BOOK REVIEW / The little man who lived on the brink: The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini - Ruth Brandon: Secker & Warburg, pounds 17.99

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THREE historical circumstances permitted Ehrich Weiss to turn himself into Harry Houdini. The first was the great migration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the limitless horizons of America. The second was the ascendancy of vaudeville, before illusion became two-dimensional. The third was that popular consciousness had yet to be Freudianised, and a man could still perform wearing little but a collection of restraining ironmongery in perfect innocence.

As Ruth Brandon points out, there were a thousand surer ways for Jewish immigrants to get rich in America. It worked for some, though. In 1918, Houdini became the first President of the Rabbis' Sons Theatrical Association; his vice-presidents being Al Jolson and Irving Berlin. Such men, Brandon suggests, 'were driven to share their compulsions with the public'. Houdini's work, his life, was a passion play.

For the crowds, he was the archetypal Little Man, tirelessly wrestling with, and slipping the bonds of oppression. His appeal seemed directly proportionate to the repressiveness of the state; as he began to build his career, he was received quite well in America, with acclaim in Britain, and rapturously in Germany and Russia. In 1903, to the fury of the chief of the Moscow police, Houdini escaped from one of the wagons used to transport prisoners to Siberia.

After his death in 1926, he became one of the choicest dishes on the menu of psychologists and biographers, having lived an impeccably Freudian life. Mother- fixation was the long and the short of it, leading to the eternal tension between overweening narcissism and secret self-doubt. Possibly, it unmanned him. He and his wife Bess had no children; in lieu, he left a paper-trail of excruciatingly mawkish notes to her - three a day, sometimes - assuring her of his devotion. Brandon diagnoses impotence.

Despite his cloying language, his intent was obviously to keep control over Bess, who quietly turned to the bottle as time went by. He would demand oaths of allegiance from those close to him, while pursuing his rivals with implacable ruthlessness. Although his own success depended largely on the surreptitious replacement of screws or weakening of chain links, he loudly denounced other escapologists as frauds for using exactly the same tricks. In an act of symbolic parricide, he wrote a book excoriating the 19th-century French magician Robert-Houdin, from whose name he had derived his own. The book was dedicated to the memory of his real father, the late Rabbi Weiss.

As his career progressed, his art and energies turned into a stand- off with death. The stunts became riskier; the imagery of rebirth - emerging from under water, or from a coffin, or both together - became more insistent. Brandon detects an obsessive need to approach the brink.

After his mother's death, there was the possibility of ultimate fulfilment on the other side. But Houdini seems to have been a man poorly equipped with faith. Although he had a longstanding fascination with spiritualism, he could never trust a medium. He harried them with the same vengefulness that he turned on his fellow conjurors. Above all, there was Margery, the siren of seances, who worked her magic naked except for a kimono. One can only guess at the feelings of Houdini, pressing his leg against hers in the dark to detect trick footwork. Characteristically, he had prepared the member by binding it, to make it swollen and sensitive.

Ruth Brandon's elegant and rewarding account stays in keeping with the spirit of the tale, by casting Houdini as a shaman. He certainly went through many of the motions. But a shaman makes return trips to the spirit world. Houdini always turned back

from the border, perhaps because he never really believed there was anything on the other side.