Colm Toíbín, The Magician

Colm Tóibín, The Magician. Viking, 2021.

In Patrick Gale’s novel Mother’s Boy, which I posted about recently, the subject was the real-life Cornish poet Charles Causley, and his growth as an artist and as a gay man at a time of intolerant and legally punitive attitudes to homosexuality. In The Magician Colm Tóibín also takes as his central character a writer: the German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955).

Mann The Magician cover Born in the mercantile Hanseatic city of Lübeck to a prosperous business family, young Thomas, like Causley, realises he’s attracted more to men than to women. He too tries to persuade himself that these dalliances aren’t serious, and when he meets the glamorous Katia he quickly decides to marry her. She’s a headstrong, bohemian woman, also from a bourgeois family; her twin brother bewitches Thomas as much as Katia does. Although the couple went on to produce six children, Thomas continued to have his head turned, most famously in Venice by the beautiful Polish boy who became the key figure in Death in Venice.

The novel deals with much of Mann’s adult life, and traces the development of all his major fiction through the experiences that inspired them, such as the sanatorium that formed the basis of The Magic Mountain. The rise of the Nazis forced him to flee Germany in 1933 – Katia was from a Jewish family. After exile in various places he ended up in America, first in Princeton, then finally in California.

This part of the novel shows how Thomas was reluctant to become an openly hostile critic of Hitler’s regime, unlike his much more radical brother Heinrich, who disapproved of his lack of commitment to the campaign. After the war, with a Nobel prize awarded to him, he settled into the comfort of life in the sunshine as a revered man of letters. When he returned to Germany he was disappointed to find that the lessons of the terrible period under Hitler hadn’t been learned.

This is a serious account that takes its time to convey a compelling portrait of a complex, brilliant man. The most interesting parts are those that deal with the novels. Thomas comes across as a not very attractive figure: buttoned up, undemonstrative, lacking spontaneity, and his inner central duplicity makes him seem shifty. He’s less in denial about his sexuality than Tóibín suggests Henry James was in his novel The Master, which resembles this novel in approaching the inner/outer lives of a great writer.

As always with this author the writing is beautifully crafted. It seems to take on some of the sonority of Mann himself, his seriousness and complexity. It’s not exactly a pastiche, but takes on some of Mann’s literary tone. The title derives from the not entirely complimentary nickname his children give him: he loves entertaining them when they are little with tricks and games. It also suggests, of course, his shape-shifting personality, his emotional sleight of hand.



Recent reading: Mann, Bulgakov, etc.

It’s been a busy month. Two trips to London to visit friends (went to see My Fair Lady at the ENO – terrific) and in Worthing (saw Gershwin’s Crazy For You at the Chichester Festival theatre -also good). I’ve also had a big work project with an improbably close deadline. So this will be a very quick round-up of recent reading.

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse Salt Publishing, 2012. I’d expected a novel about lighthouses, but this isn’t that novel. The timid protagonist does stay in a German pension called Hellhaus, which apparently translates as lighthouse, and his most treasured possession is a silver perfume holder in the shape of one – but that’s it. Otherwise it’s a slightly strange story about loveless marriages, disappointments of other kinds, all told in a flat, affectless style. I wasn’t overwhelmed, but it was ok.

T Mann Felix Krull coverThomas Mann, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. PMC 1973; first published in German in 1954. Translated by Denver Lindley. I’d expected a novel called ‘Confessions’ to show some contrition, but there’s not much of that here. It’s more of a boastful fictional autobiography of Felix’s life to the age of about 21. He’s a bit of a male Becky Sharp: lives on his wit and good looks. It’s an enjoyable romp involving swapping identities, travels to Paris and Lisbon, and some passionate affairs that Casanova would have approved of. There were digressions and purple patches that slowed things down too much, but it was all good fun. I was inspired to read this late Mann by Colm Toibin’s The Magician. I thought I’d posted about that, but just checked: I haven’t, so must do so.

Bulgakov Dr's Notebook coverMikhail Bulgakov, A Young Doctor’s Notebook Alma Classics, 2012. First published 1925-26. Translated from the Russian by Hugh Aplin. Another from the set I bought recently from Alma to support, in some very small way, the current terrible struggle of Ukraine (Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891). It’s a short collection of short stories about the clearly autobiographical doctor’s experiences, straight out of medical school at the tender age of 24, in his first job in a small hospital in a remote peasant village in Russia. A common theme is his encountering difficult cases that he’s never dealt with before except in the university teaching room. A young girl’s leg is badly mangled in an agricultural accident, and he has to perform his first amputation; a pregnant woman needs a tricky procedure to save her unborn child, and so on. Each time he’s racked with doubts about his ability to succeed without damaging or even killing his patient. He even rushes out on a pretext to quickly consult his medical books before starting his procedures with patients. He doesn’t always get it right, either. Peasant ignorance is also highlighted, not very sympathetically – but the doctor can be forgiven for finding their apparent stupidity vexing. The final tale is a gripping, scary account of another doctor’s morphine addiction – a problem Bulgakov  also struggled with. It’s all a bit like a grim Dr Finlay’s Casebook without the cloying charm. This collection enabled me to spend a long train journey entertainingly.

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019. I stupidly forgot to note the translator’s name, having left the book behind for one of my London friends to read. I’d read positive reviews of this Man Booker International prize winner, but it left me more perplexed than satisfied. It’s an engaging enough story about an eccentric woman in her sixties, living in a secluded forest in Poland near the Czech border, who’s grieving for her lost ‘girls’ – her two dogs, and who becomes involved in the mystery about a series of murders of hunters in the forest. I found the long sections where she muses on astrology, one of her other obsessions (apart from animals), tedious, and never really got into her mind. Some of her philosophical asides are more interesting, but for me the whole thing was just too implausible. Maybe I shouldn’t have read most of this one on another long train journey.

Larkin Jill coverPhilip Larkin, Jill Faber, 1975, first published 1946. Larkin wrote this when he was just 21. I chose it from my friend’s shelves, having finished the books I’d taken to London and Worthing with me (see above), because we’d been to Chichester Cathedral (before the theatre) and seen the Arundel tombs that inspired Larkin’s famous, lovely poem. It’s a painful read. Another timid protagonist, John Kemp, lacking in self-esteem; this one goes up to Oxford in 1940. He’s from a humble working-class (or lower middle-class) background in industrial Lancashire. He finds he has to share rooms with a drunken, oafish cad from a minor public school who patronises and uses him disgracefully (John even lets him copy his essays to pass off as his own, and lends him money he can ill afford to lose, for of course the swine will never pay him back), but the poor lad is too lacking in confidence and experience to stand up for himself; he even admires and tries to emulate this brat. The Jill of the title is an imaginary version of his sister who he invents as a desperate way of ingratiating himself with the boorish roommate. It doesn’t go to plan. It’s a brilliant, salutary antidote to the languid, rose-tinted nostalgia in other Oxford novels like Brideshead.