Review: The Magician

The Magician, Colm Tóibín. New York: Scribner, 2021.

Summary: A fictionalized biography of German writer Thomas Mann, his bourgeois beginnings, his lifelong homoeroticism, his rise as a writer, flight from Germany, ambivalence about denouncing Nazism, and alienation from his children.

Colm Tóibín has done this before. His 2004 The Master is a fictionalized portrayal of Henry James. Now he applies his narrative skills to the life of Thomas Mann. What he gives us, apart from Mann’s inner mental life, reads like a biography. It might almost be said this is fictional autobiography because Tóibín explores what it was to be Thomas Mann, as well as his impact upon those around him, siblings, wife, and children.

We begin with Mann’s boyhood in Lubeck, with a father who is both senator and businessman. Yet his sons Heinrich and Thomas both have literary dreams, as much as Thomas wants to please his father. He discovers upon his father’s early death that he has not inherited the business and begins to embark on a writerly career.

One of the early elements that runs through this story is Mann’s closeted homoeroticism. Apart from a couple of youthful encounters, the second of which may have propelled his proposal to Katia Pringsheim, Tóibín portrays this as consisting of admiring gazes and unconsummated attractions, confided to his diaries, which only came to light in 1975 (although the narrative describes Mann on tenterhooks as he tries to secure the safe shipping of the diaries out of Germany, when his haste to leave forced him to leave them behind at the house). Katia is portrayed in somewhat masculine terms in his thoughts, and they stay together, having six children. He agrees not to embarrass the family and she lives with his wayward glances, explaining at one point that having grown up with a father who was a philanderer, she wanted to marry someone who wouldn’t be.

Her support of his writing, shielding him in his study from the troubles of his children lead to singularly written works, winning him the Nobel in literature. Tóibín traces the inspiration of his works–a homoerotic attraction to a boy (Death in Venice), his and his wife’s experience at a mountaintop sanatorium (The Magic Mountain), and his own bourgeois family (Buddenbrooks). While he eventually gains global acclaim, he loses the respect, although never the loyalty, of his children. After the suicide death of Klaus, his eldest, troubled by what seems like manic depression exacerbated by substance abuse, his son Michael, having attended the funeral Thomas shunned, writes, “I am sure the world is grateful to you for the undivided attention you have given to your books, but we, your children, do not feel any gratitude to you, or indeed to our mother, who sat by your side.”

Another layer of this portrayal is Thomas’s struggle to believe that Germany would embrace Nazism. Unlike both his brother Heinrich and son Klaus, he was moderate in political views, a Social Democrat. Tóibín traces his slow progress (too slow for Klaus and eldest daughter Erika) in speaking against Nazism from his “Appeal to Reason” in 1930 to his BBC broadcasts beginning in 1939. He remained in publication in Germany much longer than many other anti-Nazi writers because of his guarded statements, both out of deference to his publisher, and out of concern for family still in Germany, which he had fled in 1933, first for Switzerland, then Czechoslovakia, and finally, along with Einstein to the U.S. He then used his stature to help secure the emigration of family and other close associates.

He lived first in Princeton, then in California, but even then found his speech constrained by Agnes Meyer, the wife of the publisher of the Washington Post and a conduit from Roosevelt, who made sure Mann’s speeches didn’t damage Roosevelt’s political efforts to marshal support for the war. Only in the post-war era where Mann cannot shed a Communist label, does he say what he truly thinks, moving back to Switzerland. Oddly, in these later years it is Erika, who shared Klaus’s views (and sometimes his lovers–it was an interesting brother-sister relationship), who handled her father’s affairs as he finally came closer to her outspokenness.

Tóibín portrays Mann in all his complexity–his brilliance as a writer, his rich interior life, and his measured courage. We marvel at a marriage, fraught with challenges, that works and of two people, Thomas and Katia who are fierce intellectual and emotional life partners. We ache with the pain of others who live around Mann, the two sisters and the son who commit suicide, the brother whose writing career is overshadowed, and the children hurt in different ways. One wonders if the closeted homoeroticism of Mann fueled his writing and whether it all would have been different today. Or what would have happened had Katia Pringsheim not consented to marry him?

I read a couple of Mann’s works twenty years or so ago. This portrayal and the connections between his books and his life make me want to return to them. I know I will read them with different eyes.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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