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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

The Magician
The Magician
Author: Colm Toibin
ISBN-13: 978-0241004616
Publisher: Viking
Guideline Price: £18.99

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.

Tóibín’s Mann, like his Henry James, commands his household and his social circle because he knows his own literary greatness. His writing room and hours are sacred and unquestioned from very early in his career. (It would be interesting to read Tóibín’s version of the kind of writer who does not have a room of his own.)

The odd thing about writing about writers is that our working lives lack all narrative tension: we ignore our friends and family and sit silently to arrange words. It’s not interesting to watch, and the part that is eventually interesting – the arrangement of words – is there for anyone to read afterwards.


An old question

In The Master, Tóibín gave us Henry James as brother, son, friend, employer, house-buyer, a character shaped by the American civil war and English homophobic legislation. The Magician is similarly interested in the interplay of personality and history, thinking about what it means to be German and to be a German artist in the mid-20th century.

It’s an old question: can the integrity of prewar German culture survive the Nazis? Is Goethe beautiful after Buchenwald? Three generations later the answer is obvious – yes – but for some of the surviving German Jewish writers, their own language was polluted beyond bearing and no longer an artistic medium.

Mann was not Jewish, but his wife, Katja, was, and his politics made him a target for the Nazis. Because of his literary celebrity, Thomas and Katja were able to live prosperously and safely through the war, first at Princeton and then in a house they had built in Los Angeles.

The novel – perhaps unlike a biography – is able to explore the unanswerable questions of nationality and exile: how far is it wrong for one liberal German family to live a bourgeois life in America while others are being tortured by Nazis in Germany? How far is the writer obliged to set aside his artistic practice to participate in activism at times of crisis? What use is fiction, or a novelist, in a war?

No answers

There are no answers, but the portrait of the artist in a place of safety is strangely agonising. Mann tries to use his fame and influence pragmatically, to pull strings to save individuals who can be saved and later to sway American public opinion towards intervention in Europe but also away from the internment of German refugees. But mostly his experience is the Nobel Prize winner’s version of every refugee’s loss of agency. You can stay and fight and be killed or you can leave and watch from afar as everyone else is killed. The Magician – named for the magic tricks he plays with small children – has no magic against violence.

The biographical novel is a distinctive undertaking, written somehow in the margins or gaps of the historical record. The writer has little control of plot, setting or characters, limited scope to invent what did not happen or to omit or rearrange what did. Tóibín plays with journals and letters lost and burnt, unwitnessed moments of desire and shame, the nooks and shadows of a well-documented life in a well-documented era.

There are moments in the middle of this novel, in the long uncertain years when Hitler was rising and bourgeois liberals were beginning to wonder whether to take notice, that feel a little too enslaved by events; most sweeping political change begins incrementally, but incremental political change is not thrilling in fiction, especially when much of the drama is reported by minor characters.

But for the great majority of its long sweep, this is deeply engaging, serious and beautiful writing that carries its echoing questions with grace.

Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and academic