Vikings, £ 18.99
Review by Rosemary Göring
The magician begins in the style of the romance theme Thomas Mann, whose syntax was known for its labyrinthine length: “His mother waited upstairs while the servants took off the guests’ coats, scarves and hats,” he writes before a sentence breaks out feels like it goes on forever.
Colm Toibin’s fictional biography of Thomas Mann begins with his privileged childhood with his crazy Brazilian mother and his prosaic businessman-father. Unlike his brother Heinrich, who was expected to become a literary star, Thomas seemed destined for the boardroom. He cultivated this expectation while secretly indulging in books and music. It was the first of many tensions between his inner and outer selves that Toibin attempts to portray.
Telling the story of a Nobel Prize winner in a novel that spans his entire life is a mammoth and demanding task. It expects fiction to do the work of biography, but with imaginative freedom. The focus zooms in and out, crisp and prosaic in this passage, long-lasting descriptive in another. The reader needs to take the outline of Mann’s résumé while trusting the author to convey the opinion of the subject.
Readers who do not know Mann, who may have only seen the film “Death in Venice”, are in a better position than experts. No need to question facts or interpretations, or wonder from what sources Toibin came to his conclusions. For example, Toibin tells us that Mann’s diaries were destroyed before the Nazis could read them and learn of his inclinations. While Mann is concerned about her discovery – she described his excitement at seeing his naked son and his attraction to a teenager – it’s unclear whether this is a fictional flourish or rooted in the truth. In a work whose essence is to capture the soul of a giant of letters of the twentieth century, such uncertainty is unsettling and unsettling.
Toibin’s acclaimed novel about Henry James, The Master, was centered over a five-year period. The magician, on the other hand, has covered almost three quarters of a century, from Mann’s conventional upbringing in narrow-minded Lübeck to his final years in the United States, where he fled from Hitler and his cronies.
The opening chapters require focus, and the writing style has a stilted quality and the dialogue has a stagnation that makes it hard to ever forget that you are reading about a real person. It is a completely confusing novel that raises questions that are not answered. But the bones of the story are fascinating no matter how they’re told. The young Thomas Mann had no doubt that he should become a writer. Not even that he was sexually attracted to men. In a far-sighted act of self-preservation, he marries the spirited, high-born Katia Pringsheim. It turns out to be a loving and content relationship in which Katia tacitly understands her husband’s longings. The couple gives birth to six children, enough to dispel suspicions about the novelist’s orientation, even after the homoerotic longing he evokes in Death in Venice.
Nicknamed “Magician” by his children, with whom he is alternately playful and distant, Toibin’s husband is unrecognizable and opaque and walks through much of this book like a sleepwalker. As a devoted patriot, he is devastated by Germany’s defeat in World War I. Resentment and bitterness tarnish his judgment for too long. While his older children, especially the twins Erika and Klaus, feel the threat from Hitler, he reacts slowly. How much his country has changed is shown by Nazi hecklers in one of his lectures: “His own lofty literary reputation has not put him in an unassailable position,” he notes. It is also clear that Germany, of which he remained proud, “lost its place in the center”. Nevertheless, he refuses to speak out for fear of the consequences for his wife’s Jewish parents and his publisher. The prospect of his books being banned and losing readers is unbearable.
In the end he steel himself. By denouncing the barbarism of National Socialism, he decided to adopt a grandiose, theatrical tone: “He would shower clauses and ancillary clauses on it”. It’s a rare moment of humor.
After 200 pages, roughly in the middle of the book, The Magician finally comes to life, feels less like a summary of the family fortune and lingers on scenes that offer, if fleeting, insight into the always contradicting man.
Much follows when the Manns flee to the USA and on the eve of the war help the family to free themselves – or not – from Europe. Erika joins them in America, where she writes a cabaret in which she makes fun of the National Socialist Party: “If everyone did what I do, then Hitler would soon paint our hallways below the usual price.” Bisexual, like her father – her brother is gay – she enters into a fictitious marriage with WH Auden. She is an often unbearable presence, but, unlike the fictionalized man, could never be accused of being boring.
Toibin’s version is seldom convincing. It is as if, in trying to probe Mann’s fearful, tormented psyche, he forgets to add the ingredients that enabled the author of works like Buddenbrooks, Der Zauberberg, and Doctor Faustus to conquer a world stage.
What the novel sings, however, is to convey the power of music. Here Toibin steps out of his biographical straitjacket and touches something convincingly inspiring. When a man listens to a quartet in which his son Michael plays, for example, he is fired with admiration: “Thomas wished he could have done this as a writer, found a tone or context that was outside of himself, that” was rooted in what shone and glittered and could be seen, but that hovered over the world of facts and entered a place where spirit and substance could merge and drift apart and merge again. ”
By the end of the novel, you should feel drained. It has included great drama and heartbreak – the suicides of two of Mann’s sisters and one of his children, and countless deaths – against a backdrop of genocidal annihilation that nearly consumes him and his family. Yet despite passages in which it briefly ignites, its tone is cool and dutiful, too closely tied to a litany of events to be fully absorbed. As a result, The Magician is more of an accounting work than a creative illusion.