From 1933, Thomas Mann lived in exile, where he clung scowling to the precious notion of German culture. His family kept pushing him to denounce the Nazis. In 1936, he took the plunge and protested against anti-Semitism. His criticism of Hitler’s regime gained momentum. The BBC broadcast his speeches to Germany where those who listened to him were shot or arrested. After the war, as an American citizen, he protested against McCarthyism. He died in Switzerland in 1955.
While there are several ways to characterize Thomas Mann, and if everything has been said before, that hasn’t stopped Colm Toibin from telling the whole complex story from his own perspective in The magician. Does Toibin feel like Mann is forgotten? That it needs to be reinvented for a new generation of readers? Is his book a rescue mission?
Toibin first read Mann’s work as a teenager. He is well acquainted with his books and biographies and has applied this vast knowledge in a number of excellent essays and reviews. In 1996 in TLondon’s book review, for example, he touched on three biographies of Mann, by Anthony Heilbut, Ronald Hayman and Donald Prater. The play began: “All his life he has kept his distance. In readings and concerts, he noticed a young man, looked at him, made his presence felt and understood, and later, in the semi-privacy of his journals, recorded the moment.
Toibin agrees with Heilbut, that not only in the papers but in all of his work, Mann is “steeped in homoeroticism, his main characters are shaped by their uncomfortable and ambiguous homosexuality.” Now in his novel, it’s as if Toibin is fed up with Mann being somewhat picky about his sexuality. He highlights Mann’s homosexual desire, undresses him, he even allows him a few fictional adventures.
I am always amazed by the audacity of biographical and historical novelists to change the script like this. The magician must turn around in his grave.
He gave us his books, and arguably his diaries are his greatest work. He was his own spokesperson. At best, Toibin’s novel is an easy-to-read fictional account of Mann’s personal and creative life, but it’s no literary match. It also lacks the spirit of Toibin’s greatest achievements, The master, his novel about Henry James, and The flaming heather.
Evelyn Juers is the author of House of Exile: The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann (2008), The recluse (2012), and The dancer (2021).
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