The Magician | Colm Tóibin #IRLfiction

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.

Now that I have finally finished writing this, I can go off and read Lisa @ANZ LitLover‘s response and Theresa Smith Writes. I have been saving them for this moment.

  • 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.
Title: The Magician
Author: Colm Tóibin
ISBN: 9781760984113
Imprint: Picador Australia
Date: 31 August 2021
Format: Trade Paperback

30 thoughts on “The Magician | Colm Tóibin #IRLfiction

  1. Very interesting review Brona! Like you, I was eagerly anticipating this book, being both a fan of Toíbín (The Master is one of my favorite books) and of Mann (although I’ve only read two or three of his novels and don’t know that much about his life). I haven’t yet dipped into The Magician; quite honestly I’m a bit preoccupied now and can’t handle its length. I have, however, been reading the reviews, both on the blogs & the big literary sites (NYT and so on).
    It’s been interesting to see the various criticisms of a writer who’s held in such universal acclaim as Toíbín. As you pointed out, perhaps this is a situation where Toíbín’s strengths–his subtlety, his coolness (at times), his willingness to let the reader fill in the gapes–work against him when his subject is a writer who was so relentless at guarding his inner life. Perhaps Toíbín took on a subject that was too broad for the treatment he gave it–in some ways Mann was at the center of an incredibly tumultuous age (both Nazis & the U.S. wanted to use him in their propaganda and applied intense pressure to that end) in a way that Henry James was not. Perhaps Toíbín’s focus was off, i.e., his subject was more Mann & his kids than Mann himself. Or, perhaps, the Mann Toíbín portrayed (a distant, cool individual with little interest in connecting emotionally with others, whose “emotions” were confined to diary entries) IS Thomas Mann.
    Anyway, thanks for a great review that really made me think about both the book and its subject. Hopefully I’ll feel like reviewing The Magician myself, when I finally get around to reading it (probably near the end of the year).

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    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful reply Janakay.
      When I pre-googled early in the month, I only came across glowing reviews, so you’ve intrigued me your ‘various criticisms’ comment. I will have to have another duck, duck, go!

      The time period was certainly fascinating, and one of the things that kept me going. With such a large family of strong personalities, who all had their own interesting stories, this book did often feel jammed pack with names and places and significant events rather like a standard bio. Tóibin wasn’t always able to turn these facts into a compelling narrative though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was generally thinking of the blog reviews. My subjective impressions is that several non-professional reviewers, who have now actually started READING the novel, have experienced at least some disappointment. I found it interesting that The Magician wasn’t at least long-listed for the Booker (I think it was eligible but I’m always a llittle unclear about the nominating process) given Toíbín’s reputation.

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        1. There is at least one pretty savage professional review from Michael Hofmann at the Times Literary Supplement, which I can only read the beginning paragraph of, but have seen referenced elsewhere.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, I found the Hofmann review but it’s behind a paywall, so I could only read the first few paragraphs. He seems to have taken the position of professional harsh/negative reviewer from all accounts though.
            Lisa also has a far less glowing review as well, with a link to another one on her page.

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  2. Interesting review–thanks! Like Janakay I’ve been curious about this one & following along a bit. I know Mann much better than I know Tóibín–I’ve read a bunch of the novels and even some of those diaries, but do I know that much about him? Not really. He comes across as very much the German professor, formal and magisterial, even though he wasn’t. (A professor–or even quite so in control of things either…)

    I guess I’ll have to read it and see what I think!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’d love to hear what someone who was more familiar with Mann has to say about this book. There was some background detail about how ideas for books came to him and Mann was quite particular about his writing schedule each day, which I always find intriguing, but it certainly wasn’t a book that revealed anything more about this side of Mann than I could have read on wikipedia.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I feel like I am fast becoming the only fan of this novel!
    I enjoyed your review and see your point in many places. The family dynamics were my favourite all the way through and Michael’s letter after Klaus’s death had so much impact.

    I like what you wrote here:

    ‘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.’

    Perhaps this was the point?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. To begin with what an absolutely brilliant review. You have captured the ambiguousness nature of liking an author but no so much of the subject or the narrative though there are parts that make me it all worth.Toibin has always scared me and I am not sure if I can ever process his works. Thomas Mann scares me even more. So I have infinite more admiration for you for persisting on! I may come back to this book or the authors at some point, but right now I cannot summon the courage!

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    1. I was certainly left feeling like I wouldn’t mind reading some of Mann’s books one day, and maybe even a proper bio about him. There are bio’s of his children too that might be interesting. He certainly lived through interesting times.

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  5. I’m looking forward to reading this at some point (two review copies have gone missing in the post if I am to believe the publisher). Im a Toibin fan but know nothing about Mann so am hoping when I read this I will come at it with no expectations / baggage.

    I can honestly say Toibin changed my life with Brooklyn for in reading that book I found an answer to a problem that I had been wrestling with for years: I was caught in that horrible space of not belonging in the UK but no longer recognising my homeland and I was troubled I had made the wrong choices. But that book (and the film), which made me howl like a baby, showed me that there are no wrong choices about where you live/what you do, only DIFFERENT choices. Having read a few of his novels, I see he often grapples with the idea of being an emigrant and of being torn between two places / two identities. I read The South last year, another novel that wrestles with this idea, and it rocketed into my Top 10 of all time.

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    1. I understand exactly what you mean Kim. I had a year in London back in 1991. At the end of a summer trip around Europe, I could have easily stayed in London with my new friends, found another job. I was loving the experience. But I also knew that if I stayed away too long, I’d find Australia too parochial or something. A number of people from school that I caught up whilst I was over there, were living that exact conundrum & I decided I didn’t want to, so I came home…and only regretted it a little bit.

      I think you will be like me with this book (when it turns up!) in that you will find enough to enjoy/connect with to keep you going.

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    1. Mann was obviously someone who played his cards close to his chest. When the author of your fictionalised bio is also another such man, then the reader can felt rather left out.
      If you want to learn more about Mann, read his wikipedia page – it will be faster 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have enjoyed everything I’ve read so far by Toibin so was keen to get this new one. But Lisa’s reaction and now yours have given me pause for thought. I will read it but not until I feel more in the mood

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    1. I read the bulk of it over a particularly cold week in Sydney, when going outside was not really something I wanted to do. The bleak, grey skies matched the mood of much of the book, especially as Germany descended into WWII. If you do decide to read it, wait until winter!

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  7. Great review, I feel like I learned a lot about Mann, Toibin, the book, fictional biographies… I have read a bit of Mann and the little I know about him makes me think he was a complicated and pretty unpleasant guy. I loved The Magic Mountain though, it also holds you at a remove.

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  8. I read Lisa’s review a few days ago so have seen all the discussion that followed, and now have got to yours, and from yours to Theresa’s – I love Theresa’s quote ” Thomas Mann was ‘German, wrote Death in Venice’”. That’s all I know too and it’s a very long time since I read Death in Venice. I’m not sure why Tóibin wrote The Magician. Going by the reviews he doesn’t seem to have added any value, not filling in spaces between the known facts nor imagining for Mann an inner life.

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    1. I think for Toibin there was a sense of kindred spirit. Like with Henry James, there were secret, undeclared & most probably never put into practice homosexual leanings. As a gay man himself, I wonder if he sees it as his duty to write a sympathetic story of their lives 🤷🏼‍♀️
      I certainly got the impression that some of Mann’s characters came from encounters with intriguing young men whilst he was on holidays.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for an excellent review. You have caught so much of Mann’s character. As all, or most of you commenting here, I am a fan of Toibin and absolutely loved The Master. Last year I read The Mann Family (Die Manns) by Tilmann Lahme (review here: https://thecontentreader.blogspot.com/2020/07/die-manns-mann-family-by-tilmann-lahme.html). Interesting book about an interesting, but difficult, family. Mann does not come out as a likeable character, and I think you caught it very well in your review. As Tolstoy says in Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” which I think is very true for the Mann family. I will nevertheless read Toibin’s book. Maybe, I will see it differently, already knowing a little bit of the familie’s background.
    If you should read one book by Mann, I think it should be Buddenbrooks. Absolutely fantastic book, and one of the best book I have read. A family saga, and written so beautifully. The language is amazing, even though I was reading a Swedish translation. After reading the biography I did read some of his shorter stories, but did not like them too much. I have plans to read The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg). Another very thick book by him.

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