His mother waited upstairs while the servants took coats and scarves and hats from the guests.
Some books are not easy to review.
If you had asked me a couple of month ago, I would have said, unreservedly, that I was a fan of Colm Tóibin, particularly his Irish stories, since that is all I have read until this point. So I approached The Magician with a great deal of anticipation. I knew it was not an Irish story, but one based on the life of Thomas Mann (6 June 1875 – 12 August 1955), much like what Tóibin had done with Henry James in The Master. I had heard only good things about this over the years, so I was primed for a magical reading experience!
I enjoy a good fictional biography or bio-fiction and I do enjoy quiet, introspective novels about outsiders, or people who feel they don’t belong – a writing style that Tóibin has certainly made his own. The very little I knew about Mann, made this seem like a perfect match of style and subject.
In 2020, when I read The Heather Blazing I remarked that “Tóibin writes these rather sad, introspective characters so well.“
However around about the 60 page mark, I was wondering how I was going to get on with Colm Tóibin, Thomas Mann and The Magician. At over 400 pages it was a considerable investment of my reading time – did I really want to commit to something that hadn’t drawn me in by this point?
So I did something I rarely do – I pre-googled.
I read the NY Times review, Colm Tóibin’s ‘The Magician’ Intimately Recaptures a Literary Giant and found this line about Mann’s diaries – diaries that had not been published until twenty years after his death.
The diaries humanized a writer who, off the page and sometimes on it, could seem stuffy and pompous, driven by protocol and vanity.NY Times | Dwight Garner | 31 August 2021
Believe it or not, this line gave me hope. I pushed on, with a different focus in mind. Now I was on the look out for another side of Mann – a side that he only revealed in his diaries. And I was curious about how having this secretive side would be suspected or surmised by others in his life. How was Mann viewed by his family and friends? Would anyone break through the barriers? And would Tóibin find a way in, taking his readers with him?
By the end of said 400+ pages, I think I have to say no.
No, Tóibin did not find a way in to Mann’s secretive side, or not in a way that allowed this reader to come along with him. I never felt like I got past the outside looking in through a rather opaque window phase. But I did get to see Mann through the eyes of his family and friends, and like me, they often found him wanting. Mann’s attention was elsewhere for most of his life. It often seemed like Mann was an observer of life rather than an actively engaged participant.
I turned back to my older reviews of Tóibin’s Irish novels, trying to find what I loved so much. Along with the love, I found some qualifications. I had forgotten that in 2014 when I read Nora Webster I said, “The back of the book hints at “great moral ambiguity“. I will need a reread to tease out these subtleties I think….There is so much silence in this story, so much left unsaid, so much to read between the lines.“
And in 2016 when I read Brooklyn after seeing the movie of the same name, I wrote “the movie provided an emotional depth that I found missing in my reading of the book. I found Tóibin’s writing to be so subtle and nuanced, that I didn’t really enter into Eilis’ emotional state in the same way I did as when I was watching the movie.”
This is pretty much how I felt about The Magician. I felt locked out of whatever emotional state or emotional journey Mann was on. And I felt that it was Tóibin himself, who was keeping me locked out.
But one area of Mann’s life story did intrigue me. Tóibin shone a light on the complicated, complex beast of living in a large family.
Like Mann, I grew up in a large family. I was one of four children. Mann himself was one of five and he went on to father six children with his wife Katia.
Allegiances come and go throughout the lifetime of a large family. Siblings often stake a hold on their position in the family and then hold onto it tight. In some large families it can be very difficult to break free and make a change and to grow up. The family dynamics are set. Family stories take on a life of their own. Siblings develop the stories and memories that suit their version of events the best. If the family is large enough, siblings will gang up against each other and maybe even gang up against their parents.
Thomas Mann’s family was a perfect example of this phenomenon. Thomas and his siblings had a dazzling array of jealousies, competitiveness and parental issues. The children of Thomas then went on the display an extraordinary psychiatric array of issues and problems. And it is the letter that youngest son, Michael writes to his father on the death of the oldest brother, Klaus in 1949, that is the zinger at the heart of this novel. A letter full of classic sibling rivalry and the bitterness of perceived parental failures.
Was this letter real or a literary invention? At this point, I cannot say, but having read, Tóibin’s piece in the London Review of Books from 6 November 2008 about a new book by Andrea Weiss titled, In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain: The Erika and Klaus Mann Story, it seems possible that Mann would have written about such a letter in detail in his diary, like he did other letters.
I have (yet) to read any novels by Thomas Mann and only knew the bare bones about his life. The Magician certainly gave me an insight into the life of this Nobel Prize winning writer. It felt like a fairly standard, straight down the line, retelling of Mann’s story, though. It wasn’t easy to like Mann very much. As described by Tóibin, I found him to be self-important and self-indulged, squandering his early education whilst sporting a sense of entitlement. As he became more famous, his sense of privilege became entrenched. This made him careless towards the feelings of those around him. Love was not an easy word in the Mann family.
Tóibin did create a sense of what it was like to be torn between two or more places (in Mann’s case his early attachment to Lubeck and Munich, then the bigger USA and Germany divide that occurred during WWII). Tóibin also revelled in the separate identities of Mann. A man haunted by his past, a man searching for sense of belonging and acceptance. A man full of complicated feelings and sexual confusion, a man full of silence, delicacy and melancholy.
The Master was written with the idea that any reader could pick it up and enjoy it without having read any of Henry James’ novels. I felt the same sense of being gently held throughout The Magician. Knowledge of Mann’s novels may have added to the reading experience, but not knowing them didn’t take away anything. I never felt like I was playing catch up or left in the dark.
In an online interview by the British Council: Literature, Tóibin was described as being,
a master at exploring the mixed motives and tacit exchanges and torn senses of identity that make us who we are, hold things together, tear them apart. It has been said that not much happens in his fiction, and on one level this is often true, but his work is thick with human uncertainties, frailties, exploitations, love, carelessness and all of the multifarious things that make us what we are. He marries a sparseness of tone and narrative with a superabundance of suggestion and possibility.
Although, I had some reservations about The Magician, ultimately, I ended up going along for the ride for all the reasons mentioned in the quote above. Tóibin can sometimes be too sparse for his own good – it keeps the reader at too much of a distance, but he certainly leaves the reader plenty of gaps and silence in which to insert their own interpretation.
- The Nobel Prize in Literature 1929 was awarded to Thomas Mann “principally for his great novel, Buddenbrooks, which has won steadily increased recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature.” As it turned out this was an unusual situation as the Nobel Prize is usually awards for a body of work, not just one book.
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.
Title: The Magician Author: Colm Tóibin ISBN: 9781760984113 Imprint: Picador Australia Date: 31 August 2021 Format: Trade Paperback