Michael Peterman: Colm Toibin explores the life of Thomas Mann in “The Magician”

“The Magician” is a new novel of major historical interest. Its subject is the social and family life of the German writer Thomas Mann, who during the first half of the 20th century became arguably Europe’s most successful and influential novelist.

He not only won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, but was considered one of Germany’s most important thinkers. The author is Colm Toibin, himself a famous writer. He presents Mann’s life using fictional methods (inventing dialogues and creating situations to serve his various purposes); it thus removes many of the factual details and sourcing references typical of biographies. It focuses on Mann’s inner life, his complex family relationships, and the workings of his mind.

I have no hesitation in calling “The Magician” a must-read; it takes us into the German experience of the two world wars while dramatizing the complexities of Thomas Mann’s life. It is a point of view that we know too little about.

The name of the critical term for such a writing project is metafiction; it involves the deliberate intersection of fact and fiction in the creative process. The subject is Thomas Mann (1875-1955), seen here especially in relation to his best-known works and his large and talented family.

Born and raised in Lubeck, Germany, but later adopting Munich as his writing home, Mann enjoyed a rapid rise to early literary success in Germany under the Kaiser whom he supported during World War I. He remained a solid German bourgeois in spirit until the emergence of Hitler’s Nazi regime in the early 1930s.

“The year after his Nobel Prize, the Nazis won six and a half million votes against eight hundred thousand two years earlier. But their support, he believed, could dissolve as easily as it had increased. So writes Toibin about this critical period in Mann’s literary life.

However, finding himself shouted at in Berlin a few months later by loud fascist voices as he delivered a lecture ironically titled “An Appeal to Reason”, he realized his views were anathema to Hitler’s powerful party. Deeply disturbed by the spectacle of the rise of fascism, Mann chose exile from Germany in 1933; then in 1936, the Hitler government withdrew his German nationality.

Thereafter, he lived comfortably but uncomfortably in Switzerland, then in Princeton, New Jersey and Santa Monica, California. Back in Europe, he died in Switzerland.

Mann is best known as the author of “Buddenbrooks” (1901), an important family chronicle; “Tonio Kroger” (1903), his novel as a young artist; “Death in Venice” (`1913), “Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1922), “The Magic Mountain” (1924) and “Dr. Faustus” (1947).

The author of “The Magician” is the popular and prolific Irish novelist and literary critic, Colm Toibin. This is Toibin’s second venture into metafiction. His first was “The Master”, a biography of the dark or private side of the life and prose of American writer Henry James. Either way, Toibin is drawn to this darker side of his characters.

Some readers will remember Toibin as the author of “Brooklyn” and “Mothers and Sons.” It unfolds the life of Thomas Mann chronologically but in a very selective way. It begins, for example, not with Mann’s birth and childhood, but with the fact that he witnessed one of his mother’s dramatic social appearances in Lubeck. Toibin carefully leads his readers through the maelstrom of twentieth-century life in Germany and the intricacies of Mann family relationships. Imagine them living through two devastating world wars and then enduring a long period of exile.

Thomas Mann was the son of a successful Lubeck businessman and his Brazilian wife. Planned to take over the family business, he chose to try his hand at the life of a writer, just as his older and more radical brother Heinrich had done.

As a writer, Mann proudly followed German bourgeois (or bourgeois) standards; he always dressed as if for a public appearance, even when he was alone in his office. He insisted on maintaining a well-organized daily schedule during which he wrote quietly each morning. Thorough to the point of fault, he did not authorize any derogation from the duties of his family towards him.

His marriage to Katia Pringsheim, a living member of a non-practicing Jewish family, produced six children and a very welcome addition to the Manns’ financial security. For her part, Katia always made sure that Thomas’ writing time was respected by both family and servants. However, Thomas had a playful side and liked to amuse his children at mealtimes with magic tricks.

However, beneath Thomas Mann’s disciplined exterior, a darker, secretive side percolated, and its signs fascinated Toibin. From his earliest days, Mann experienced a disturbing and persistent homosexual eroticism that kept him sexually and imaginatively in suspense.

On numerous occasions during his youth he was overwhelmed by powerful homosexual urges brought on by the appearance of a nubile young boy, perhaps seen on a beach. In his own youth, he craved such an affair. More and more over time, he managed to resist their lure. Indeed, as a father, he was sexually attracted to his own son Klaus and secretly wrote about it. In Toibin’s treatment of these strong impulses, Mann often seems paralyzed or reduced to passivity.

As a married author of extraordinary reputation, he seems to have accepted the responsibilities of his prominent social identity while suppressing his homoerotic urges. He did, however, keep a secret diary of these encounters.

When this newspaper disappeared during the Nazi takeover of his Munich home, he remained nervous for years. Although he eventually recovered the diary, it was not until it was unsealed and released to the public in 1975 that renewed attention greeted the aloof and private author.

However, his inner urges, of such interest to Toibin, can also be detected in some of his published works. Most notably, Luciano Visconti dramatized the frightening power of these very private feelings in his 1971 film version of “Death in. Venice”, starring Dirk Bogarde. I remember it well.

Toibin also focuses on Thomas’ brother Heinrich with his radical political views and the six Mann children, two of whom became well-known writers during and after World War II. Toibin follows Thomas Mann’s often troubled relationship with his six children throughout the biography.

He also clarifies that as his faithful wife, Katia, heroically controlled strained relations and insults within the family. Issues of political orientation, attitudes towards freedom and democracy, and personal sexual behavior affected the six young Manns.

The two eldest, Erica and Klaus, fought aggressively against Hitler’s tyrannies, even as they forged their own gay identities. Both remained faithful to their parents despite many quarrels and arguments. Erica married WH Auden as a form of protection during Hitler’s rule and Klaus wrote for the American newspaper “Stars and Stripes”. For each child, Katia or Thomas provided funds to help make ends meet.

Toibin is also interested in the cultural figures who helped shape Mann’s life. He knew Gustav Mahler well and then took advice from Agnes Meyer, of German origin, the wife of the owner of the “Washington Post”. He loved Wagner and knew Arnold Schoenberg and Albert Einstein in America. He met (and hated) WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

As a German conservative he earned Bertolt Brecht’s scorn, but he continued to be a major thinker and spokesperson for many Germans. German at heart, he honored Goethe on his 200th birthday even as he sought ways to give his country a new political – and democratic – stance in the wake of the horrors invoked by Hitler and his cronies .

Toibin’s biography of Mann is a masterful undertaking.

About Norma Wade

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