Colm Tóibín is the kind of cosmopolitan whose scope of writing makes him appear less uprooted than capable of rooting anywhere. He directed novels in Argentina in the 1980s (L’Histoire de la nuit) and in Catalonia after the Civil War (The South), borrowed characters from both Greek tragedy (House of names) and the New Testament (Mary’s Testament), and yet found it possible to periodically return to her source, her native Enniscorthy (Blackwater’s flagship). His non-fiction displays an unfailing familiarity with everything from Indian arthouse cinema to the sartorial choices of the popes. Its prose is elegant without preciousness, and its stock themes – families in difficulty, sexual secrecy – broad enough not to become repetitive, even with a new novel which will be its 10th.
The form and style of The Magician is, more or less, that of The Master, his ingenious 2004 novel about the life and times of Henry James. The Master was a relatively modest affair, confined to the short but productive period of James’ life who produced such works as The Spoils of Poynton and The Turn of the Screw. Like James, his new subject, Thomas Mann – the title magician – combined public property with private deviance. But The Magician is longer and its web more populated.
The Civil War unfolded offstage in The Master, with James being protected by his personality and his health so as not to see the worst of it. The events of World War II encroach more directly on the Manns, plunging them into exile and politics as James never was. Indeed, to bring water to the fictitious mill, the Manns are rather more promising than the James. So naturally their dysfunction and habit of concealment fit into Tóibín’s universe that one suspects that if the Manns did not already exist, Tóibín would have (and could have) invented them.
Tóibín stays close to Thomas’ point of view, almost following him from cradle to grave. It begins with the bourgeois life of the Manns of Lübeck, on which Mann relies for his early and always wonderful debut, Buddenbrooks. He marries the dreaded Katia Pringsheim, the daughter of a secular Jewish family, in a marriage strong enough to resist both Thomas and Katia’s rarely acknowledged awareness of his true sexual nature. Thomas is able, fortified by “a particular Riesling from Domaine Weinbach”, to father six children. Katia in turn can “recognize the nature of her desires without complaint, take note of the faces on which her gaze most willingly rested with good humor”.
The Mann’s marriage alone would make a very good Tóibín novel, but the birth of children is an embarrassment of romantic riches. The two oldest, Erika and Klaus, inevitably steal the scene every time they appear. Weimar creatures of the 1920s, they are everything Thomas is not: open about their sexual natures, flamboyant in their artistic experiences and, what turns out almost as dangerous, their politics. In this, they seem to resemble Mann’s other brother, Thomas’s more left-wing older brother Heinrich, who serves here as a temperamental foil just as William James, Henry’s philosopher brother, did in The Master. .
The most unfortunate feature of The Magician, and one it shares with The Master, is the decision (Tóibín is too experienced a hand to be a mere mistake) to advance the narrative through heavy sentences indistinguishable from those of a simple biography: “When Hitler came to power in March 1933, Thomas and Katia were in Arosa, Switzerland.” Fortunately, Tóibín is less naive in his reworking of Mann’s posthumously published diary material, full of tales of desires he never gave any expression in action.
Mann’s eyes – and less often, but still chastely, his hands – fall on many burly youngsters in these pages. Even in his most uncontrolled moments – stripping down for an x-ray in a sanatorium, during his long years of exile from Germany after falling victim to the Nazis – Mann is still drawn to and consoled by male beauty, in swimming pools. from Princeton and on the beaches of Santa Monica. Tóibín’s writing in these passages is quite up to the challenge of showing him both vulnerable, human and a bit pathetic.
Tóibín also manages to provide a convincing and sympathetic account of his policies. Mann was never an activist, clumsy with ideologues and never knowing what to say to the many politicians who tried to recruit him for their causes. His denunciations of Hitler during the war cannot be accused of lack of passion, but his own brother and his children were disappointed. Mann’s interventions were always, in their eyes, either too weak or too late.
In Tóibín’s account, Mann’s reluctance to be an ideologue had its roots in many things: his views on the autonomy of literature, his attachment to a certain idea of Germany, and a careful assessment of the risks to him. and his family to be more frank. But he shows this reluctance to come also from deeper patterns of his psychology, his knack for concealment often difficult to distinguish from simple cowardice.
A braver Mann, suggests Tóibín, would not have been the same writer. His writing skills were too deeply tied to his personal flaws. The moral ambiguity which makes Mann so difficult a biographical subject makes him a worthy protagonist of a novel. Like The Master, it represents a triumph for its author.
The Magician is published by Viking for £ 18.99. To order your copy for £ 16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraphic bookstore