Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Book review: 'The Magician,' by Colm Tóibín

Book review: 'The Magician,' by Colm Tóibín

  • 0

"The Magician" by Colm Tóibín; Scribner (512 pages)

In the manner of "The Master," his celebrated 2004 novel about Henry James, Colm Tóibín has produced a fictional account of German writer and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann — the Magician, as Mann's children sometimes called him. The novel at first seems curiously flat, biographical reportage with dialogue often sounding like stiff translations from the German; but little by little the inexorably accumulating details make Tóibín's Mann more interesting than the mere facts of his admittedly larger-than-life story.

Though following the contours of an actual life might give Tóibín a pass on plot, events conspire to invest this life with much of the drama of the 20th century's most pressing social, cultural and political questions. While much of "The Magician" is taken up with the doings (and undoing) of Mann's remarkable family — the artistic accomplishments, anti-Nazi activism, sexual adventures, addictions and suicides — the book gets its momentum and heft from the way these experiences intersect with the larger world, in particular, the way Tóibín has Mann making sense of them, in his life and in his art.

The interior drama, like James' in "The Master," often involves homosexual feelings expressed almost solely in fiction, and then in transcendent form, as in Mann's best-known novella, "Death in Venice." And just as that story of an older man's obsession reflects Mann's own interest in a young boy on holiday, in Tóibín's novel Mann's other works are clearly linked to his life — from the bourgeois family in "Buddenbrooks" and the sojourn at a sanatorium in "The Magic Mountain" to "Doctor Faustus," with its character modeled on composer Arnold Schoenberg and plot drawn from Mann's beloved Goethe.

It is when these connections become at once more intimate and abstract that "The Magician" feels, oddly, more real. When it comes to World War II and the depredations of the Nazis, all we've read about this man prepares us for a deep and nuanced vision of Germany moving via culture and corruption from old world to new, with Thomas Mann as both its observer and its embodiment.

Listening to his son's quartet play the Beethoven Opus 132, he wonders, "If music could evoke feelings that allowed for chaos as much as order or resolution ... then what would the music that led to the German catastrophe sound like? ... [It] would need a music not only somber but slippery and ambiguous, with a parody of seriousness, alert to the idea that it was not only desire for territory or riches that gave rise to this mockery of culture that was Germany now. It was the very culture itself, he thought, the actual culture that had formed him and people like him, that contained the seeds of its own destruction."

And yet, "While an American citizen," he says late in life, having moved across Europe and America and finally back to Switzerland, "I remain a German writer, faithful to the German language, which is my true home."


Stay up-to-date on what's happening

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

You’ve probably heard that the supply-chain crisis has been particularly hard on bookstores. These next few weeks, the most sought-after titles could be frustratingly sought after, even after you’ve stopped soughting on Christmas Eve. Santa is facing ships stuck outside ports, nonexistent warehouse space and manufacturing stoppages. Laying a finger aside of his nose, while laying another ...

If you're reading this: Congratulations! You've made it to the first semi-post-pandemic holidays and almost to the end of a tough year. What better way to escape from — or face up to — troubles past and future than with books? The following six should carry you into 2022. Our most anticipated December releases include a professor's memoir about his tumultuous relationship with his late father, ...

A collection of essays from a wide-ranging group of Minnesota writers exploring life during COVID-19 and the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. "We Are Meant to Rise," edited by Carolyn Holbrook and David Mura; University of Minnesota Press (224 pages, $18.95) ——— Who is allowed to tell their story? Who is silenced? And what is lost when stories go untold? As the anthology "We Are Meant ...

NONFICTION: An adventure of a lifetime in a trade nearly killed by the internet — bookselling. "The Last Bookseller: A Life in the Rare Book Trade" by Gary Goodman; University of Minnesota Press (200 pages, $19.95) ——— "A ghost story" is how Gary Goodman characterizes his memoir "The Last Bookseller: A Life in the Rare Book Trade," and there is a whiff of sepia among its pages. It is, after ...

Women writers fought bureaucracy and stereotypes to report from the front lines of World War II. "The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II" by Judith Mackrell; Doubleday (496 pages, $30) ——— Occasionally, I wonder what it would be like to cover something other than books, perhaps a beat with a tinge of danger beyond paper cuts. However, after reading Judith ...

Alone and out of touch on the Galapagos during the COVID-19 lockdown, a young woman reconsiders her life. "Wish You Were Here" by Jodi Picoult; Ballantine Books (338 pages, $28.99) ——— March 13, 2020. The first words of Jodi Picoult's novel strike dread, or at least trepidation. Do we really want to relive those disorienting, soul-crushing first days of the shutdown felt around the world? ...

A father of daughters wrestles with what to do about abuses he discovers at a Magdalen laundry in 1950s Ireland. "Small Things Like These" by Claire Keegan; Grove Press (128 pages, $23) ——— Claire Keegan, award-winning author of two collections of short stories and a novella, now gives us her best work yet. "Small Things Like These" is a short, wrenching, thoroughly brilliant novel mapping the ...

This lovingly curated volume of Woody Guthrie's song lyrics, photos and other ephemera will introduce the singer to a whole new generation. "Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom" by Nora Guthrie and Robert Santelli; Chronicle Books (340 pages, $40) ——— Sitting on the front porch of our farmhouse outside of Buffalo, New York, in 1964, I played and sang Woody Guthrie's signature song, ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News

News Alert