although it turns out to be true). Subterfuge is involved when Angier's wife defects to the 'other side' by working for Borden, initially to find out his secrets, but ultimately she falls in love with him and sends Angier a false lead after admitting her original intentions to Borden.

Angier receives a note from his wife informing him that the secret of Borden's act lies in the work of a Professor Tesla who is experimenting with alternating current in Colorado. Angier travels to the USA and asks Tesla to manufacture a machine that will enable him to transport himself from one place to another – in other words, not an illusion but a reality: a machine that literally transports matter from one location to another. Angier pays a hefty sum for the equipment and, for a while, appears to have been ripped off until he discovers that the paid-for equipment had been shipped and was probably languishing in a dockyard somewhere in the UK.

Once retrieved and assembled, the equipment does its job and Angier discovers that, without the aid of a body double – a method he does employ prior to meeting Tesla – he can transport himself from the stage to the circle seats of any theatre as long as it has electrical power. He manages to wow audiences the length and breadth of the country and becomes very rich in the process, but his great nemesis, Borden, is always lurking in the audience, trying to sabotage the act.

On one occasion he manages to somehow switch off the power of Tesla's appartus at a crucial moment in the act when Angier has passed the point of no return. The end result is that two Angiers spring into existence, one being his original self and the other his part-transported self – a ghost-like wraith who decides that enough is enough and that he must kill Borden. But when push comes to shove, he can't do it. The 'other' Angier, the one that initially entered the Tesla machine, becomes ill and eventually dies.

It is important to remember, however, that Angier is also part of the aristocracy and so has two identities: one being Rupert Angier (The Great Danton) and the other Lord Colderdale of Derbyshire. With the Great Danton dead – and so, by default, Lord Colderdale, only the wraith-like Angier is left and he decides to end it all by using the Tesla equipment once more to re-unite himself with the other Angier who is now in the Colderdale mausoleum.

While most of the book is set in the mid-18th Century and early twentieth, the first and last parts are set in modern times. The book starts with a reporter – an unknowing descendant of Borden – visiting a descendant of Angier and explaining how he always feels he has an identical twin somewhere in the world. These feelings are strongest during his time in the Colderdale stately home and it is not until the end of the book, when the reader is back in the present day, that story reaches its rather eerie and frightening conclusion.

I loved this book and was elated to discover that my son Max had a DVD of the movie, which I sat down and watched last night (Boxing Day 2010) having finished the novel that morning. Sadly, although understandably, considering the novel's intricacies, the movie was considerably different from the book and nowhere near as good. Borden is portrayed as some kind of plucky cockney magician – not how I imagined him at all – and he and Angier see a darn sight more of one another than they do in the book (where most of their encounters are during acts of sabotage). The movie has Borden accidentally killing Angier's wife, when in the book he kills their unborn child. Unless I missed it, Borden is not shot by Angier and Borden is never in prison awaiting hanging. What's more the modern-day element of the story is completely ignored as is the eerie climax to the novel. All in all, while the book was one of the most impressive I've read in a long time, it was let down by the movie – but only, I'd imagine, for those, like me, who had read the book. Coming to the movie in isolation, it's a good film.

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