Fourteen years ago, Colm Tóibín gave us the exquisite novel The Master, a lyrical and probing portrait of Henry James that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The Magician takes a similar approach to Nobelist Thomas Mann, and though Tóibín has not quite captured lightning in a bottle a second time, this deeply researched, highly accomplished fictional narrative still makes for compelling reading. While The Master focused on just five years in James’ life, The Magician covers some 60 years in Mann’s, lending it a more sweeping trajectory. In many ways, it is as much about Mann’s eccentric family as about the great writer himself.
Tóibín has assuredly drawn heavily on Mann’s diaries, which were published to great attention in 1975, 20 years after Mann’s death. Those private papers revealed truths the circumspect writer had been careful to conceal during his lifetime, particularly regarding his sexuality. Since the 1912 publication of Death in Venice, speculation existed about Mann’s attraction to men, but the father of six was largely able to deflect such talk. Tóibín makes Mann’s generally repressed but occasionally acted-upon sexuality one of the throughlines of the narrative in The Magician, but it is by no means the sole focus of this meaty fictional biography.
Mann lived through the shattering events of the first half of the 20th century, but he was born into the placid, privileged world of the fin de siècle German bourgeoisie—a world he re-created in his 1901 masterwork, Buddenbrooks. Propriety and discretion were his watchwords, so it is all the more remarkable that he sired a brood of rule-breaking offspring. The opposite of their cautious father, three of Mann’s children were openly gay, and two of those, Erika and Klaus, were political and artistic provocateurs. The family also had deep-seated emotional disorders; Mann’s two sisters and two of his children, as well as his sister-in-law, died by suicide.
Mann himself, as Tóibín presents him, was a stoic observer of all of this familial drama, trussed by his Teutonic restraints. Only the horrific disruption of World War II, which scattered the family and jettisoned Mann and his wife, Katia, to Los Angeles, seemed to awaken the elder statesman to the evils of the wider world and the fragility of his family. The pages of Tóibín’s novel dealing with the war years crackle and soar above the rest.
In addition to the colorful Manns themselves, The Magician is populated by literary and cultural icons—Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden (who married Erika to protect her with British citizenship), Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss, Gustav and Alma Mahler, Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt—underscoring how Mann lived within the circumference of more than one great circle. His children dubbed him “the Magician” because he performed tricks for them at dinner, but Tóibín suggests Mann was more audience than performer—“the Observer,” perhaps, transfiguring his observations of others into enduring art, even though he never fully understood himself.