The Magician by Colm Tóibín: The complicated life of Thomas Mann

Cover image for The Magician by Colm ToibinA 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

21 thoughts on “The Magician by Colm Tóibín: The complicated life of Thomas Mann”

  1. I haven’t read any Tóibín yet which I must put right. I’m interested in The Master having just read my first Henry James, the tbr pile just keeps getting bigger!

    1. Ah, it’s common complaint! This is very different from his usual work but I enjoyed it very much. I’ve yet to read The Master but I suspect it’ll be making its way to my own tbr pile soon.

  2. This does sound very impressive and polished, although I’m worried that my lack of familiarity with Mann’s work might be a bit of a handicap (e.g. with some of the novel’s subtleties and references)! I guess that might be difficult to judge?

  3. This is the first positive review I have seen, Susan. I know nothing about Mann so am hoping I can just enjoy the story for what it is rather than expecting a fictionalised biography. It seems to me that people who are familiar with Mann’a life and works don’t like this book ‍♀️

    1. I tend to avoid reviews until I’ve written my own but I’d gathered that there were quite a few negative ones. Knowing next to nothing about Mann seems to be an advantage, then. It’s certainly an interesting story. I hope you enjoy it, Kim.

  4. This sounds really interesting. I haven’t read The Master, but have read a few other books by Toibin. I have only read Death in Venice by Mann too, and know nothing about him.

    1. Now feeling worried… I wasn’t at all sure it was for me either and probably wouldn’t have read it had it been by anyone else. It sounds as if the less you know about Mann, the more you’re likely to enjoy it.

  5. It sounds like a good thing that I know next to nothing about Thomas Mann. 🙂
    I’m always drawn to books about writers, though, whether I know anything about them or not!

  6. This is one of those writers whose works I’m sure I’ll enjoy immensely and, yet, for that very reason, I continue to allow them to accumulate with that confidence. Illogical, I know. I can see where fans would feel that The Master and this new one, The Magician, might not have the emotional heft that the Brooklyn-style stories too…and I’m not sure whether that means I would love them more or less (as it seems you have, maybe a little?).

    1. I admired this one rather than loved it. Tóibín’s writing is as excellent as ever but I think your phrase ’emotional heft’ nails why I prefer his other novels. I’m sure you’d love his work!

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