The Magician by Colm Tóibín - review by Ian Critchley

Ian Critchley

Thomas & His Brothers

The Magician


Viking 444pp £18.99

In his tenth novel, Colm Tóibín returns to the fictionalised biographical form he used to such good effect in The Master (2004). That earlier book described just a few years in the life of Henry James; here Tóibín seeks to cover almost the whole of German writer Thomas Mann’s long life, stretching from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. Bold and often beautifully written, it is an admirably ambitious novel, but at times it is a victim of that ambition.

The facts of Mann’s life are easily recounted: born in Lübeck in 1875, he wrote a succession of renowned books, including Death in Venice (1912) and The Magic Mountain (1924), and was awarded the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature. Fearful and critical of the rise of the Nazis, he left Germany in 1933 and never lived there again, spending his last years in America and Switzerland before his death in 1955. He was part of one of Germany’s greatest literary dynasties, which included his older brother, Heinrich, best known for his novel Professor Unrat, adapted for cinema as The Blue Angel. There is a voluminous amount of source material to draw on (Tóibín lists more than thirty books in his acknowledgements).

The challenge in writing about such a well-known figure is twofold: how to distil the wealth of factual information into a fictional portrait, and how to justify writing a novel rather than another biography. Tóibín’s approach is to create a subtle psychological study of a man coming to terms with his identity, both as an artist and as a human being.

Mann was a complex figure: married with children, he struggled with his homosexuality, which he was forced to keep hidden because of the laws and mores of the time. Tóibín writes movingly of this struggle and Mann’s rare, often snatched encounters with other men. When he first meets his wife, Tóibín writes, he can ‘see the boyish strength in her body’.

Family dynamics are often central to Tóibín’s writing and Mann’s complicated relationships with his siblings and children are vividly described. Sibling jealousy simmers under the surface when Thomas and Heinrich are both trying to establish themselves as writers. Thomas is horrified when he discovers that his mother is paying Heinrich a stipend to encourage his writing, while Thomas is forced to take a job in a fire insurance company. They both travel to Italy, where they share an apartment and write sitting back to back. Their political differences become increasingly pronounced: while Heinrich is vehemently opposed to Germany’s involvement in the First World War, Thomas supports it. And even though they share anti-Nazi sentiments, Heinrich’s left-leaning sympathies lead him to be courted by the communists, while Thomas resists.

As shown in his beguiling novel Brooklyn (2009), Tóibín excels in creating engaging female characters. Here, the women of the Mann dynasty share centre stage, particularly Thomas’s two sisters, his no-nonsense wife, Katia, and their daughter, the headstrong Erika, who herself went on to become a writer. Some of the other members of this huge clan are more sketchily realised. For instance, Thomas’s younger brother, Viktor, stays very much in the background, leading to some awkward lacunae. We learn little of how he fares as a soldier in the First World War and it is only several pages after Tóibín has described the end of the conflict that we discover Viktor has survived.

Covering more than sixty years in a few hundred pages sometimes leads to a telescoping of events, with certain periods galloped over in just a couple of pages. This becomes a particular problem when Tóibín attempts to describe Mann’s writing process, which can appear unrealistically quick and straightforward, particularly in the case of his first novel, Buddenbrooks (1901). He conceives the idea for the book on page fifty-two and four pages later it is already published. Beyond Mann’s habit of hiding away in his study every morning, we see little of the challenges of writing, the months and years of drafting and revision. Showing the messiness of the writing process might not make for great fiction, but avoiding it gives the impression that Mann found it all too easy and perhaps, given the book’s title, that he somehow magicked his books into existence.

Maybe, though, we should not read The Magician as a portrait of a writer so much as an account of the momentous events of the first half of the 20th century seen through the eyes of a sensitive observer attuned to the political and social nuances of the time. It is rare, at least in Anglophone literature, to see the two world wars from a German perspective, and the varying reactions of the Mann family to the horrors and their own personal experiences provide fascinating insights. Like Brooklyn, this is a novel that superbly describes the émigré experience. In particular, Tóibín writes brilliantly of the chaos of the days leading up to the Second World War from the perspective of Mann’s scramble to escape from Europe and reach the United States. For Thomas Mann and his family, Germany became an impossible country to live in. As in Brooklyn, however, it is clear that America is not always the promised land it appears to be.

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