Reviewed by Jane Tompkins
Seventeen years ago, I read Colm Toibin’s fictional biography of Henry James called The Master. It was the best book I’d read in a long time, the marvelously imagined life of a great writer. It got rave reviews. Now, with The Magician, Toibin has done it again, this time with life of Thomas Mann, a work equally persuasive, intimate, and marvelous in its power to compel belief.
One falls into this story as if sinking into an infinitely soft feather bed. Toibin is a sublime narrator; his prose harmonious, balanced, and nuanced. He zooms in close to his subject, and pans out wide to encompass the politics and culture of his era. So many things are well done, it’s hard to choose.
The first that comes to mind is that Mann’s life, as Toibin tells it, was at once an outstanding personal and professional success and a long tale of frustrated desire. As recorded in his diaries, the rush of happiness and excitation Mann feels upon seeing or being close to beautiful young men is palpable, and one of the great pleasures of reading the book.
But the desire is not unalloyed. While he enjoys fantasizing from afar, the earliest physical encounter he has with another man disgusts him. He recoils from it. He marries, at an appropriate age, a woman of his own class. They have six children. The marriage, as far as one can tell, is rock solid.
What’s going on is that Mann’s story is a tissue of contradictions integrated and smoothed over by his calm and stately self-presentation, literary mastery, and enviable lifestyle. Mann hails from a prominent family in sternly Protestant, commercially oriented Lubeck. When his father, a Senator who inherited a thriving business, died, there was no one to take over. The business is sold, money and status are lost, and the mother, Brazilian and Catholic, moves with her children to Munich, Germany’s cultural center, where she is no longer invited to the best parties. Mann’s first novel, Buddenbrooks, tells the story of his family’s decline.
His wife, though, comes from a wealthy, cosmopolitan background; her parents are devoted to the arts. Happily, the publication of Buddenbrooks has put Mann on the literary map. The couple attend concerts, the opera, literary soirees. They live in a beautiful house, entertain, move in the highest social circles. But for Mann the divide between Lubeck and Munich, Protestant and Catholic, commerce and art, northern respectability and southern indulgence never goes away. These dichotomies, though not apparent on his life’s surface, emerge repeatedly in his fiction. From this perspective, Mann’s binary sexuality belongs to a larger picture.
Toibin’s eye is on Mann’s personal life rather than on his work: he portrays him as secretive. When young Mann pretended an interest in the family business, all the while leading an active fantasy life. Later, forced by his mother and appointed guardians to take a job copying documents for an insurance company, he only pretends to do the work, and instead writes stories on company time, getting himself fired. His deceptions are not malicious, though; rather, they’re a means of self-preservation and will continue to be so. The stories are published.
By adopting a distant and imperturbable demeanor, Mann tries with some success to remain above the conflicts that roil his country. If he has strong views, he keeps them to himself. First there’s the socialist revolution fomented by writers and artists of his own class, which he refrains from joining. Then the rise of Nazism, which he regards at first as another flash in the pan. In 1929 he is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and is regarded as a spokesperson for the nation, constantly asked to pronounce on the political crisis. Though he hates Hitler’s boorishness and irrationality, publically he temporizes and takes judicious positions. But when in 1931 he finally makes a stand against the excesses of National Socialism in a speech titled “An Appeal to Reason,” he’s loudly heckled by party members and can hardly be heard as he tries to finish. Old friends spirit him out of the hall by a back entrance. Two years later, he and his family leave Germany for good. Even if his wife, Katia had not been Jewish (being thoroughly assimilated, her family never thought of themselves as particularly Jewish), it would have made no difference. The writer who saw himself as above all an interpreter of the German soul was marked as an enemy of the regime and would never live in his country again.
The eventfulness of the first half of Mann’s life continues in exile. His two elder children, Erika and Klaus, lead risky and productive lives of their own, take strong anti-Nazi stands, write books, produce plays, have affairs with both men and women, travel freely. As they grow up, the younger children come into focus and become characters in their own right. Having taken refuge in Switzerland, when war breaks out in 1939, not being Swiss citizens the Manns must leave. Thomas and Katia are invited to Princeton, and shortly after arriving, dine at the White House en famille with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Though Roosevelt intends to fight the Germans, the President asks Mann not to urge the U.S. to join the war in his public statements, so as not to stir up anti-war sentiment. Shocked by the atrocities taking place in Germany, Mann nevertheless accedes to the request and speaks once more in high-minded generalities.
The story is engaging throughout, but it’s the way Colm Toibin tells it that makes the book so satisfying. The dialogue among the Mann family members is witty, drily ironic, and often cutting. One could not imagine it happening in an American family. The Manns’ immersion in art, politics, and especially music, and in historically great events, lends the narrative a symphonic quality, intensified by Toibin’s stylistic suppleness and lyricism. Reading his prose we become engulfed and enchanted by the experiences of a complex human being in another place and time; in this recreation of Mann’s life Toibin himself becomes the magician.~