The Magician

Colm Toibin

The Magician
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The Magician

Colm Toibin

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When the Great War breaks out in 1914 Thomas Mann, like so many of his fellow countrymen, is fired up with patriotism. He imagines the Germany of great literature and music, that had drawn him away from the stifling, conservative town of his childhood, might be a cause of pride once again. But his flawed vision will form the beginning of a dark and complex relationship with his homeland, and see the start of great conflict within his own brilliant and troubled family.

Colm Toibin’s epic novel is the story of a man of intense contradictions. Although Thomas Mann becomes famous and admired, his inner life is hesitant, fearful and secretive. His blindness to impending disaster in the Great War will force him to rethink his relationship to Germany as Hitler comes to power. He has six children with his clever and fascinating wife, Katia, while his own secret desires appear threaded through his writing. He and Katia deal with exile bravely, doing everything possible to keep the family safe, yet they also suffer the terrible ravages of suicide among Thomas’s siblings and their own children.

In The Magician, Colm Toibin captures the profound personal conflict of a very public life, and through this life creates an intimate portrait of the twentieth century.


Until recently, the only book I’d read by Colm Tóibín was his excellent nonfiction work on the fathers of Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and James Joyce, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know. A few weeks ago, I found myself listening several times over to Hisham Matar reading Tóibín’s story ‘One minus one’ on the New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast. In the story, the narrator is addressing a man who isn’t present, a former and still-loved partner, about the recent death of his mother – the loss of each magnifying and confusing the other. I then read Tóibín’s Brooklyn and realised that he’s exactly the author I want to be reading right now. He fits somewhat into that Elena Ferrante niche, in that he writes immensely readable intergenerational stories that are as intelligent as they are propulsive, with a rich sense of place and complex characters who are intellectually, emotionally and/or physically displaced or adrift.

Tóibín’s new novel, The Magician, is a fictionalised biography of German writer Thomas Mann, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and author of Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain, among others. The book is a fascinating series of running portraits not only of Mann himself, but also of his family and the way his children and siblings struggle in the shadow of his enormous success. It’s also a portrait of Germany. Mann has to negotiate the sudden rise of nationalism in the lead-up to the First World War, the interwar instability and failed revolution, the rise of the Nazi Party and the Second World War – which necessitated Mann and his family emigrate to the US – and then, finally, the country’s postwar division.

Not only is this a richly satisfying book, but it’s also one that has sent me back to read and re-read Mann’s own writing, as well as Tóibín’s earlier novel on Henry James, The Master. With its evocation of the upheaval of the war years, The Magician also speaks to works by Mann’s contemporaries, such as Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, the then famous Russian author Teffi’s account of fleeing the Russian Revolution.

Oliver Driscoll is a bookseller at Readings Doncaster.

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