THE MAGICIAN. By Colm Toibin.

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THE MAGICIAN. By Colm Toibin. Viking

What’s the difference between the biography of a famous person and a novel about that famous person in which the factual details are much the same as in the biography? And what can the novelist hope to achieve in seeking to enrich our understanding and appreciation of that particular life?

That was the task facing Colm Toibin in his 2004 novel, The Master, which dramatised a period in the life of Henry James, and it’s the task confronting him yet again in The Magician, which recounts the life of German writer Thomas Mann – only this time the challenge was even more daunting.

In each of these novels, Toibin has taken a 20th century literary titan – one a revered Anglo-American creator of highbrow fiction, the other an esteemed Nobel laureate and similarly lofty in his aims – and has attempted to discover what made them tick as writers and people in their very different environments and circumstances.

In the case of The Master, it was a relatively humdrum event that was the book’s pivot (the 1895 commercial failure of James’s play, Guy Domville, in London, which meant little to anyone other than James himself); but in The Magician it’s almost Mann’s whole life, which was both long and eventful, that’s under consideration.

I have no scholarly knowledge of either Mann or his most of his fiction, but I knew the broad outlines of his life: his 1875 birth into a prosperous merchant family in the northern German city of Lubech; the family’s move to Munich when he was a boy; the literary rivalry with his older brother Heinrich; his marriage to Katia (who was from a Jewish background) and the six children that resulted; his publicly expressed abhorrence of the Nazis as they rose to power; and his flight into exile, first to Switzerland and France and finally in 1938 to the United States, where he remained until almost his death in 1955.

That’s a very large canvas and it makes for Toibin’s biggest book – 100 pages longer than The Master – and also, in terms of narrative, his most ambitious, taking in two world wars and a crowded cast of characters: not just family members (all vividly individual), but other writers, artists, composers, politicians and public figures. He juggles all this with aplomb and in a limpid prose that carries the action along with both a sense of urgency and a reassuring ease.

He deals, too, with the homoerotic yearnings and fantasies that were a hidden aspect throughout the life of this determinedly conventional, indeed almost strait-laced, family man – yearnings that were embodied in the persona of ageing composer Gustav von Aschenbach in Mann’s 1912 novella, Death in Venice. In Toibin’s telling, when Katia first read the story, she observed to her husband: “You are the most respectable man anyone has ever met. But the story will change things. It will change how the world sees Venice. And I presume it will change how the world see you”.
But the world chose to ignore its implications and Mann became even more famous in Germany than he’d been with his previous fiction.

Six decades later, the novella was vulgarised in Luchino Visconti’s inert 1971 movie of the same name, with Dirk Bogarde at his most offputtingly mannered in the central role – though the film helped to revive interest in Mann throughout the non-German world.

Indeed, for literature-minded undergraduates in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he became almost a cultish figure. This was aided by Penguin Books which, under their Modern Classics imprint, had reprinted two of his most celebrated novels: his sprawling family saga, Buddenbrooks, which had immediately made a name for the 26-year-old on its 1901 publication; and the even more sprawling The Magic Mountain, a vast opus set in a Swiss sanatorium which secured for him the Nobel prize in 1929.

But nowadays he registers as not so much forgotten as largely unread, certainly by the majority of non-German readers. But Toibin (answering one of the questions posed at the start of this review) has done much to bring him back to life for such readers and to re-awaken interest in his life, his books and his achievement.

If there’s a drawback to his chronological telling of the life – which starts with Mann’s teenage years in Lubeck and ends there almost seven decades later – it’s because of this linear approach, especially in the latter part of the book when the main traumas and crises experienced by Mann and his family throughout six turbulent decades in Germany are long over.

And so we get a succession of US-based episodes declaring that “this happened”, and then “that happened” to the comfortably-off and famous author – as in invitations for tea with Roosevelt in the White House, daughter Monika’s affair with expatriate conductor Bruno Walter, and meetings with Alma Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, WH Auden (who had a marriage of convenience with Mann’s gay daughter Erika) and Christopher Isherwood. These encounters are interesting in themselves, and are amusingly related, but they seem to be included just because they happened.

However, most of this engrossing novel shows Toibin at his confident and fluent best and, who knows, should even encourage some brave readers to scale the 900-page pinnacle of The Magic Mountain.


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