The Honest Illusionist

Edward Gauvin translating the French of Marcel Béalu

For a long time, I was an illusionist. I can now say that chance led me down this path and not, as one might believe, an irresistible calling: I bought a fakir's paraphernalia at an auction for a wink and a smile. Right from the start of my career, I knew how little interest the public had in my exercises. Decapitating an assistant or impaling an audience member seemed innocent games to those thrill-seekers. And yet I'd managed, with various little bits I'd invented, to lend an air of absolute truth to these unlikely experiences. No doubt my patter lacked the heat of conviction. After much reflection, I decided to renew the entire principle of the genre. What did my demanding spectators desire but to know the singular tremor of fear? There was only one way to satisfy them: to cease all pretense and substitute, for the illusion of reality, the illusion of illusion. From then on, it was actual blood that gushed at my blade, and my assistant, preferably young and pretty, had only to give in to her natural impulses when my swords ran unflinchingly through her flesh. Thanks to this simple technique, which no one had thought of before, I immediately became a great success. The snag was finding new victims every night and making them vanish, after the fact, without arousing any suspicions. But here at last I found an occasion to exercise my talents as a prestidigitator—quite real, in fact—and moreover, in an utterly disinterested way, since there were no witnesses.

Edward Gauvin ( has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Clarion and Fulbright Foundations, the Centre National du Livre, Ledig House, the Banff Centre, and the American Literary Translators' Association. His translation of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud's selected stories A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. Other publications have appeared in Conjunctions, Subtropics, World Literature Today, Epiphany, Tin House, PEN America, The Southern Review, F&SF, and the Harvard Review. The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, he is the contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, and translates comics for Tokypop, First Second, Lerner, and Archaia.

Marcel Béalu (1908-1993) was best known for the delicacy with which he explored dreams and the unreal in poetry, prose, and painting. A retiring figure, he ran a bookstore, by Paris' Jardin du Luxembourg, named Le Pont Traversé after a novel by his friend, critic and editor Jean Paulhan. There he held readings for a small circle of surrealist and fantastical writers; it is said Lacan, among his first customers, purchased Shakespeare's complete works and forgot to pay for them. Béalu also founded the revue of fantastic writing Réalités secrètes (1955-1971). His work includes four novels and more than seven collections of short-shorts, some of which have appeared in Joyland. His 1945 novel L'Expérience de la nuit was translated by Christine Donougher as The Experience of Night (Dedalus, 1997).