The Magician by Colm Tóibín: Beautiful, sweeping exploration of Thomas Mann’s life

Historical fiction carries its echoing questions about art and war with grace

German novelist Thomas Mann circa 1930. Photograph: Hulton Archive

German novelist Thomas Mann circa 1930. Photograph: Hulton Archive

The Magician is a novel of the life of the German novelist Thomas Mann, following him from childhood in 1890s Lübeck through finding refuge from Nazism in America to his death in Switzerland. Mann came from a large family and had a large family and a wide social and professional life, so the cast is huge and the setting stretches across Europe and America.

In some ways it feels like reading a 19th-century novel, though the focus on Mann’s middle years keeps us away from the Bildungsroman. Each house is lovingly constructed, each garden vivid and even minor characters’ lives brightly woven so that the possibility of confusion never occurs. Tóibín doesn’t write like Mantel but he shares her capacity for writing on a scale that is simultaneously intimate and transnational.

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