November 2021


‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín

By Helen Elliott
Cover of ‘The Magician’
The Irish novelist’s latest ponders creativity and the unacknowledged life of Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, primarily for the luminous Buddenbrooks (1901) written when he was 24, and the complex, philosophical The Magic Mountain (1924). Thanks to an adaptation by Italian film director Luchino Visconti, Mann is now better known for Death in Venice, his novel about an elderly writer struck with desire for a youth he sees on the beach. Both novel and film are about desire as much as death or art, but it is Mann’s desire, specifically hidden desire, that absorbs Colm Tóibín in The Magician (Picador).

Almost 20 years ago Tóibín wrote The Master, a tender novel about another great writer, Henry James. James and Mann have much in common: sonorous sentences, states of exile and brilliant older brothers. And in both men sexual desire was homoerotic but not, as far as any of us can ever know, acted upon. Tóibín’s audacity is to imagine what it was for such men to run both a public life as well as a hidden, interior one. Perhaps the creative life burns with a greater intensity because of the unacknowledged life. If the hidden collided with the public (as was the case for Oscar Wilde, for example), the downfall, engineered by shame, could only be catastrophic.

While James lived the blameless life of a “confirmed bachelor”, Mann married the clever and rich Katia Pringsheim when he was 30 and already famous. They were well suited in many ways, and the sophisticated Katia was always aware of Mann’s sexuality. The marriage produced six children, and Tóibín’s intention is to reveal Mann through these unruly offspring. After all, he reasons, they knew him intimately: as the magician, the father who did magic tricks at the dinner table, the one who would tell them stories, take them on beautiful holidays and shine eyes of paternal love upon them. Technically Tóibín’s idea is good, but while the Mann children were unusual they were not as interesting as their father. Much of the novel attends to them living in the spotlight as children of a genius, while Mann sits in his study writing his books and the cheques to fund their lives.

The Manns’ marriage, a conventional arrangement in many ways, was structured around not stepping across boundaries. And the astonishing wealth, from Katia’s family and Mann’s novels, helped oil the life of the great man and his rowdy family. Chauffeurs, housekeepers, secretaries, nursemaids, travel, exceptional houses… the Manns were celebrities. And in the eyes of the world Thomas Mann was German culture and civilisation. He thought so too, but not in an arrogant way. He was a serious person, and he anguished about the disappearance of the principled, solid, cultivated world of Goethe and Beethoven to which he was naturally aligned, and the swift embrace of the new fascist order, his natural enemy. He and Katia left their beloved Germany in 1933 and never returned. Tóibín catalogues all of this turmoil. In detail.

Obsessed with Mann for decades, Tóibín travelled the world to visit his houses, researching the revealing personal diaries of Mann and Katia, and vacuuming up the entire history of Europe in the years relevant to their exile. It is this tonnage that undoes Tóibín’s usual imaginative and delicate intelligence. It is visionary to take on a fictional biography of an entire life, especially in this labyrinthine political landscape, but in some peculiar way Tóibín has deactivated any liveliness in this novel. The hidden life remains hidden and this most fascinating and profound writer remains a silhouette behind a huge cast of less interesting characters.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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