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‘The Magician’ unwraps the life of literary giant Thomas Mann

Colm Tóibín peels back Thomas Mann’s life, from his family to his closeted sexuality to Germany’s descent into Nazism in “The Magician.” 

Seventeen years after he published “The Master,” his bravura novel about Henry James, Irish writer Colm Tóibín takes on another literary titan in this powerful historical novel about German novelist and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann.  

“The Magician” masterfully weaves together Tóibín’s take on Mann’s personal and interior life with the creation of his major works – including “Death in Venice,” “The Magic Mountain,” and “Doctor Faustus” – against the backdrop of the insidious rise of Nazism. Hitler’s election in 1933 sent Mann, his wife Katia – who was born into a wealthy, highly cultured family of assimilated Jews – and their six children into exile in Switzerland and later in the United States. 

The result is a remarkable dual portrait of Germany’s history in the 20th century and of a great, internationally famous writer who was thrust into a public role with which he was not entirely comfortable. Mann, who had the ear of the Roosevelts, became outspoken against Nazism, although his natural inclination was to withdraw from the raucous world into his study and his work. 

“The Magician” can be enjoyed even by readers unfamiliar with Mann’s novels, and should appeal not just to fans of Tóibín’s work but to history buffs who are interested in the buildup to World War II and its aftermath.  

Among other things, Tóibín’s novel is a stirring paean to literature and music, which his introspective protagonist compares in several of the book’s most soaring passages. While listening to his youngest son Michael’s string quartet perform Beethoven’s Opus 132 for family and friends in the embarrassingly opulent Pacific Palisades house the Manns built during the war, Mann marvels at music’s power to transcend the rational and “to evoke feelings that allowed for chaos as much as order or resolution.” At one point he regrets that his writing often falls short of the sublimity of music, but comments, “it is a grubby business writing novels. Composers can think about God and the ineffable. We have to imagine the buttons on a coat.” 

Tóibín imagines far more than the buttons on a coat, taking us deeper into his character’s psyche than a nonfiction biography would allow. As in “The Master,” his style is considerably less ornate than that of his protagonist, but many of Tóibín’s familiar themes are here, including the pain of the exile’s return after a long absence, which he described movingly in “The Empty Family” as coming home to “a landscape of endings.” 

A prominent theme shared with “The Master” is the lifelong strain of his main character’s carefully repressed homosexuality. In fact, Tóibín’s focus in the early chapters on young Thomas’ longings heightens the surprise of his abrupt engagement to Katia Pringsheim. Tóibín does a particularly sensitive job depicting the Manns’ long, successful marriage, whose happiness and stability rested on a tacit understanding that Thomas would do nothing to embarrass Katia by acting on his desires – although she recognized and accepted them, even when they surfaced in his work. Interestingly, three of their children were openly gay or bisexual.  

Tóibín, who has joked that he hopes never again to write about a family with six children, does yeoman’s work bringing Mann’s extensive, fractious clan to life and keeping track of them as they move around the world during the war like pins on a map. As a family saga, “The Magician” encompasses numerous upheavals, including multiple suicides. 

There are also marked political disagreements among various family members. One ongoing source of stress in Tóibín’s narrative is Thomas’ lifelong rivalry with his older brother Heinrich, also a celebrated novelist in pre-war Germany, now best known for “The Blue Angel,” the film adaptation of one of his books. After Thomas’ early success with his coming-of-age novel, “Buddenbrooks,” which chronicles the decline of their wealthy merchant family in Lübeck, Heinrich comments that “novels should not deal so obsessively with private life” and that Thomas must learn to think.  

Heinrich, like Mann’s oldest son Klaus, also a prolific novelist, was left-leaning. Their books, unlike Thomas’, did not sell well in the United States, and they both ended up relying on his support. The poet W.H. Auden – whom the Manns’ oldest child, Erika, married in order to secure an English passport – wittily referred to Klaus Mann, one of three Klauses in the family, as “The Subordinate Klaus.” 

Tóibín also conjures his protagonist’s frequently conflicted, self-critical thoughts, in which he rues his timidity in taking a resolute political stance at various junctures in his life. In a particularly powerful passage, Mann reflects on his reluctance to address evil “so darkly outside his own comprehension” in his work: “He could imagine decency, but that was hardly a virtue in a time that had grown sinister.  He could imagine humanism, but that made no difference in a time that exalted the will of the crowd. He could imagine a frail intelligence, but that meant little in a time that honored brute strength.” 

This sobering, cautionary reminder about what happens when bad people gain popular support is a magnificent achievement. 

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