By Colm Toibin
c. 2020, Scribner
If you told me that the most exciting book you have read recently was a novel about the life of a writer, I would think you are crazy.
Especially if the author spent hours, daily, locked in his writing study, was often far from his children and, frequently, at least publicly, as suffocating as a pompous university professor. Still, reading “The Magician”, a new novel by famous gay writer Colm Toibin, made me eat those words.
In “The Magician”, a fictional biography of the famous 20e Century novelist Thomas Mann, Toibin did what few could: he turned the life of a scribe into a page turner.
In my youth, I carried “The Magic Mountain”, Mann’s voluminous 1924 novel, to coffee shops. I have never been through the saga of the novel about Hans Castorp’s stay in a sanatorium for patients seeking treatment for tuberculosis.
Although different in style, the novel resembled “Ulysses” by James Joyce. You wanted to be seen with it, even if you didn’t get it.
Much of Mann’s work, from his recounting the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers to Dr. Faustus, his recasting of the legend of Faust in the life of a fictional composer, not only seems laden with symbolism – but too long.
Still, “Buddenbrooks,” Mann’s autobiographical novel about the reversal of fortunes of a German merchant family, published when Mann was only 26, is a compelling read.
When Mann received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, the award citation called “Buddenbrooks”, “one of the classic works of contemporary literature”.
Mann’s 1912 short story “Death in Venice” set the ears of generations of homosexuals. In particular, back then, when few of us were in life or in fiction.
“Death in Venice” is the story of the writer Gustav Von Aschenbach who is attracted to a handsome boy named Tadzio. This is not an out and proud tale. Aschenbach’s lust for youth is mingled with disease. Yet homoeroticism permeates the news.
Toibin’s take on Mann’s life is fictitious. But, while writing “The Magician,” he spent years researching Mann’s journals and biographies.
Apparently, Mann, born in Lübeck, Germany, in 1875 and died in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1955, led a heteronormative and conventional life.
He and his wife Katia have been married for decades. Katia, who was bright and charming, was one of the first women of her generation to study at a university. The couple had six children.
After writing in the morning, having lunch, going for a walk, having dinner with his family, Mann would go to an opera or a concert.
If you are gay, you know that there is often more than it seems. in “The Magician”, Toibin uses his fabulous writings as a writer to reveal what is behind the curtain.
Like Aschenbach in “Death in Venice,” Mann from his youth was drawn to boys and men.
Although locked in public, he wrote about his homosexual attractions in his diaries.
From the start, Thomas and Katia Mann seem to have achieved a tacit understanding of Thomas’ sexuality.
When he first met Katia, Mann was drawn to her boyish qualities. Mann “imagined Katia naked, her white skin, her full lips, her small breasts, her strong legs,” writes Toibin.
Katia understood Mann’s sexuality. In some ways, this has served him well. That meant, Katia said, that she didn’t have to worry about Mann going after another woman.
For his part, Mann made a tacit commitment to Katia. “Thomas would do nothing to endanger their domestic happiness,” writes Toibin.
The Manns fled Munich in Switzerland when the Nazis came to power. (Katia was Jewish.)
While in exile, Mann was terrified that the Nazis would find out the revelations about his same-sex attractions in his diaries.
If the Nazis made his sexuality public, we would know “who he was and what he dreams of”, writes Toibin.
The Manns face love affairs (some of his children were homosexuals), suicides of family members, and exile.
The book becomes as gripping as a Hitchcock thriller as they struggle to find a new home after the Nazis devastate their homeland.
“The Magician” is full of entertaining soap operas, funny witticisms and compelling story.
Although it is over 500 pages, you will not be able to let go.