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.


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.

Review: I, Claudius

I Claudius

I, ClaudiusRobert Graves. New York: Vintage International, 1989 (first published 1934).

Summary: A fictional autobiography of Claudius, of how a physical handicap and speech impairment enabled him to escape death by intrigue until he rose to emperor.

Claudius was a survivor. To be Roman emperor, or close to the emperor, was to live with the threat of assassination, whether by the knife, or by poison. You only became emperor by surviving intrigues. Before Claudius, there was Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula. None died of old age.

Claudius mother was Antonia, a niece of Caesar Augustus and sister-in-law of Tiberius, who succeeded Caesar. By all rights, he should not have escaped the various purges, especially under insane Caligula, with whom he share the consulship. Robert Graves fictional biography describes how it happened. In his youth, he suffered from infantile paralysis (in Graves rendering, others have questioned this), and only hobbled rather than walked. In addition, he had a considerable stutter. Augustus wife Livia banished him from her table because of his “uncouthness.” Given Livia’s propensity for poisoning, he was lucky.

His infirmities rendered him “harmless” in the eyes of rivals and the powerful. Graves showed how he complemented these infirmities with a retiring and deferential demeanor. Aside from being censored by Livia, he was able to devote himself to his love of history, and the responsibilities that came with his high birth. With Caligula,  retiring and deferential became a combination of flattery and fawning–not particularly becoming, but he survived.

Livia, perhaps is the most fascinating character. She is the only one I can think of among the powerful who died a natural death. We speak of Machiavellianism, but before Machiavelli, there was Livia. She was both hard headed and clear thinking about the needs of the empire, and absolutely ruthless in pursuing the interests first of Augustus, and then Tiberius, until she died. She, too, did not see Claudius as a threat, though she blocked several histories written by Claudius that got too close to truths she wanted kept hidden.

Caligula is a study in what happens when a country is ruled by an insane and arbitrary tyrant. The four years of his reign were too long, and mercifully ended by assassins. In the aftermath, Claudius is elevated to emperor, a position he occupied for thirteen years, from 41 to 54 AD, one of the longer reigns of a Roman emperor. The book ends with his accession to power. Like the others, he also was murdered, by poison, probably from his wife, Agrippina, who we meet at the end of this volume.

Graves helps us understand the character of the times that combined efficient administration (partly thanks to Livia–it unraveled following her death), and military conquest, and a never-ending struggle to keep the German tribes subdued. He also tells the story of one who might be the “most unlikely emperor,” who succeeds merely by avoiding death. The book also makes the case that to be born close to power might be the worst possible fate one could suffer. It certainly came with a shortened life expectancy.

Thirty-five-some years ago, PBS based a series on this book, which may still be purchased. As I recall, it was relatively popular at the time. From reading the book, I think I understand. We seem to love stories of powerful people at their worst.