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Posted on 28 Oct 2021 in Fiction |

COLM TOIBIN The Magician. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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Colm Toibin’s tenth novel imagines the life and times of novelist Thomas Mann, whose books were banned by the Nazis in his native Germany.

The Magician is a very clever and enjoyable novel based on the life of German author Thomas Mann. Toibin has previously novelised four years in the life of writer Henry James in The Master (2004). His approach here is very different, as he covers the full arc of Mann’s life, from scion of a Hanseatic family, to exile, to seeing his books banned in Germany, receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, and then his final years in Switzerland. 

Thomas Mann had an extraordinary life and the novel begins by focusing on his sexuality, as well as his bourgeois upbringing in the city of Lubeck in the north of Germany. As the second son, Thomas was expected to take over his father’s trading company and continue the family tradition. However, as he entered adulthood it became clear that Thomas, like his older brother Heinrich, had ambitions in other directions. His mother Julia had been born in Brazil and was considered to be hot-blooded compared to the cool Protestant traditions of Lubeck, and she had a strong influence on her children. Before he died, Mann’s father wound up his firm, recognising that he had no children willing to run the family business. The widowed Julia Mann and her children moved to Munich, a city whose Catholic sensibilities seemed to suit the family more. 

Much has been written about Mann’s struggle with his sexuality, not the least because of its fictional apotheosis in his novella Death in Venice. Mann denied that his fictions were autobiographical, however when his diaries were published in 1975, it was clear why he had been so afraid of the Nazis seizing them, as they revealed how he had had to sublimate his urges. In Germany they created a sensation and a re-evaluation of Mann’s canon.

The diaries are the basis of this elegantly drawn portrait of Mann, which also reveals his flaws and peccadillos.

Mann once had feelings for the violinist Paul Ehrenberg, and Toibin has them catching up at a cafe. Ehrenberg has heard the rumours about Mann’s infatuation with Katia Pringsheim:

‘I hear that you have found a princess and are seeking to awaken her,’ he said.

Thomas smiled.

‘Marriage is not for you,’ Paul said. ‘You should know that.’

Thomas indicated that Paul should keep his voice down.

‘Everyone at this table knows that marriage is not for you. Anyone who follows your eyes can see where they land.’

‘How is your work?’ Thomas asked.

Paul shrugged, ignoring his question.

‘She is young, your princess. And rich.’

Thomas did not respond.

When Mann proposes in 1905, Katia at first resists him, while encouraging his continued attention. She is eight years younger than him, only 21, and is very attached to her twin, Klaus.

Every time he saw her, he felt exposed. She often said little, leaving him and her brother to talk. Klaus refused to be serious. From the beginning, also, Klaus understood the effect he could have on Thomas, how he could draw Thomas’s eyes from his sister to himself. The game Klaus played with Thomas appeared to amuse Katia.

Each chapter of the novel notes the city and the year and encompasses the key moments of Mann’s life. The First World War and the years of the Weimar Republic are fascinating and see the rise of Mann as an intellectual whose opinions as a humanist and a democrat are respected and discussed. His two eldest children, Klaus and Erika, become well-known in their own right, and his brother Heinrich emerges as a figure in left-wing politics.

In 1933 when the Reichstag Fire breaks out, the Manns are in Switzerland with their younger children. It is clear that they cannot return to Germany. His son Golo packs up the family home, and Mann asks him to remove his diaries from the safe, without reading them, and arrange for them to be sent to Switzerland. When Golo arrives in Switzerland, he cannot confirm if the diaries have been posted as he passed the task to another friend of the family. Toibin imagines Mann suspects his son has skimmed the diaries and got a truer sense of his father.

He shows Mann’s concern that ordinary Germans, egged on by the Nazis, could misconstrue his life and resent him and his wealth during the Depression. Mann is also concerned about his frankness in the diaries regarding his sexual attraction to young men and, to him more appallingly, his descriptions of Klaus and his observations of his son’s burgeoning sexuality. Klaus and Erica would survive any scandal and are public opponents of the Fascists, but Mann feels he would not be capable of surviving the public shaming he would endure. 

At first Mann is careful not to comment on the situation in Germany. His books are not burned in 1933, and it is 1936 before he is denounced by the regime. Nevertheless, he is concerned about his Jewish in-laws, who choose to remain in Munich, even though by this time Katia and her brothers are all living in exile.

He obtains Czech citizenship for his family, but becomes concerned about living too close to the German border and being vulnerable to kidnapping or assassination. 

In 1939 he is invited to America to receive an honorary doctorate from Harvard, along with Einstein, and dines with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House. Agnes E Meyer, a wealthy journalist, becomes his patron and encourages him to apply for American citizenship. She is German born and seeks to influence American opinion in regard to Germany and the Nazis. Mann comes to be spoken of as a future president of a reconstructed Germany

The descriptions of Mann’s years in exile are absorbing, and it is deeply ironic that in 1952 Mann had to leave the United States and return to Switzerland having become a victim of McCarthyism. 

Mann had an eventful life in ‘interesting’ times that brought him into contact with many well-known historical figures. His siblings, children and in-laws are all interesting characters with rich histories, and Toibin has fully exploited this to bring together a marvellous story as powerful as Mann’s own Buddenbrooks in its exploration of the tensions of the artistic world. This leads to brilliant dialogue and many splendid scenes, as here, when he considers the origins of Death in Venice:

His figure, whether Mahler or Heinrich or himself, had come to Venice and been confronted by beauty and been animated by desire. Thomas considered making the object of desire a young girl, but immediately he thought he would be working in the realm of what was natural, and undramatic, especially if he made the girl older. 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. The gaze of the older man would be all the more fierce because nothing else could happen. The encounter would change the protagonist’s life all the more because it would be fleeting and would lead nowhere. It could never be socialised or domesticated or made acceptable to the world. It would break through the gates of a soul that had once believed itself impregnable. 

Toibin has succeeded in giving life to a distant, almost austere writer and intellectual. This is beautiful, elegant writing, encompassing a solid family and social history. Toibin has researched Mann thoroughly, and his imagination fills in the detail with a novelist’s flair, turning the story of the Mann family into an outstanding saga.

Colm Toibin The Magician Picador 2021 448pp $32.99

Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen

You can buy The Magician from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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