‘”Papa is a magician”, he said.
“He is the Magician!” Erika repeated.
From being a joke, or a way of cheering the table up, the new soubriquet for their father stuck. Erika encouraged all visitors to join her in giving her father this new name’
– The Magician
[ About the Book ]
The Magician tells the story of Thomas Mann, whose life was filled with great acclaim and contradiction. He would find himself on the wrong side of history in the First World War, cheerleading the German army, but have a clear vision of the future in the second, anticipating the horrors of Nazism.
He would have six children and keep his homosexuality hidden; he was a man forever connected to his family and yet bore witness to the ravages of suicide. He would write some of the greatest works of European literature, and win the Nobel Prize, but would never return to the country that inspired his creativity.
Through one life, Colm Tóibín tells the breathtaking story of the twentieth century.
[ My Review ]
The Magician by Colm Tóibín was first published 23rd September 2021 with Viking and is a novel that has, justifiably, received global acclaim and is also the recent recipient of the Rathbones Folio Prize 2022. Recounting the life and times of German author Thomas Mann, The Magician is a work of epic proportions with Colm Tóibín using his own imagination to fill in some of the gaps that research or family members were unable to populate.
“As I read three versions of his life, it came clear to me that Tomas Mann’s dream life was his real life. And his dream life came in two guises. He spent every morning in his study reimagining his own life, or creating characters whom he conjured up. Also he thought constantly about a sexual life that was not available to him, that would have to reside mostly in eager thoughts about young men.” – Colm Tóibín
Thomas Mann was born in Lübeck in 1875 to Johann Heinrich Mann and Julia da Silva Bruhns. His father was a senator and a wealthy and established grain merchant. The expectation was that he would pass on the business to his sons but it soon became very clear to him that Thomas and his older brother, Heinrich, were not cut from the same cloth. When Johann Heinrich Mann died Thomas was only fifteen. In his will his father had instructed that the family firm was to be sold and two guardians appointed to supervise his mother in the rearing of the children. Embarrassed and belittled, Julia Mann decided to leave Lübeck and start afresh in Munich but Thomas was to remain in lodgings in Lübeck to complete his schooling. This dramatic shift in their circumstances had a detrimental impact on the health of his mother from which she never fully recovered and Thomas very quickly came to the realisation that any standing they had had in society was gone.
‘His father had cut the family adrift. Since the senator could not live, he had set about vitiating the lives of others. Thomas felt a persistent and gnawing sorrow that all the effort of the Manns in Lübeck would come to nothing now. The time of his family was over. No matter where they went in the world, the Manns of Lübeck would never be known as they had been known when the senator was alive….The family would now be uprooted from Lübeck. No matter where he went he would never be important again.’
When his formal education was completed, Thomas briefly worked as a clerk in Munich but he couldn’t settle. He grabbed the opportunity to accompany his brother, Heinrich, on a trip to Italy where they both worked on their respective writing. This trip to Italy allowed Thomas the time to spend with his thoughts and feelings toward other men, offering him some comfort and escapism. He was inspired to write more and, on return to Munich, he began work on one of his more famed novels, Buddenbrooks. He was restless, after a while spent back home, so returned to Rome where he felt more inspired and able to devote his time to his writing.
Thomas, now a recognised writer, moved in Munich’s more bohemian circles and he became infatuated with the Pringsheim family, specifically twins, Katia and Klaus. Through acquaintances, he dined at their home and, in time, asked for Katia’s hand in marriage, which she eventually accepted. Katia was a steady fixture in Thomas Mann’s life. They had six children together, living a lifestyle that is hard for most of us to comprehend. Through two world wars Thomas Mann’s personal views on his homeland were revered by some and discounted by others. He eventually was a pariah to some powerful individuals by 1933, leaving him no choice but to leave his homeland and make a new home elsewhere, settling eventually in the United States. Katia and Thomas Mann did their best to assimilate into the American way of life but they struggled. Their children had polarising views on society at large, having enjoyed a non-conformist lifestyle in the main but now with the shadow of Nazism on the horizon, the ground rules were shifting fast.
Colm Tóibín takes his readers on an extraordinary journey exploring, with incredible depth, the life of an exceptional and complex man. With a phenomenal level of detail, we read how Thomas Mann’s views on his own country changed as he watched the horrors of a new order unfolding. He was given American citizenship but this eventually felt compromised as he was politely advised on what opinions he should and should not express.
Through a rollercoaster of a life, there was one staple that cemented Thomas Mann, no matter what country he inhabited, and that was his daily ritual of uninterrupted writing time in his study every morning. This was his time to think, his time to produce the works that are synonymous with his name today like Dr. Faustus, Death in Venice and many, many more.
The Magician is a book that surpassed all my expectations. Although an intimate portrayal of one man, Colm Tóibín provides wonderful insights into Katia and their six children. Katia’s strength and perseverance shine through in what surely must have been a difficult marriage. Did she know of Thomas Mann’s sexuality? Was she aware of his passions for other men? Katia and Thomas Mann experienced many tragedies in their lives but together they were a force to be reckoned with.
The Magician is an elegant novel, a sweeping tale written with a refined pen that captivates the incredible life and times of this fascinating individual. An exquisite and powerful novel, The Magician is a wondrous piece of historical writing and one that I highly recommend to all.
[ Bio ]
Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy in 1955. He is the author of ten novels including The Master, Brooklyn, The Testament of Mary and Nora Webster and, most recently, House of Names. His work has been shortlisted for the Booker three times, won the Costa Novel Award, the Impac Award and most recently the Rathbones Folio Prize 2022. He has also published two collections of stories and many works of non-fiction. He lives in Dublin.