I’ve admired and enjoyed Colm Toíbín’s work since reading Nora Webster (published 2014), and then Brooklyn, which was published earlier in 2009 but I read later. He has a remarkable gift for bringing his characters to life; a deep understanding of the workings of his characters’ inner life; telling a wonderful story. The Magician is different. It’s a novel based on the life of German author Thomas Mann. He’s taken this path before, writing The Master based on the life of writer Henry James. Clearly Toíbín has a fascination with other writers but for me his fictionalised biographies don’t work as well as the novels. I felt this about The Master, despite it receiving critical acclaim and being short-listed for the Booker Prize. But when I read brilliant reviews of The Magician, I felt I should give this genre a go again.
To begin with, I really enjoyed it. I remembered reading Mann’s novels in my twenties and of course even if you haven’t read Death in Venice, most people will know of the film. Its story has a clear link to Mann’s suppressed homosexuality and the theme is constantly referred to throughout. Toíbín himself is gay but at the time Mann was writing, it was not accepted and still illegal. This fits with an almost ideal marriage that Mann makes to Katia who is willing to love him as he is and indeed they have six children. Katia has a close relationship with her twin brother Klaus that hints of something sexual at times but is perhaps merely an intimacy that no one else can infiltrate. Towards the end of the book, she says she didn’t want to be married to someone like her father who had many affairs and she knew Thomas wouldn’t do this to her. What Toíbín so wonderful conveys is how this marriage, which is some ways one of convenience to them both, works so well and the love and affection between the couple comes clearly through.
From the beginning, Katia was brought up in a household full of drama ‘as if it were a modern play’ and this sense of drama continues through her own marriage and her family.
Thomas was brought up in a wealthy family with much privilege but when his father dies and he doesn’t inherit the family firm as he believed he would, and the family have to leave their home and he is forced to take a job as a clerk, he is devastated: ‘No matter where he went, he would never be important again.’ Of course, he became very important indeed through his writing and I hadn’t realised before reading this quite how important on the global stage, nor how much wealth his writing created for him. But this early experience seemed to mark Mann for life; he seems always an outsider, guarding his reputation beyond most other things, Katia his support and protector.
Thomas dismissed the threat of Hitler for a long time, refusing to speak out. Clearly to some extent he does believe the threat back in the early 1930s is exaggerated and Hitler may disappear as a nothing in the end, but even when the threat grows more real and Hitler comes to power, Thomas is reluctant to speak out. To an extent this is excused by his protection of his family and his publisher, but it is also about his reputation and wealth – his books would be destroyed.
Mann’s life is haunted by tragedy, particularly suicides of family members. At the outbreak of war he uses his reputation to secure a ticket out of Europe to America where he struggles to fit in; struggles with the ‘death’ of ‘his Germany’. There is great poignancy in the family’s loss of their country and it becomes impossible for them to fit in well elsewhere, find another true home.
The book gives a background to Thomas’s writing, both his habits (always writing in the morning) and within his mind, how experiences shape the novels he writes, which is fascinating, particularly if you know his work. It’s also a portrait of a rather dysfunctional man and family and I found it hard to engage with the characters. What began as promising for me, ended as rather a dull book and a little pedestrian in its description of Mann’s life, as if all the ‘facts’ had to be included, however small, and although in a biography (whether fictionalised or not) you don’t necessarily have to like the subject, they have to promote interest but by the end of this book I neither liked Mann nor could understand how he became such an admired writer.