Monday, 30 June 2014 | MYT 6:30 PM

Magic of memory: Steven Galloway conjures Houdini in new novel

Steven Galloway explores the fickle nature of memory in The Confabulist, his novel about one of the world’s greatest magicians, Harry Houdini.

But like his 2008 critical and commercial success, The Cellist of Sarajevo — a fictionalised account of real-life cellist Vedran Smailović who was incensed when Galloway used the account of him performing on the streets of Sarajevo during the city’s siege — the new novel is no biography.

Instead, The Confabulist is about human memory and its untenability. Narrated mainly by Martin Strauss — a fictional character — who believed that his repeated punches to Houdini’s stomach caused a ruptured appendix that killed the magician in 1926 — a factual event — The Confabulist readily mixes both fiction and fact to explore a life that seems, at times, quite unreal.

Galloway, 38, talks to Reuters about writing The Confabulist, meeting the ‘real’ cellist of Sarajevo, and the ways in which lives are shaped by events that may never have happened.

Steven Galloway on memory: "Our brains are magicians pulling magic tricks on us all the time."

How did you arrive at that intersection of magic and memory?

Magic has always felt to me like a bit of a metaphor for life. We like to think our brains are tape recorders, and that when you’re looking for a memory, you’re going back into the record and finding that bit. But that is not how brains work. Your memory is really some guy making stuff up. I discovered as an adult that I had whole chunks of memories of things that didn’t happen.

I have a memory of an encounter with an uncle, a really fond memory, but I discovered later in life this uncle died before I was born. The more I looked into what psychologists and doctors know about how the human memory works, the more I became convinced that our brains are magicians pulling magic tricks on us all the time.

Do you think confabulations impact our lives just as much as real memories?

Absolutely. There’s a question you get as a novelist a lot. Someone will take a particular detail of a book and ask, “Did that really happen?” And there’s often a profound disappointment when you say “No, I made it up,” as if it’s now of less value. We explore reality through imagining things. I think it would be wrong not to do that. If you don’t do it, you’re cutting off an enormous method we’ve developed to understand the world.

Were you always interested in Harry Houdini?

My interest in Houdini came out of deciding to write the book. I knew some basic stuff about him, but I wasn’t an expert.

'Confabulous': Harry Houdini (left), circa 1905, one of the most famous 'magicians' in history, was more accurately an illusionist. A precursor to today's David Blaine, he specialised in escaping from impossible scenarios, including the 'Chinese water torture cell' (right), a feat he first performed in 1912. — Wikipedia

The Confabulist deals with the competing world views of rationalism and spiritualism. Where do you think the book comes out on that question?

Houdini wasn’t a believer in spiritualism. He was a sceptic. I think the tension between the empirical rationalism that Houdini so loved and the hocus pocus of spiritualism are metaphors for the idea that truth is neither fact nor fiction. It can be both or neither.

In The Cellist of Sarajevo, you drew the ire of Vedran Smailović, a real-life Sarajevo cellist. Does an author have any responsibility to make clear which parts of a novel are historically accurate or not?

I don’t think the novelist has any responsibility within the context of a book to clarify that. One of the differences between fiction and creative non-fiction is that in fiction, you have the suspension of disbelief, whereas in creative non-fiction you don’t. I think it’s pretty clear that I am asking for suspension of disbelief and getting it from the reader.

You met with Smailović — did you clear the air?

We ultimately agreed to disagree. His beef was that I referenced his story. The book is not about the cellist. He is just an image within it. But he felt that I should have paid him for doing that. — Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Books , Books , News , Fiction , Novel , Steve Galloway , The Confabulist , The Cellist Of Sarajevo , Harry Houdini , memory , magic


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