The Critique of The Magician by Colm Tóibín – in the mind of Thomas Mann | fiction
In August 1939, Thomas Mann was in Sweden, staying in a hotel by the sea. The mornings, as always, were devoted to his writing. After lunch with his family, he took his afternoon walk on the beach.
Most of the hotel guests gathered early in the lobby to await the arrival of foreign newspapers, but the Manns didn’t care. They didn’t think much about international affairs. As Colm Tóibín describes in this fascinating fictionalized biography, it was a quiet and adrift period. Then, one morning, Katia Mann broke the ban on disturbing her husband at work. She came to her room to tell him that the war had broken out.
Days of suspense ensued. Telegrams. Anxiety. Last minute rescue when places were found for them on a plane chartered by the Swedish authorities to evacuate foreign nationals. As they flew low in German airspace, Thomas – character energetically not free in his homeland since he had fled six years earlier – was shaking.
In London there was a problem. Mann was working on Monkfish in Weimar, his novel about Goethe. Among his papers was a sketch of a dining room, with names scribbled around the table: exactly the sort of thing, the customs officer thought, a spy could carry. Mann tried to explain. It was an imaginary seating plan, an aid in his crafting an imaginary conversation, which he hoped would tell the reader something real about another writer who had died a century earlier. Stunned by the apparent futility of the project, the customs officer waved him through.
Like subject, like author. This is the second time that Tóibín has used fiction to imagine his way through the mind of a former novelist. In the years 2004 The master he took his readers inside Henry James. Now he chose Mann. Both men wrote obliquely about homosexual desire without publicly acknowledging it within themselves. Both have spent much of their lives away from their home countries. Both had older brothers who were also distinguished authors (William James, Heinrich Mann) with whom they had a complex and competitive relationship. Both were cosmopolitan, with social ties and intellectual interests that allowed them to see beyond the island and class-bound worlds they described.
Another thing they had in common was a taste for arduous rhetoric and very long sentences. This is where Tóibín’s interest in them becomes more surprising. Tóibín’s own prose may be Olympian in its cold simplicity, but it is. His crystal-clear short stories and novels, such as Brooklyn, whose emotional power largely depends on the modesty of his style, could hardly be more different from the emotionally and linguistically elaborate creations of James, or the troubled tone of Mann Dr Faustus or the labyrinthine reveries of The Magic Mountain. But it is possible to admire great predecessors without precisely imitating them. In The magician Tóibín makes Mann think, after winning his Nobel Prize in 1929, that his literary tone – “heavy, ceremonial, civilized” – identifies him as precisely what the newly ascendant Nazis hate most. A Mandarin style, a reserved manner, an aversion to political passion – these are calm and lackluster attributes but, as Tóibín convincingly suggests, they must be kept as bulwarks against the sleep of reason and the monsters that it begets.
The magician is above all a portrait of the artist as a father; there is relatively little about Mann’s development as a writer or his status in the literary world. Rather, it places it at the center of a panoramic vision of the German cultural scene at the start of the 20th century. Throughout his adult life, Mann did his best to isolate himself from this scene – as hectic and threatening as it was – but, for all the harshness with which he forbade people to disturb him in his office, the outside world has not ceased to intervene, most often given access by the antics and tribulations of those close to him.
Like anyone who has read Buddenbrook could guess, Mann came from a line of successful Hanseatic merchants. His mother was Brazilian, an exotic figure of the bourgeois and bourgeois Lübeck. Widowed, she moved her family to Munich, where she and her children encountered a less conventional and more exciting society at risk. Thomas became fascinated by the Pringsheim family – wealthy, bohemian, worshiper of Wagner, Jewish. He wooed Katia, the daughter of the house, being mainly attracted, in Tóibín’s tale, by his provocative and flirtatious relationship with his twin brother. He wrote a story in which the Pringsheim brothers merge with Wagner’s incestuous Siegfried and Sieglinde. Apparently not shocked, in 1905, Katia accepted her marriage proposal. Six children followed.
Buddenbrook was her first novel, and it was a huge success. Soon he was famous and wealthy, but the family he presided over was not as solidly established as the large house he was building seemed to suggest. Her two sisters committed suicide. His two eldest children, Erika and Klaus, were flamboyant unconventional – promiscuous bisexual, precociously talented as actors and writers, but too politically reckless and financially inept to make a career on their own. There were drugs. There have been scandals. Ultimately, there was another more devastating suicide – that of Klaus – which Tóibín presents as a test of Mann’s humanity, a test he fails when he chooses to continue his speaking tour rather than attend. at her son’s funeral. And on several occasions there were young men that Mann de Tóibín watches with as much envy, without ever touching them, as Mann’s Aschenbach watches Tadzio in Death in Venice. Katia sees it and says nothing. Her marriage is solid, but never enough.
Tóibín’s cast is large and there are some scintillating vignettes. Erika Mann marries WH Auden, not for sex (they are both homosexuals) but for a British passport; in a wonderfully comical scene, Tóibín summons Auden to mock Virginia Woolf. There is a memorably thorny account of Alma Mahler’s performance as great lady in exile. But always behind the parade of characters hides the dark background of the decline and fall of Germany and the division that follows. Tóibín skillfully balances the private and the public, and he follows Mann’s trajectory from patriotism to disillusionment with non-judgmental finesse.
In 1914, Tóibín made rumors of war manifest through the coarse rhymes sung by Mann’s children. “We hate Johnny Russia with his big smelly farts… We hate the English with their cold, cold hearts.” He imagines Mann, on the eve of war, alone in his lavishly appointed and equipped new home, reading German poetry and listening to German music, thinking how much he cherishes the “deep German sense of his own soul, the intensity of his dark me. examination”.
The First World War, however, appalled and disturbed him. He writes a nationalist essay which he later regrets. The Munich revolution of 1918 made him a target. He is saved from summary execution by Ernst Toller, the playwright turned revolutionary leader, whom he does not like. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Mann – along with his Jewish wife, his socialist brother Heinrich and his openly dissident children – was marked. He is no longer impressed by the great Teutonic seriousness.
He fled first to Switzerland, then to the south of France, where he frequented cafes where other German exiles gather – the Social Democrats bicker with the Communists – and finally to the United States. He watches World War II from transatlantic security and makes enlightening encounters with the powerful. Tóibín’s chilling account of his conversation with financier and newspaper owner Eugene Meyer is masterful. Meyer’s wonderful wife, journalist and art collector Agnes Meyer, brought Mann and part of his family to the United States. Now he has to pay for his freedom. Meyer sends a message that comes – though no name is mentioned – from President Roosevelt. Mann publicly called on America to intervene in Europe. Now he is told that America will go to war, but in its time. “Do you want me to shut up?” Mann asks. “They want you to be part of the strategy,” Meyer says. Mann wonders if “Eugene dictated the Washington Post editorials in the same monotonous tone he used now.” Still unmoved, Meyer tells Mann that if he cooperates, he could be the next German head of state. After their interview, Mann – horrified – decides to move to California, far from the center of power.
When he returned to post-war Germany, he was repelled by machinations from both west and east, with each bloc attempting to make propaganda a capital of a visit it had intended. intended to be a celebration of concord. Politics has failed Mann and he turns his back on them. Tóibín grants him a last unconsumed infatuation with a docile waiter, then leaves him, an old man ready to die, thinking of a Germanic beauty that transcends ideological divisions, of Buxtehude and Bach.
It is an extremely ambitious book, in which the intimate and the important are perfectly balanced. It’s the story of a man who has spent most of his adult life behind a desk or taking quiet post-prandial walks with his wife. From this sedentary existence Tóibín has shaped an epic.