I think this has to be my book of the year.
I am a big fan of Colm Toibin so was confident I would be settling into a satisfying read with The Magician - it gave me so much more.
The Magician is fiction but based on the life of the renowned German novelist Thomas Mann. As a teenager I read The Buddenbrooks and while I enjoyed it, it remained the only Mann title on my bookshelves. When I picked up The Magician, fellow staff member Peta advised me to read A Death in Venice first and I am so pleased I did as Toibin draws on it to imagine Mann’s interior life.
Intimate and respectful of the Nobel Prize winning author, Tobin’s latest book seeks to illuminate the complexities of a man who loves and regards the sensibilities of his nations’ art, music and traditions but refuses to be drawn into its politics or engage in change as it navigates the tumultuous inter war years and the rise of Nazism. We see him as a son, a brother, a husband, a father – a man. A man with a public life who is compelled to write and yet remains a private island to his family and the world. This schism provides the novel with intensity and invites the reader to pause and contemplate the impetus of art. Mann’s sexuality - its impact on his personal life and writing is also addressed with a sensitivity that holds the reader.
Throughout the book Toibin places Mann in his study, cloistered from the outside world. While the door was firmly closed, as a reader I found the privacy Toibin affords Mann with these moments allowed me to imagine him as a writer, as if I was sharing the quietness that allowed him to be. In sharp opposition to this seclusion Mann’s household was large, [he had six children] and mercurial. Suicide, addiction and scandals formed the backdrop to his bohemian family. In striking comparison, Mann’s Teutonic earnestness often saw him at odds with and at times estranged from his siblings and children. Part of the success of this book is the vivid characterisations of Mann’s family and irreverent depictions of historical figures. Isherwood being one.
With The Magician Toibin has created an intimate family saga. Quietly and assuredly he has walked Mann through six decades of writing and living. This isn’t a dry biography, it is a sensuous and (I think) unbiased homage to a very human writer. Toibin has offered us readers front row seats as he evokes a life where art is paramount, a force that can’t be denied. How very lucky we are.
If you haven’t read Death in Venice the edition I suggest is translated by Michael Henry Heim and has a wonderful introduction by Michael Cunningham.
In this novel, The Magician, Colm Tóibín captures the profound personal conflict of Thomas Mann's very public life, and through this life creates an intimate portrait of the twentieth century.
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, which had drawn him away from the stifling, conservative town of his childhood, might be a source 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 Tóibín'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 with 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 Tóibín captures the profound personal conflict of a very public life, and through this life creates an intimate portrait of the twentieth century.
Praise for The Magician: 'This graceful novel is a moving and intimate portrait by one master of another . . . It is a stunning tribute to the great man, and a vital story for now.' - Anna Funder
'The Magician is a remarkable achievement. Mann himself, one feels certain, would approve.' - John Banville
'As with everything Colm Tóibín sets his masterful hand to, The Magician is a great imaginative achievement - immensely readable, erudite, worldly and knowing, and fully realized.' - Richard Ford
'No living novelist dramatizes artistic creation as profoundly, as luminously, as Colm Tóibín, or conveys so well the entanglement of imagination and desire.' - Garth Greenwell
'The Magician recaptures a literary giant . . . Toibin's symphonic and moving novel humanizes [Mann]... Maximalist in scope but intimate in feeling' - The New York Times
'What Mr. Tóibín's exquisitely sensitive novel gets right, in a way that biography rarely does, is its acknowledgment of unknowability... one of the most sublime endings I've come across in a novel in a long time.' - The Wall Street Journal
'Extensively researched and lyrically wrought...a complex but empathetic portrayal of a writer in a lifelong battle against his innermost desires, his family and the tumultuous times they endure.' - Time, Best Books of Fall 2021
'It's hard not to talk about Colm Tóibín's latest novel, The Magician, in the loftiest of terms, as something staggering, or dazzling, or an achievement . . . these accolades feel deserving . . . [a] vast and stunningly realized world . . . you'll find yourself savoring every page.' - Vogue 'a work of huge imaginative sympathy . . . quite thrilling . . . It takes a writer of Tóibín's caliber to understand how the seemingly inconsequential details of life can be transmogrified, turned into art . . . an epic story of exile and literary grandeur' - Jay Parini, The New York Times Book Review