Colm Tóibín has been awarded the prestigious Rathbones Folio Prize for his novel The Magician, based on the life of the German writer, Thomas Mann.
The £30,000 prize was announced this evening at the British Library in London. The Enniscorthy-born author, who lives between Dublin and Los Angeles, was previously shortlisted for his 2014 novel Nora Webster.
“It is one of the great London prizes of the season and it’s one that everyone has their eye on,” Mr Tóibín told The Irish Times. “Writers nominate the books and the judges are writers, too, so that’s extremely nice, it’s great.”
The Folio prize was established in 2013 and is open to writers in all genres – fiction, non-fiction, and poetry; another Irish writer, Claire Keegan, also made the shortlist for her novella Small Things Like These, as did Damon Galgut with his Booker winner, The Promise. Previous winners include George Saunders in 2014 and Akhil Sharma in 2015.
This year’s prize judges were Tessa Hadley, William Atkins and Rachel Long. The latter said The Magician – an epic that takes readers from Mann’s birth in Lübeck to his US wartime exile and back to Germany – had made her “fall in love with reading all over again”.
After reading 80 titles in total, the three judges spent hours around a table picking out passages in the nominated works and arguing their case.
“Gradually it became clear – and was a surprise to all of us – that we’d each arrived at the same decision,” they sad. “Colm Tóibín’s The Magician is such a capacious, generous, ambitious novel, taking in a great sweep of 20th-century history, yet rooted in the intimate detail of one man’s private life.”
For Tóibín, completing The Magician ended an epic journey to write a novel about Thomas Mann which he began researching in 2005 and which took on a new urgency when he underwent cancer treatment in 2018.
“It was pretty upsetting because – while I know other people have other priorities at a time like that – I had four chapters written and I didn’t want to lose this book,” he said.
For Tóibín, the decision to write a big book, what he calls a “cumulative, tentative approach” to Mann’s life, was dictated by the material and his subject. It will not appeal to all, he says, “but sometimes you’ll be lucky and hit a good number of readers, hitting one or two, for example, in the jury of a prize is even better”.
The critical reaction has been mixed: praise in the English-speaking world and mixed reviews in Mann’s homeland, in particular for his lengthy take on a life familiar to many German readers.
“The German response was just fascinating, something I will never forget, it was the belly of the whale,” said Tóibín. Some critics took issues with his mix of fact and fiction while he thinks others in Germany took issue with his portrayal of Mann as a “figure of uncertainty, uneasy and not heroic in his own household, even to himself”.
“From this period Germans are desperately looking for someone above reproach,” he said, “but a novel doesn’t work like that, that’s a sermon.”
As The Magician continues to be launched around the world, he said he is fascinated by how each country’s publisher positions the book differently: Turkey has put a photograph of Mann on the cover, he said, while Spain demanded a subtitle: “A novel about Thomas Mann”.
The writer remains as busy as ever: as well as recently succeeding Sebastian Barry as the Laureate for Irish Fiction, he is also Chancellor of the University of Liverpool and Mellon Professor in English at Columbia University, New York. He is curating an upcoming James Joyce exhibition at New York’s Morgan Library and is writing a sequel to Brooklyn, set 20 years later. Two of seven sections are completed, he says, but he refuses to say any more about what his lead character, Eilis, is up to. Does she know herself? “Oh she does, yeah,” he said.
This week’s New Yorker magazine contains the title poem from his first collection, Vinegar Hill, published by Carcanet Press:
“The hill is above all that/intractable, unknowable, serene. It is in shade, then in light/And often caught between.”
His diverse collection of poetry ranges from champagne-fuelled oral sex in Budapest to the disappearance of the moon, the latter inspired by a book he read about Pope Francis.
“Imagine we were told the moon only had a month to go, that’s very hard to get going in a novel,” he said. “But you can do all sorts of things with fact, imagination and fantasy in a poem. You can work from a single image and have a lot of freedom.”
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looms large, and increases the likelihood of a third World War, Tóibín finds it “disturbing and frightening” that one individual can create havoc again despite all the post-1945 organisations and barriers set up to prevent just that.
“It is another example of what will be seen as a large moment in history which, a few days before, no one was certain was going to occur,” he said. “That is the story of The Magician: each time a crisis came his way, Thomas Mann didn’t see it.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a shift in Tóibín’s own thinking, too.
“I never thought I would feel a loyalty to Nato,” he said. “In Ireland there has always been a strong anti-Nato feeling and suddenly you realise now that the stronger Nato is the safer people are going to be.”
So he is in favour of Ireland joining the alliance?
“I think Ireland’s geography means it doesn’t bother anyone one way or another,” he said. “If we were where Lithuania is I think we would take a different view of Nato.”
Winning the Rathbones Folio prize adds to an impressive collection for Tóibín: the Costa Novel Award for Brooklyn, the Impac Award, an Irish Pen award and the David Cohen Prize for Literature in 2021. How does he view literature awards now, in particular after his three Booker nominations – and the notorious near-miss for The Master, about another writer, Henry James, in 2004?
“I think you could go mad,” he said. “The best image for a writer going on about prizes he did or didn’t win is a dog chasing its own tail. I don’t put a lot of thought into it.”