Imagining the buttons on a coat

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 10.12.2021

That is what novelists have to do, according to Thomas Mann – as imagined by Colm Tóibín in The Magician. Most readers and film buffs will know Tóibín for Brooklyn (2009), a very Irish story about immigration and heartbreak, but this is the second time that he sets out to recreate the life of one of his literary heroes. Whereas he published The Master, a novel about Henry James, in 2004, he now follows Thomas Mann from Lübeck to Munich, from Switzerland to the south of France, and then from Princeton to California before the Manns move back to Europe and settle in Switzerland.

Family is at the very heart of the plot. We see Thomas as a child in Lübeck facing the expectations of both his father, a senator and businessman, as well as of provincial society. As there was with Henry James, there is an older brother that he feels he has to compete with, especially since Heinrich reaches literary fame before his sibling. And, above all, there is Julia, the mother whose exotic Brazilian roots are looked down on by the staid Lübeck burghers. Gossip flourishes; snobbery and confusion rule. As a result, Julia decides to leave as soon as she is widowed and her move to frivolous, Catholic Munich becomes a trigger for yet more disapproval.

At that point the novel opens up and turns into a panorama of what was happening in German society at large in the first half of the twentieth century. While Heinrich grows into a virulent opponent of fascism and Hitler, Thomas is reluctant to take a stand and goes on hoping for quite some time that the dawning horrors of Nazism will vanish into thin air. Turning into a public intellectual rather than a creator of worlds is the last thing he wants to do!

Throughout the novel Tóibín insists on Thomas’s vulnerability and insecurities. Again and again, self-consciousness has him fear that he is being laughed at. No wonder he feels happiest and safest spending his mornings writing at a desk; hotel rooms and studies become welcome refuges wherever he might be. We watch him turn real-life experiences into fiction in novel after novel. We also discover the secretiveness of his homosexual desire and the pain of his longings. Again, the parallel with Henry James is obvious as attraction is sublimated into words and dreams.

Elsewhere Mann attempts to understand why fascism could spread so swiftly in Germany, why a society that was freer than many others and more tolerant of eccentricity turns in on itself and starts hating and persecuting. Are culture and high art but a thin veneer? Was there a sinister urge to feel superior? And, ultimately, what are the secrets of the much admired German soul?

Exile comes as a relief, but the Manns soon discover that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Yes, the US receive them with open arms, but the authorities also want to use Thomas for their own propaganda purposes. And once they embark on their obsessive anti-communist hunt in the 1950s, they drop him when he refuses to play their game. Tóibín has Mann set ‘the soulless soil of America’ against the ‘coarseness of the Bavarian village’ that comes to rule Munich after World War II: ‘He could talk about Goethe all he pleased, but this was the future.’

The Magician does not add any new elements to the Mann biography as such; that is not what Tóibín sets out to do. The challenge he embraces is to move beyond facts and dates, beyond the bare bones of events, in order to imagine six decades of Mann’s life. The novel offers the reader a compelling portrait of a writer and a family man who depended on the relentless support of his wife Katia, an exceptionally tolerant and devoted companion. She kept unwelcome visitors at bay, stood up for the antics of her troubled children and invariably fought her corner with great energy. Again and again, Tóibín has us watch Thomas watching others before taking us inside his mind in order to suggest how personal experiences and observations are turned into fictional masterpieces. The characters are beautifully made, trapped in their own shortcomings as well as in the unforgiving pushes of history.

Colm Tóibín, The Magician, Viking, 2021 (ISBN 978-0-241-00461-6)

Janine Goedert
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