Colm Tóibín sells Thomas Mann back to the Germans. Not everyone’s buying

Colm Tóibín: ‘Maybe Irish people would object if a German writer invented another lover for Yeats.’ Photograph: Miquel Llop/NurPhoto via Getty

In the chilly gloom of Lübeck’s 14th-century church of St Catherine, Colm Tóibín smiles with relief at the wave of warm applause.

Before him, a 250-strong audience is spaced out in the wooden pews; behind him, three Gothic arches – with further arches stretching out behind – are bathed in pink light, like a gay time tunnel.

A perfect backdrop for the penultimate and most crucial stop on Tóibín’s 1,700km book tour across Germany. The 66-year-old Enniscorthy native is here to promote The Magician, his new novel based on the life of Thomas Mann. One of Germany’s most revered authors, Mann is also Lübeck’s most famous son; he once attended the school attached to St Catherine’s.

There’s such beauty here, a real sense of Hanseatic wealth. In Ireland, we don’t have that

It’s been an epic journey for Tóibín but the smiles and nods suggest the good people of Lübeck have given their approval to his most ambitious novel to date. Things were different here 120 years ago when their ancestors lined up to condemn Buddenbrooks, the dazzling debut novel of a 25-year-old Mann, detailing the decline of a local mercantile family in Lübeck like his own.

Eventually, Lübeck locals got over themselves – Mann’s 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature certainly helped – when they realised he had honoured his hometown and captured a vanished world. Mann, who died in 1955, is lionised here today as a literary great, as much a part of Lübeck as the city’s beloved marzipan and its staggering architecture – both legacies of its Hanseatic League trading tradition.

“There’s such beauty here, a real sense of Hanseatic wealth. In Ireland, we don’t have that,” says Tóibín to the audience in St Catherine’s. “The strength of this mercantile tradition is so far away; I don’t know it and I don’t understand but I wanted to create images in slow time, sentence by sentence, to see where it takes me.”

Rebuilding several vanished worlds, The Magician is more than just a novel. By taking readers from Mann’s birth, four years after Germany unified, to his death six years after its postwar division, east and west, the book gives readers a lucid look at German history in its most dramatic period.

Along the way, Mann rolled with his life’s ruptures. When his early years of princely privilege were cut short by the early death of his politician father, Mann’s humbled family moved to obscurity in Munich. There, his eventual success and wealth made him a target first of communists and, later, the Nazis, prompting his flight to Switzerland and the US. There he reinvented himself as a public intellectual, delivering far-sighted speeches against fascism and in defence of democracy that are just as timely today.

Just as Thomas Mann creates an illusion with his characters, I create a further illusion with the information I have from his novels and diaries, their imagined energy

Tóibín’s own life has been shaped by traumas similar to those that resonated in Mann’s life and work. While Mann was 16 when he lost his father, Tóibín was just 12; both saw their mothers struggle as widows as they were themselves struggling with first signs of homosexual longing.

As a 20-year-old at UCD, Tóibín remembers how he and other students with notions carried around Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain as their bible. Returning to Mann nearly half a century later, Tóibín chose to fill in the many blanks of this public figure’s inner life by examining his own memory mirror.

“Just as Thomas Mann creates an illusion with his characters, I create a further illusion with the information I have from his novels and diaries, their imagined energy,” he tells his Lübeck audience. “It’s a complicated business to create this illusion and hold it as a kind of enchantment.”

Not everyone in Germany has fallen under Tóibín’s spell, but we’ll come to that later. For now let’s jump back a week.

Munich

If you make it all the way up the creaking wooden stairs and arrive, panting, at the fourth floor of Munich’s lofty Literaturhaus, you’ll be greeted by a brown bear so old it’s gone grey. Standing on its back legs with its teeth bared, the stuffed bear – a gift from Russian relatives – joined the Mann household in Lübeck in 1869. For nearly six decades it moved with them until the Nazi takeover in 1933, when the writer and his family left Germany – and everything they owned, behind them. From its new home on the Literaturhaus landing, the bear watches silently as a crowd, large for a Monday night, passes by and settles in a neon-lit event room.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Tóibín off and on for years; we’re friendly but not close. I’ve not seen him since his battle with cancer and, when he shambles out in a black suit and white open-necked shirt, he looks older and greyer – far more like Philip Roth – than I remember.

Munich is as much a Mann town as Lübeck. The writer’s widowed mother, Julia, moved south to the Bavarian capital with her younger children in 1893, when she was 56. Thomas followed a year later and stayed for four decades, married to Katia Pringsheim, a wealthy heiress. Despite his homosexuality, they had six children, and she kept them – and other distractions – away from him and the hallowed study where he wrote.

Within minutes the Literaturhaus audience is being treated to vintage Tóibín: a confidential tone that mixes elongated vowels, high ideas, low jokes and the promise of outrageous gossip. He makes an early pre-emptive strike, prompting chuckles from this audience of Mann lovers.

“If any German author decides to come to Dublin having written a book about James Joyce they will be ... ” he says with emphasis ... “very welcome.”

Mann is to Germany what Joyce is to Ireland: equal parts novelist, lightning rod, bone of contention and academic industry. Like Ulysses, Mann wrote Buddenbrooks and other later works to recreate lost, distant places, people, times and moods.

The Magician attempts to recreate Mann’s many lives, homes and moods on both sides of the Atlantic by pooling their reservoir of unrequited loves and unresolvable losses.

His fictional Mann is not himself, Tóibín insists, but he has repurposed his own life experiences – friendships, writing and touring – to create (and shatter) the illusion of the all-seeing, all-knowing novelist.

Colm Tóibín in a Lübeck doorway. Photograph: Derek Scally
Colm Tóibín in a Lübeck doorway. Photograph: Derek Scally

“When I was younger, authors looked to me as if they controlled the world, but I realised that it’s the opposite, they’re unstable creatures,” he says in Munich. “But novels come from unstable, nervous lives.”

Germans may have problems with his surname – toy bean, toy bin and tow bin – but they love his writing. Walk into any German bookshop worth the name and you will see his novels in translation. Not just his recent bestsellers – The Master, Brooklyn and Nora Webster – but his 1990 debut, The South, and other early novels. With his friend Volker Schlöndorff, he co-wrote the screenplay to the German director’s film 2017 Return to Montauk, starring Stellan Skarsgård.

Tóibín is not just one of the many Irish writers on German bookshelves: in 2017, Berlin’s Tagesspiegel dubbed him “Ireland’s most important novelist”.

After 90 minutes in Munich, he has won over everyone in the room. An audience that arrived with serious faces and serious eyes behind serious glasses – in Germany, literary readings are a serious business – are now softer, bathing in Tóibín’s empathetic glow.

Even the ladies from the local Thomas Mann Forum, with the imperious air of ageing Wagnerians, wait patiently in line for a signed copy of The Magician.

Zürich

With its small stage and wood-panelled walls, the Kaufleuten hall is a storied space. Lenin spoke here in 1916 during his wartime Swiss exile while, two years later, the amateur English Players company, co-founded by James Joyce, debuted with The Importance of Being Earnest on the same stage where Colm Tóibín is now sitting.

Hours earlier, we took the tram up to the pretty Fluntern graveyard where Joyce is buried. We stand in silence, broken only by the autumnal rustle of red Japanese maple leaves and, lying on the grave, the pages of a sodden Russian edition of Ulysses.

Soon we’re discussing an essay we’ve both read, about how much Thomas Mann had in common with Irish admirers of Joyce.

They never grew up, the children, they never got free – except for Golo, he didn’t want to be at their feet

“Mann read Ulysses, but not personally,” jokes Tóibín. Reading secondary literature about Ulysses, the German writer recognised Joyce’s experimental writing methods. According to Tóibín: “Mann was rather proud that he was doing cut and paste and parody as early as 1900 in Buddenbrooks.”

The two writers never met but when writing The Magician, Tóibín toyed with having Mann meet Joyce in a Trieste cafe in 1911, on his way back from Croatia, but dropped the idea.

We head back down the hill and up another, 10km away: the Kilchberg, where Mann’s final home gazes out over Lake Zürich. In the nearby graveyard, a massive stone cube marks the grave of Thomas and Katia Mann. Four of their six children have memorial slabs in the grass before them.

In The Magician, Tóibín’s Manns are the Mitfords on steroids: a dysfunctional family where the high-achieving facade rubs up against half-hidden homosexuality, drug addiction and suicide.

Thomas Mann. Photograph: Getty
Thomas Mann. Photograph: Getty

“They never grew up, the children, they never got free – except for Golo, he didn’t want to be at their feet,” says Tóibín. Golo Mann, the author’s second son, became a successful historian in his own right after his father’s death. He is buried as far as possible from the others in the same graveyard, and Tóibín is elated at this posthumous declaration of independence: “Good old Golo.”

Hours later, at the Zürich reading, I sit beside Eleanor Mirriam, a retired bookseller and dedicated Tóibín reader. She says she was “taken aback” when she heard what Tóibín was attempting next in The Magician: “But now I’m just intrigued. I mean: who better?”

Onstage, Tóibín is asked whether he has any qualms about blurring the gap between fact and fiction. The short answer is no. The long answer is: “I think when God put me on Earth, He obviously had a reason and He said: ‘Your job while you’re down there is to complicate the narrative’.”

Lübeck

In St Catherine’s church, I watch the rows of Gothic arches stretch out behind Tóibín, like The Magician, as a frame within a frame within a frame. The leading German critics seem wary of such framing or fail to see it altogether. Some reviewers complain that the novel clings slavishly to reality, while others take issue with Tóibín’s literary liberties.

For Kai Sina, professor of modern literature at the University of Münster who reviewed the book for the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily, Mann has regressed under Tóibín from the complex character of modern German research to a simplified, Netflix-ready closet case.

“Tóibín’s an exceptional storyteller, and the book is extremely entertaining in parts, but I find it falls short of what the modern novel is capable of,” Prof Sina says.

He suggests The Magician has little to offer Germans who are familiar with Mann’s novels and are, by now, all suffering an overdose of Mann biographies, essays and films. All Germans?

“Well, the readers of Frankfurter Allgemeine culture pages,” he concedes. “If I went into a seminar of 20 students, perhaps four would have heard of Thomas Mann and two might have read something.”

Colm Tóibín in Lübeck’s 14th century church of St Catherine. Photograph: Derek Scally
Colm Tóibín in Lübeck’s 14th century church of St Catherine. Photograph: Derek Scally

Running through many reviews is a consistent, almost co-ordinated, effort to question the credibility, legitimacy and even the morality of Tóibín’s approach. Those doubts have spread as far north as Lübeck.

“People have come up to me in the street here, people who’ve read the reviews but not the book, asking, ‘Can you do this?’,” says Dr Birte Lipinski, director of the city’s Buddenbrookhaus, a literary museum based in the home of Mann’s grandparents. “Of course you can do this, why not? I love how Tóibín takes small things just mentioned in Mann’s diaries and letters and he brings them to life.”

Dr Lipinski suggests the ambivalent reception says as much about Germans’ conflicted relationship with Thomas Mann as their feelings about Tóibín’s book. Many academics and critics are wary of a fictionalised Mann eclipsing the biographical reality, she suggests, while hardcore Mann fans don’t take kindly to anyone – least of all an Irish novelist – taking their beloved “Master” down from his pedestal.

When the moderator asks if he wanted 'to see the heart of Thomas Mann', Tóibín snaps: No, I wanted to create a fictional character

Forgotten entirely, it seems, is Thomas Mann the literary magpie who, throughout his writing repurposed people (in Doctor Faustus), holidays (Death in Venice), his childhood (Tonio Kröger) and home town (Buddenbrooks). In his 1939 novel, Lotte in Weimar, a fictional Goethe, Germany’s revered national poet, speaks words Mann insisted were “conceived and formulated strictly in [Goethe’s] spirit; although he never spoke them, he might well have done so”.

In an early essay, Mann accused those who attacked his fact-fiction approach of pedantic “philistinism”: “Reality overestimates the degree to which it still remains reality for the poet who appropriates it.”

In Lübeck, as elsewhere, the critics’ reservations are at odds with the enthusiastic audience response to Tóibín. Heading in for dinner at a 150-year-old maritime restaurant, we pass wise words engraved in its stone entrance pillar: “Allen zu gefallen, ist unmöglich!” – You can’t please everyone.

Berlin

A day later, in Berlin, just five minutes into the final reading of the tour, a visibly weary Tóibín is enduring another moderator’s “fact or fiction” interrogation. Yet again he explains his task as a writer – to “create an illusion around a protagonist and those around him”. When the moderator asks, if he wanted “to see the heart of Thomas Mann”, Tóibín snaps: “No, I wanted to create a fictional character.”

As an actor reads excerpts from the book, I realise the greatest conjuring trick of The Magician in Germany is so clever that no one has noticed it: the elegant translation of Tóibín’s words into German, the language of Thomas Mann.

The Irish writer’s long-time translators Giovanni and Ditte Bandini have performed a miracle, taking the wood that is still clearly Tóibín’s but making it glow with a different, German polish.

On the phone, Giovanni Bandini explains the staggering effort he and his wife undertook to make Tóibín’s Mann speak a German that is true to him, without slipping into kitsch.

Maybe Irish people would object if a German writer invented another lover for Yeats

From sentence structure to work references, Mann is always here. In the first 100 pages, Bandini made sure not to use any words not in Buddenbrooks. Throughout his work, he offered feedback and, when he flagged passages that didn’t work in German, Tóibín cut them from his original English manuscript.

“For me, this had to be more than just a normal German translation,” says Bandini. “We had to take an Irish book and remake it with the means of the German language which, for Mann, was his home, his complete reality.”

After a week on the road, Tóibín’s mission to bring Thomas Mann back to the Germans is proving trickier than selling marzipan to Lübeck. On our final train journey, he says he is happy with the audience response and resigned towards German critics who, in his view, have confused literal with literary.

“I would have thought that Thomas Mann writing a novel about Goethe in old age, falling in love, would have set the blueprint in people’s minds, but it seems to be an unresolved issue here,” he says. “Maybe Irish people would object if a German writer invented another lover for Yeats.”

Colm Tóibin studies the Mann family tree at the Buddenbrookhaus exhibition in Lübeck. Photograph: Derek Scally
Colm Tóibin studies the Mann family tree at the Buddenbrookhaus exhibition in Lübeck. Photograph: Derek Scally

Even before he leaves Germany, Tóibín has already moved on. He has three overdue book reviews to write, his first collection of poetry appears next April, while texts need to be completed for a Joyce exhibition next June at New York’s Morgan Library.

After largely positive English-language reviews, German critics – used to only thinking their way through literature – appear provoked by the Irish writer. Like Mann before him, Tóibín is unafraid to put beauty into his writing.

After a week, though, I’m struck by how his Noël Coward-like “talent to amuse” contrasts with his watchful, melancholy gaze. On our last train journey, I wonder aloud whether the fictional Mann’s struggle to access his emotions is his own. Writing this book, Tóibín says he has come to accept his response to the world – laughing when he should be serious – as entirely natural to him.

“Instead of seeing this as a form of neurosis, I see it as a form of good manners,” he says. “Instead of seeing it as a disability, I wonder why more people are not more like that.”

As the train pulls into our final destination, he stand up quickly, looks down at me and asks: “Have I answered your question?”

“No,” I say, “but I think that was the point.”

With a toss of his head he walks away laughing: “As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Only mediocrities develop’.”