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.