The Magician by Colm Tóibín

Irish writer, Colm Tóibín.

In 1984 I took my first trip out of Australia, to Europe. On a clear day while wandering through the old streets of Budapest I was fascinated by some of the old buildings, solid and substantial but on closer inspection I saw pock marks in the stone, little indentations that … I audibly gasped as I realised they were damage caused by bullets. I was born in 1952 but always thought of WWII as way way in the past. Here it was right in my face. The feeling in my stomach was significant and deep. These bullet marks may have been from the 1956 uprising but I didn’t know about that then; these bullet holes brought home to me the fear of war, bullets whizzing past you at head height, but in much the same way that Toibin’s new novel The Magician did. This is curious because most of the novel is set away from the war: they didn’t experience it.  But Tóibín’s gets inside the characters and, especially, Mann himself who battles with his reactions to things and what he should do, how he should feel, the guilt he felt by leaving Germany, his horror at what is happening to his country and countrymen, and his seemingly lack of control over his two eldest of six children, Erika and Klaus. Their sexuality, politics, and morals were free, fluid and difficult and epitomised the Germany between its wars and the Germany that Hitler wanted to bury. Mann kept his true sexuality hidden and it was only with the publication of his diaries well after his death that the extent of his homosexuality was revealed.

Thomas Mann was the second most famous German in his day: Einstein was number one. A Nobel Laureate (1929) his books were very popular but of the old school; elongated sentences, long and sometimes obtuse with philosophical passages and ideas about politics, art, and beauty, not unlike those of Henry James, another writer Tóibín successfully novelised in his novel The Master (2004). Ironically Tóibín’s writing itself is not at all like that. It is bold in its simplicity, short sentences plainly made and stimulating. There are very few adverbs; no-one ever says anything ‘accusingly’; no-one looks ‘disapprovingly’. There are no contractions – a Tóibín moniker – which gives the language a formal and serious tone. It’s as if Tóibín’s plain words paints deep feelings in the reader’s mind – or should that be, Tóibín’s plain words forces the reader to paint deep feelings in their own mind? 

There are passages about writing, especially concerning his three most famous works, Buddenbrooks (1901), his first novel about the decline of a family which launched his career; Death in Venice (1912) his popular novella about death and beauty; and The Magic Mountain (1924) the work that gained him the Nobel Prize. Thomas Mann understood that while Buddenbrooks was based on his own family, there was some source for it that was outside of himself, beyond his control. It was like something in magic, something that would not come again so easily. This is what the prolific novelist Alexander McCall Smith referred to when he said writing was about opening up the subconscious. This ‘magic’, this evidnece of ‘the muse’ can also be described as like watching a television scene and writing down what you see and hear. Mann experienced it and I’m sure Tóibín does too.

The detailed passages of Mann’s thoughts about war, literature, creativity, and desire lead me to think Tóibín must have done intensive research into the works of Mann, particularly his essays, diaries, and non-fiction, and even into the works of Mann commentators. However, I had no wish to follow him there in an attempt to prove that what he writes is correct; I don’t care if he is correct. What I do care about is the veracity, the verisimilitude, of this work, this novel. What Tóibín has written concerning Mann’s thoughts might indeed be novelistic creation, ie fiction, but its believability is strong. That’s a novelist’s job: to make the reader believe the fiction even if it might not be true.

The narrative covers Mann’s life from the age of sixteen (1891) in Lübeck, a small city north east of Hamburg in Northern Germany; the family’s exile in Switzerland in 1933 and then the USA from 1940 to 1950; and final tour of a very different Germany but settling in Kilchberg, just south of Zurich, Switzerland in 1952; to just before his death in 1955 at the age of eighty.

While Tóibín’s other novelisation of a writer and his work, The Master (2004), about Henry James’s failed attempt to become a noted playwright is more creative and successful; this work, although interesting and enjoyable, is more biographical, as if Tóibín felt obliged to stick to the truth, rather than creating his own.

Here is a video of a reading by Colm Tóibín from The Magician, and conversation with Friedhelm Marx, Chair of Modern German Literature at the University of Bamberg, given recently at the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

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