“The magician” by Colm Toibin


Colm Toibin examines the life and achievements of German novelist Thomas Mann in his latest book “The Magician”.

Nobel laureate and author of several of the most famous novels of the 20th century, including “Death in Venice”, “The Magic Mountain” and “Doctor Faustus”, Toibin’s meditation on the artistic life of Thomas Mann begins in Lübeck , in Germany, in the city where Mann was raised by his astonished Brazilian mother and his distant and forbidding industrial father.

In Toibin’s account, the temperature of Thomas’ early family life seldom rises above stupefaction until the day they get together to read the old man’s will, that is.

“The senator had left instructions that the family business was to be sold immediately, as well as the houses,” writes Toibin. “Julia was to inherit everything except two of the most unofficial men in Lübeck’s public life, men she had always considered unworthy of her attention, were assigned to make financial decisions for her. Two guardians have also been appointed to oversee the education of the children. And the will stipulated that Julia was to report to thin-lipped judge August Leverkuhn four times a year on the children’s progress.

As the tee shots go, this can be heard clearly across town. Page after page of the new book, Toibin masterfully puts together details of Mann’s youth with a director’s eye and a novelist’s reach for mystery. What makes an artist an artist, asks for the book, and what do they owe to life and art?

The basic outline of Mann’s long life is reassembled into a tale that seems paced and thorough, with pacing at times winning. The effect can be a bit like following a caffeinated tour guide who is eager to make their way to the galleries in the next wing.

That’s not to say that what’s here isn’t always satisfying, as very clearly Toibin loves his elusive subject matter and this book is the result of decades of contemplation of his life and works.

“The Magician” by Colm Toibin.

The economics of the book are also part of his success, as attested by Toibin who writes about Thomas and his older brother Heinrich: Hunches of a new weakness in the world itself, especially in a northern Germany that had once been proud of his manhood.

It’s a masterful foreshadowing, combining the details of Mann’s family life with the increasingly gloomy social attitudes of Germany at the turn of the 20th century. Toibin carefully explores the tensions and points of attraction between the two talented brothers and their early codependence on their mother’s allowance to pursue their own careers.

It also explores Mann’s sexuality, starting with the description of an intense teenage schoolboy infatuation and progressing to his lifelong troubled response to his homosexual attractions. It’s all there from the start, Tobin reminds us, of Mann’s intricate preoccupations with desire, art, decay, and dissolution.

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But there are so many stories to tell and so many accomplishments to ponder that sometimes the book reads like a recitation of awards and events. Indeed, the first half of The Magician covers two world wars and Mann’s deep engagement with the German social and political challenges of the time. The Wizard also rarely looks at Mann’s individual books, as they speak for themselves and are not his main topic here.

Alternating between the outward conventions of family life and his own hidden inner nature, Toibin allows Mann to emerge in these pages, or be as close to them as the nature of his elusive subjects allows us. The real success of The Magician is the mystery that its elusive subject maintains, despite decades of public life.

The rise of Nazism forced Mann into exile (he feared the discovery of his diaries by Hitler’s thugs and the ruin of his reputation) to the United States, but his head and heart remained preoccupied with his homeland.

Like the handsome but elusive Tadzio on Lido Beach, Mann himself ultimately proves to be as elusive a subject as one of his most famous works of art. But it is also the measure of Tobin’s accomplishment in this serious and subtle novel.

The Magician, Simon & Schuster, $ 28.00

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