Review by Rosemary Goring
The Magician opens in the style of the novel’s subject, Thomas Mann, whose syntax was renowned for its labyrinthine length: “His mother waited upstairs while the servants took coats and scarves and hats from the guests,” he writes, before launching into a clanger of a sentence, that goes on for what feels like forever.
Colm Toibin’s novelistic biography of Thomas Mann starts with his privileged childhood with his quixotic Brazilian mother and prosaic businessman father. Unlike his brother Heinrich, who was expected to become a literary star, Thomas seemed destined for the boardroom. He cultivated that expectation, while secretly revelling in books and music. It was the first of the many tensions between his inner and outer selves that Toibin attempts to portray.
Telling the story of a Nobel Prize-winning writer in a novel that spans his life is a mammoth and fraught task. It expects fiction to do the work of biography, yet with imaginative licence. The focus zooms in and out, crisp and prosaic in this passage, lingeringly descriptive in another. The reader must absorb the outline of Mann’s CV, while trusting the author to convey its subject’s mind.
Readers unfamiliar with Mann, who have perhaps only seen the film of Death in Venice, are in a better position than experts. No need to question facts, or interpretations, or wonder what sources Toibin used to come to his conclusions. For instance, Toibin tells us that Mann’s journals were destroyed before the Nazis could read them and learn of his proclivities. As Mann frets over their discovery –they described his arousal at the sight of his naked son and his attraction to a teenage boy – it is unclear if this is a novelistic flourish, or rooted in truth. In a work whose essence is to capture the soul of a giant of 20th-century letters, such uncertainty is unsettling and troubling.
Toibin’s acclaimed novel about Henry James, The Master, focused on a five-year period. The Magician, by comparison, covers almost three-quarters of a century, from Mann’s conventional upbringing in strait-laced Lubeck, to his final years in the USA, where he had fled to escape Hitler and his cronies.
The opening chapters require concentration, and there is a stilted quality to the writing and a staginess to the dialogue that makes it hard ever to forget you are reading about a real person. It is a wholly perplexing novel, raising questions that are not answered. Yet the bones of the story are fascinating, no matter how told. The young Thomas Mann had no doubt that he was to become a writer. Nor that he was sexually drawn to men. In a far-sighted act of self-preservation, he marries the vivacious, high-born Katia Pringsheim. It proves to be an affectionate and contented union, with Katia tacitly understanding her husband’s longings. The couple produce six children, enough to deflect suspicions about the novelist’s orientation, even after the homoerotic yearning he evokes in Death in Venice.
Nicknamed the Magician by his children, with whom he is by turns playful and aloof, Toibin’s Mann is unknowable and opaque, passing like a sleepwalker through much of this book. A devoted patriot, he is devastated by Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Resentment and bitterness cloud his judgement for too long. While his older children, especially the twins Erika and Klaus, are alive to the threat Hitler poses, he is slow to respond. It takes Nazi hecklers at one of his lectures to show how far his country has changed: “His own exalted literary reputation did not place him in an unassailable position,” he realises. It is also clear that the Germany of which he remained proud “had lost its place at the centre”. Even so, he resists speaking out, for fear of the consequences for his wife’s Jewish parents, and his publisher. The prospect of his books being banned, of losing his readers, is unbearable.
In the end, he steels himself. In denouncing the barbarism of Nazism, he decides to adopt a grandiose, theatrical tone: “he would shower clause and subclause upon them”. It is a rare moment of humour.
After 200 pages, around the middle of the book, The Magician finally sparks into life, feeling less like a resume of the family’s fortunes, and lingering on scenes that offer an insight, albeit fleeting, into the always contradictory Mann.
Much follows, as the Manns flee to the USA and, on the eve of war, help family to extricate themselves – or not – from Europe. Erika joins them in America, where she writes a cabaret mocking the National Socialist Party: “If everyone did what I am doing, then Hitler would soon be painting our hallways at less than the going rate.” Bisexual, like her father – her brother is gay – she makes a marriage of convenience with WH Auden. She is an often insufferable presence but, unlike the fictionalised Mann, could never be accused of being dull.
Only rarely does Toibin’s version feel persuasive. It is as if, in the attempt to plumb Mann’s anxious, tormented psyche, he forgets to add the ingredients that allowed the author of works such as Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus to claim a world stage.
Where the novel sings, however, is in conveying the power of music. Here, Toibin steps out of his biographical straitjacket and touches on something convincingly inspirational. When, for instance, Mann listens to a quartet in which his son Michael is playing, he is fired with admiration: “Thomas wished he had been able to do this as a writer, find a tone or a context that was beyond himself, that was rooted in what shone and glittered and could be seen, but that hovered above the world of fact, entering into a place where spirit and substance could merge and drift apart and merge again.”
By the novel’s end, one ought to feel drained. It has encompassed high drama and heartbreak – the suicides of two of Mann’s sisters and one of his children, and countless deaths – enacted to a backdrop of genocidal annihilation, in which he and his family are nearly consumed. Yet despite passages where it briefly ignites, its tone is cool and dutiful, too closely bound to a litany of events to be fully absorbing. As a result, The Magician is more like a work of accounting than creative illusion.