FICTION: Colm Tóibín’s account of the life of Thomas Mann is steeped in the great problems of the 20th century.
“The Magician” by Colm Tóibín; Scribner (512 pages, $ 28)
Much like “The Master”, his famous 2004 novel about Henry James, Colm Tóibín produced a fictional account of German writer and Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann – the Magician, as Mann’s children sometimes called him. . The novel at first seems oddly flat, the biographical report with dialogues often sounding like rigid translations from German; but little by little, the inexorably accumulating details make Tóibín’s Mann more interesting than the simple facts of its history, admittedly larger than life.
While following the contours of a real life may give Tóibín a plot check, events conspire to invest this life with much of the drama of the 20th century’s most pressing social, cultural, and political issues. While much of “The Magician” is devoted to the actions (and failure) of Mann’s remarkable family – artistic achievements, anti-Nazi activism, sexual adventures, addictions, and suicides – the book derives its momentum and weight from the way these experiences intersect with the larger world, in particular, the way Tóibín makes Mann understand meaning, in his life and in his art.
Inner drama, like that of James in “The Master,” often involves homosexual feelings expressed almost uniquely in fiction and then in a transcendent form, as in Mann’s best-known short story, “Death in Venice.” And just as this story of an older man’s obsession reflects Mann’s interest in a young boy on vacation, in Tóibín’s novel Mann’s other works are clearly tied to his life – of the bourgeois family. in “Buddenbrooks” and the stay in a sanatorium at “The Magic Mountain” at “Doctor Faustus”, with its character inspired by composer Arnold Schoenberg and its plot taken from Mann’s beloved Goethe.
It’s when these connections become both more intimate and abstract that “The Magician” feels, oddly enough, more real. When it comes to WWII and the Nazi depredations, everything we’ve read about this man prepares us for a deep and nuanced view of Germany going through the culture and corruption from the old world to the new, with Thomas Mann both as an observer and his embodiment.
Listening to his son’s quartet play Beethoven Opus 132, he wonders: “If music could evoke feelings that allowed chaos as much as order or resolution … then what would the music that led to disaster look like?” German ? … [It] would need music that is not only dark but slippery and ambiguous, with a parody of seriousness, alert to the idea that it was not only the desire for territory or wealth that gave rise to this parody of the culture that was Germany now. It was the culture itself, he thought, the real culture that had shaped him and people like him, that contained the seeds of his own destruction. “
And yet, “Although an American citizen,” he said late in his life, after having crossed Europe and America and finally returned to Switzerland, “I remain a German writer, faithful to the German language, which is my real home ”.
Ellen Akins is a writer and writing teacher in Cornucopia, Wisconsin. ellenakins.com
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