Colm Tóibín writes a captivating account of the life of Thomas Mann in “The Magician”

Book review

You don’t have to be a Thomas Mann fan to be gripped by the story of his life that author Colm Tóibín (“The Master”, “Brooklyn”) delivers in his new novel, “The magician. “

The German Nobel Prize winner’s prose (“The Magic Mountain”, “Death in Venice”) may be intimidatingly dense and highly erudite, but Tóibín’s own writing is quite the opposite. His unexpected turns are always lucid, even when they ask you to read between the lines in a playful way.

In short, “The Magician,” which focuses on the everyday flavor of Mann’s hectic private and public life for six decades, is intended to interest many readers, whether or not they are Mann devotees.

Mann was born in Lübeck in 1875 to a prominent trading family, just a few years after the unification of the various independent German states into one nation. He lived until 1955, long enough to see his country succumb to Nazism, invade its neighbors, attempt to wipe out the entire Jewish population of Europe, and crumble into unconditional surrender to the enemies he so held. unnecessarily done.

In “The Magician” (the title comes from the sardonic nickname of the Mann family), Tóibín portrays a figure whose notions of himself and his country are completely unraveled during his life. Blending national dramas and global convulsions, the novel creates a deep sense of instability that would possibly dismantle even the most unfazed character.

Mann was more unfazed than most. Formally and cautiously in his actions, he was ill-equipped to record the mad turn his country took under Adolf Hitler. One more twist: Mann, despite having six children, was quietly homosexual (as were, oddly enough, three of his descendants).

Tóibín – whose fictional version of Henry James’ life, “The Master,” was a finalist for the Booker Prize in 2004 – is comfortable with Mann’s contradictions, capturing the eerie moods, conflicts and trials of the whole Mann family. While its timeline is straightforward as it moves from Mann’s childhood to his last illness, the way the ground continues to move under his characters’ feet is not.

The sober young Thomas was initially seen as the child most likely to carry the family’s import-export business in the 20e century, but it did not work. Mann couldn’t keep his love of poetry and music a secret, and his father’s will, ordering the family business to be sold rather than passed on to his sons, made the decision out of Thomas’ hands.

While his older brother Heinrich was initially the recognized family writer (he wrote the novel on which Josef von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel” was based), 25-year-old Thomas surpassed him with the success of his extraordinary family saga, “Buddenbrooks”, in 1901. A few years later, Thomas married a wealthy family of assimilated Jews. Between his literary success and the abundant resources of his wife Katia, he never had to worry again. worry about money.

At this point, if we didn’t know what was going to happen historically, we might be preparing for an upper-class sex farce in which our stuck hero is distracted by the beauty of his wife’s brothers, his eldest son and an endless one. range of friendly hotel staff. Katia takes everything in hand.

“Written in their set of unspoken agreements,” Tóibín explains, “was a clause stating that just as Thomas would do nothing to endanger their domestic happiness, Katia would recognize the nature of his desires without any complaint.”

Despite this amiable status quo, a family catastrophe and a national catastrophe await us. In the Mann family, the first of several suicides occurred. In Germany as a whole, World War I, hyperinflation that rendered German currency worthless, the short-lived democracy of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis took place over less than 20 years.

The ethnicity of Katia’s family, initially a non-issue, has become a concern. “How strange,” she comments in the novel, “that we are now Jews. My parents have never been near a synagogue.

Mann, who had come to see himself as the voice and embodiment of a noble Germany, was shocked when the Nazis won 6.5 million votes in 1930, the year after winning the Nobel Prize. When Hitler took power in 1933, he caught the whole family off guard.

His brother Heinrich and his two eldest children knew full well that as anti-Nazi vocal leftists they were targets. Thomas was slower to realize that his honors and attributes as a famous writer (“cosmopolitan, balanced, dispassionate”) would also attract the wrath of the Nazis.

The culture Mann had long represented “was the very one they were most determined to destroy,” writes Tóibín. “The tone he used in his prose – heavy, formal, civilized – was the exact opposite of the tone they used. ”

This question of how a public intellectual reacts to the eruption of barbarism in a country he no longer recognizes is the central source of tension in Tóibín’s novel. Fleeing Germany to the United States with his family, Mann shamefully acknowledges his own shyness. His humility is complete when, encouraged “to write a novel set in the present,” he admits, “I can’t make sense of the present.”

Several chapters of “The Magician” have an intensity worthy of a thriller. There’s ironic humor too – for example, when anti-Communist fervor grips the United States after WWII and FBI agents have terrible trouble figuring out which Aberrant Mann is which.

Tóibín also discusses the evolution of half a dozen of Mann’s landmark works. But his greatest triumph is to get to the heart of Mann’s dilemma: “He could imagine decency, but it was hardly a virtue in a time that had become grim. He could imagine humanism, but it made no difference in a time that exalted the will of the crowd. He could imagine a fragile intelligence, but that meant little in an age that honored brute strength.

These words have struck in our time when democracy seems so threatened.

NEW FICTION

‘The magician’

Colm Tóibín, Scribner, 500 pages, $ 28


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