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