‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín (Review)

Today’s post brings something a little different to the blog, not least because I’m providing one of my rare reviews of a work originally written in English!  This one’s a novel by a writer I haven’t tried before, on the life of an author I’m rather more familiar with, and it’s an epic spanning more than half-a-century.  We’re looking at a family saga that’s strangely familiar, centred around one man – a writer with, shall we say, a magic touch…

Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s The Magician (review copy courtesy of Picador Australia) is a lengthy work exploring the life of Thomas Mann.  Starting with his childhood in Lübeck in the north, the story shows the move to Munich in the south after his father’s death before following the author along his first steps into writing at the very start of his fame.

There’s a shadow hanging over his success, though, a result of living through some rather turbulent times.  Just as Mann emerges as a successful writer, his country is plunged into war, with the resulting defeat leading to the emergence of German fascism.  At first, the writer is unwilling to believe the fascist movement will come to anything, but when he’s proven wrong, there are uncomfortable decisions to be made.  With great fame comes great responsibility, and given how notable Mann has become, it’s time for him to make a stand, one way or the other.

The Magician is an enjoyable romp of a tale, following the great German writer as he does his best to plot a course through the mess that is the first half of the twentieth century.  Tóibín has an expansive canvas to work on as his subject travels around Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and the United States, and he uses it to great effect.  The writer adopts an elegant, sweeping approach to his tale, allowing the reader to experience Mann’s issues and the genesis of some of his major works.

This literary side to the novel will undoubtedly be the main attraction for many readers, and there’s great fun to be had in hearing how Mann came up with his ideas (or, at least, the Irish writer’s spin on this).  In the first chapters, we tag along on childhood walks with the bright Armin Martens, surely a model for Hans Hansen in Tonio Kröger, and when his wife ends up visiting a sanatorium because of a touch of tuberculosis, it’s not hard to work out which book will spring from the experience.  Mann himself (or Tóibín’s version of him) makes this clear in places, musing on the similarities between fiction and real life:

Watching them, Thomas saw his fictions taking on life.  Klaus and Katia were back in the setting he had imagined for them in ‘The Blood of the Walsungs’; they were the twins in thrall to each other.  He was the dull interloper become magician, the one who had given substance to this amorphous family of his.
His eyes caught the eyes of Klaus Heuser and he realized that he himself had been changed in his turn, transformed into Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice and Klaus into the boy he had observed so intensely on the beach.
All Thomas could do was watch.
p.194 (Picador, 2021)

A trip to Italy where the writer catches a glimpse of an attractive youth on the beach will immediately have some readers thinking of Dirk Bogarde sunken into a deckchair…

However, perhaps the most appropriate of Mann’s works here is Buddenbrooks, as The Magician doesn’t just look at Thomas, but has his whole family playing their part, turning the story into a family epic in its own right.  The first half of the book contains his courting of Katia Pringsheim and the youth of their tribe of children, with its title coming from the nickname they give their father for the tricks he plays at the dinner table, belying his serious persona.  Later, these children will grow up to be artists, writers and ‘interesting’ characters, ready and able to cross swords with their rather distant father.  An even more strained relationship, though, is that of Thomas with his elder brother, Heinrich, an acclaimed writer himself whose star is eclipsed by Thomas’ meteoric rise.

Yet the brothers’ issues prove to be less about literature than about politics, and one of the more fascinating aspects of The Magician is the picture it draws of Thomas Mann as a political figure, one thrust into the limelight against his will.  Overcoming his early lukewarm support for the First World War, he becomes a symbol of hope, urged to use his status as a Nobel Laureate to speak up against the Nazis:

He would ask, as though he had the right to a reply, how the state to which these so-called leaders had reduced Germany, in less than four years, could ever be accurately described.  He would ask, as though no reply would ever be good enough, how a writer, accustomed to a responsibility to the word, could be silent in the face of the frightful danger to the whole continent presented by this soul-destroying regime. (p.220)

Even after his decision to escape Europe and emigrate to the US, he’s subject to requests, and demands, from all directions, and The Magician shows just how awkward his situation was, particularly during the Second World War.

What comes across most throughout the novel is the way Mann struggles to make decisions away from writing, always hesitant to speak out too much for fear of inflaming situations and causing harm to those around him.  The result of this is finding himself abused by both sides, and what we see is a rather ambiguous character – is he a ditherer or simply pragmatic?  While he believes he’s being tactful and attempting to avoid exacerbating an already tense situation, there are those who accuse him of neglecting his duties as a statesman.  Given that, along with Einstein, Mann is considered ‘the most famous German in the world’, keeping a dignified peace becomes ever more impossible.

The Magician is undoubtedly an excellent read, and there’s a page-turning quality to Tóibín’s work.  The era it’s set in is fascinating, of course, with the story itself spiced up by accounts of Thomas’ children’s racy antics, along with his own secret passions for attractive young men (to which his wife turns a blind eye…).  This personal aspect of the novel, in which he attempts to hide his ‘weaknesses’ for fear of exposing himself to his political enemies, works well, yet there are times when it seems as if it’s all simply an entertaining, well-crafted account of events from Mann’s life, a stylised biography.

However, it gradually becomes a lot more as Tóibín adds layer upon layer to his subject.  The larger Mann’s family gets, the messier their relationships, and as his children become intelligent adults in their own right, there are major disagreements and bitter arguments.  What the Irish writer manages to bring across is the man behind the Mann name, laying bare the contradictions between his words and actions, such as his selfishness in using the people around him as material for his work.

By the end, you can only applaud what Tóibín has created, a fascinating look at an intriguing writer.  As always with this kind of work, it’s hard to tell exactly how much of it all is true and what’s been embellished, so I may well seek out a more factual account of his life at some point.  I suspect, though, that I’ll be going back to his fiction before that as it’s been a while since I’ve read any of Mann’s work.  Death in Venice will certainly read differently after hearing about its genesis – not to mention the perils of reading a story about a cholera epidemic in times of COVID…

16 thoughts on “‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín (Review)

  1. I don’t know anything by Mann but I would read anything by Toibin, including his shopping list, because he’s such an amazing writer. I’ve read pretty much all his work bar one or two I’ve been saving up. I’m looking forward to this one. Alas, I don’t seem to receive many review copies these days. I requested this one but no one ever responded 🤷🏻‍♀️


    1. Kim – I’m the other way round, and I’m eyeing up a few books by Mann as we speak… Re: the ARC, I might be wrong, but I’m not sure I even asked for this one! It was enjoyable, but I only gave it a go because of the content 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Tony. I’ve read Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain as well as Death in Venice. I’ve always kind of wanted to read Joseph and His Brothers but … um … yah. And I’ve read about 5 or 6 by Colbin. I guess I should read this one. I had no idea it was about or based on Thomas Mann! Good review btw.


    1. Becky – I keep meaning to start the Joseph books, but I never seem to get around to buying one – maybe I’ll give the first one a go for GLM in November 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve only read one of Toibin’s books, but it was extremely powerful, so even though thi novel sounds very ambitious, I trust him! The one I read was also kind of a fictionalized biography, of the virgin Mary…


    1. Laura – Well, I’ve heard elsewhere that another of his big books was based on Henry James, so I think we can see a trend here!


  4. I’m a big fan of Toíbín’s work and have read most of his novels, including The Master, his take on Henry James (it was wonderful). Although I haven’t read as much by Mann (the Magic Mountain, my favorite; Buddenbrooks; Royal Highness; Death in Venice & a few other things) I love his work and intend to read more (Doctor Faustus is probably next). Needless to say, I’ve been very much anticipating The Magician; your review confirms that, for me at least, it’s not to be missed!


  5. Thanks Tony for this great review- I’m a big fan of Colm Toibin and particularly enjoyed The Master so am looking forward to reading this. I’ve also read Thomas Mann in my Germanist persona, latterly Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice ( again, since student days) and find them very rich texts. Thomas Mann came alive for me since visiting his birthplace, the Buddenbrooks House, in Luebeck, which I really recommend. I also recommend a fascinating drama documentary called Die Manns, ein Jahrhundertroman which really brings out the complex relationships within the family and between the two brothers-as does your review. Many thanks


    1. Mandy – I would love to visit Lübeck one day, but I suspect, given current circumstances, that the day is far in the future 😦


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