A new Colm Tóibín always shines out like a beacon for me so I was delighted to be offered a proof of The Magician. Like his Booker-shortlisted The Master, which fictionalised the life of Henry James, Tóibín’s novel is about a towering literary figure, Thomas Mann, a writer I knew little about having only read Death in Venice, the novella that I’m sure will leap to many readers’ minds. Tóibín follows Mann from his childhood in Lübeck to his last days in Switzerland, still living in exile from his beloved Germany, telling the story of the twentieth century as he does so.
No, he thought, it would have to be a boy. And the story would have to suggest that the desire was sexual, but it would also, of course, be distant and impossible
Thomas Mann came from a cultured but deeply bourgeois background, a background his older brother, Heinrich, made clear he planned to escape. Both became writers, each very different from the other, Heinrich wearing his internationalist colours on his sleeve while Thomas was the patriot whose first novel, Buddenbrooks, outshone any success that Heinrich had achieved. Aged thirty, Thomas married Katia Pringshiem, attracted as much to her twin Klaus as to her, knowing that the homoerotic fantasies he would enjoy throughout his life must remain just that for the sake of respectability. Having maintained his support for Germany in the First World War, he was slow to acknowledge the threat of Nazism, ever circumspect in the expression of his political views, despite the cajoling of his brother and older children. When war finally broke out, Thomas and Katia were in Switzerland at the beginning of an exile which took them to the US where Thomas’ influence as a respected, Nobel Prize-winning man of letters led to his involvement with the American war effort. By the end of his life, he was awarded the freedom of his beloved Lübeck, almost but not quite, coming full circle.
Nothing had prepared him for fleeing his own country. He had failed to read the signs. He had misunderstood Germany, the very place that was meant to be inscribed on his soul
Tóibín’s rendition of Mann’s life is vividly enlivened by scenes such as family dinners with their noisy exchange of views. Mann’s sexuality runs throughout the background of the novel, daydreams and journals of his fantasies, rather than consummation. His marriage seems to have been the bedrock of his adult life, Katia capably managing the needs of their six children allowing her husband to shut the door of his study every morning. Mann lived through the most tumultuous events of the mid-twentieth century, a writer in exile reluctant to court controversy, called upon to denounce the party his people had voted into power. This meticulously researched portrait offers an intimate view of a complex, flawed but immensely influential man who clearly fascinates Tóibín. It’s an engrossing novel, polished and accomplished, but I’m hoping for something more Brooklyn-like next time.
Viking: London 9780241004616 438 pages Hardback