Book Review: The Magician – Colm Tóibín


Posted 4 weeks ago in Book Review

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The Magician

Colm Tóibín

Penguin Random House

“There are compelling accounts of affairs, unrequited longings, and miseries associated with a life lived partially in hiding.”          

The Magician is the story of Thomas Mann, famed author of Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain and, fittingly, a novel about another German writer of note, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

When writing the book, Tóibín drew on numerous biographies and memoirs, as well as Mann’s private diaries. We follow Mann from childhood right through to his final years. This happens via 18 snapshots in time, from 1891 to 1950.

Hailing from wealthy merchants in Lübeck, Mann is expected to take over the family firm someday. He longs to become a writer instead. His father dies, leaving behind a devastating will that criticises Mann’s mother and siblings, depriving them of full control of their inheritance. Deeply humiliated, the Manns head for Munich – not the last time they would leave home in search of friendlier, more liberal pastures.

There was plenty of political upheaval in Germany during Mann’s lifetime, and it’s interesting to see debates play out between characters. Early on, Thomas and his brother Heinreich argue about the merits of German unification, which took place in the second half of the 19th century. Thomas believed it had been proven itself an unequivocal good; his brother saw it as a Prussian takeover that would potentially end in disaster.

Later, Mann is bewildered and upset by World War One. He’s living in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, but later claims that he wasn’t paying much attention to the true horror of what was happening. His family ultimately fled the country. In September 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland, Mann was staying in Switzerland. Many expected him to lead the charge in criticising Nazism, but Mann is initially trigger-shy, to the dismay of his family. Tóibín said in a recent interview that he was guilty of cowardice in this regard; it’s hard for readers to disagree.

Tóibín’s greatest concern is with domestic life, which features a host of characters also worthy of biography. Mann’s wife Katia, for example, is a radical figure in her own right, as are the couple’s six children, many of whom went on to achieve literary stardom themselves. Like many novelists, Mann has no qualms about mining his private experiences for material, even when doing so might potentially upset others. Buddenbrooks, the story of a rich family in decline, infuriates some of his relatives; Blood of the Walsungs, a novella implying that there may have been incest in his wife’s family, scandalizes his father-in-law.

A big part of this book is Mann’s sexuality. He wrote about homosexuality a great deal, yet never publicly acknowledged his own same-sex desires during his lifetime. There are compelling accounts of affairs, unrequited longings, and miseries associated with a life lived partially in hiding. Fortunately, Mann’s family accept him, a rare thing in the first half of the 20th century. His children Klaus and Erika are even more open about their sexuality, publicly having same-sex partners.

This is a compelling portrait of a gifted but flawed artist.

Words: Paulie Doyle

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