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.

Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna

Australian writer, Sofie Laguna.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the marketing quotes on the covers, back and front: they were all for Sofie Laguna’s previous novels, not this one. I found this curious, particularly the quotes on the front cover. Were there no advanced critical readings? Maybe not. I have not read her previous work. However, I certainly know about her prizes and acclaim.

The title, Infinite Splendors (2020), is an uncommon collocation, and therefore very difficult to remember but when you realise it refers to the craft of painting it makes sense.

Lawrence Loman is an intelligent 10 year old growing up in Western Victoria in the shadow of the Grampians in the early 1950s. He lives remotely with his war-widowed mother, Louise, his younger brother, Paul, and next door to Mrs Barry. These people, and his teachers, Mrs St Clare and Mr Wade make up his world. They define everything he knows.

Mrs St Clare introduces him to splendors he had never imagined. One Friday afternoon she asks her students to don smocks, to stand in front of easels with paint and brushes, and to look at the large blank pieces of white paper on each one. She then directs their gaze towards the windows. What do you see? Lawrence does as he is bid, picks up the brush, dabs it in paint, and attends to what he sees out the window. Minutes later he looks at what he has done and gasps: Ah! Who did that?

From that moment he is attune to paint and light. He notices shadows on wet moss and wonders how to put them on paper; he notices the light on the mountains that loom over his world; he sees the light change and how it changes each peak; he understands how light on a face can change its expression, can change feelings. His teachers and mother are astounded at his intuitive skill, as is he. His future seems assured. These early chapters are wonderful to read and expertly described as a young bright boy discovers creativity, and more remarkably that that creativity is his own.

When his much-admired, and anticipated, batchelor uncle comes to stay everything changes, as did my expectations.

We are living in the golden age of television. Drama, particularly crime drama has been abundantly produced for the last few decades or more. Streaming services are many and the product they stream is excellent in every possible way. My only complaint at times has been the subject matter; too many crime dramas have relied on crimes against women: kidnappings, murders, rapes, mutilations, terror, and abandonment. This trend, I believe, is waning, much to my relief, but for a long time I lamented the apparent limited scope of television writers in their search for a plot. These crimes are horrific and spotlight the worst of our species and, of course, we can’t look away but as fodder for scripted drama I found it repetitive and predictable.

Similarly, was my reaction to this novel: a pedophile uncle? Oh no, not again! But yes. Lawrence Loman’s life is destroyed without any understanding, interference, or support from the adults around him: he has never told, can’t tell, anybody. His personality changes, he loses the ability to verbally communicate, he retreats within himself, and after all the adults in his world die or move away he is alone and we, as readers, are only left with his internal monologue and sparse meetings with strangers that scare him, abuse him, and think him crazy. That crazy old hermit who does nothing but paint. And paint he does, until the house is overrun with canvases, still lifes and the objects that inspire them, portraits, landscapes and cloudscapes. Anything that can capture light.

This is a great challenge for the writer: a protagonist that cannot effectively communicate and the 1st-person narrative combine to leave the writer with little but an internal monologue to work with. Laguna takes on the challenge head-on but is not completely successful. The latter half of the book is strewn with patches of repetitive purple prose that left this reader cold.

I also noticed that on her Acknowledgement Page no initial readers are thanked. So there were no advanced critical readings. This is a pity; such previews are invaluable and I’m sure this novel would’ve benefited from such a process.

Here is a short video of Sophie Laguna introducing her new book, Intimate Splendors.

You can buy Sofie Laguna’s Infinite Splendors, and her other novels, in various formats here.