Saturday, October 9, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Magician by Colm Toibin

Colm Tóibin’s new novel, The Magician, a fictional biography of Thomas Mann, is superb. Using beautifully precise language, in a tone echoing the quintessentially German twentieth century writer, Tóibin takes us inside Mann’s head. It’s a fascinating place to be.

The novel marches us through the events of Mann’s life while keeping the focus inward (as it seems Mann did.) Despite the turmoil in the world around him, Mann was deeply introspective rather than outwardly focused. The dissolution of the Mann family business, Mann’s love for (and frustration with) his family, his repressed desire for handsome young men, and his conflicted thoughts about his beloved Germany were all fodder for Mann’s writing. Mann lived through WWI then watched in disbelief as Hitler rose to power. He and his wife were forced to flee to Switzerland then to the U.S. during WWII. His initial moral cowardice, refusing to outright condemn the Nazis until it became safe to do so, is convincingly and somewhat sympathetically portrayed. When he finally did take a political stance, he threw himself into it, only to be disillusioned when accused of being a communist during the Cold War. (That’s a vast simplification. For the complexities, read the novel!)

The Magician chronicles Mann’s creative process by showing him gathering inspiration for and piecing together the themes of his masterpieces, but does this with a light hand. The reader is told that Mann retreated to his study every morning to write, but rather than a play-by-play of his daily writing struggles, we see how his creative self-absorption shaped his relationships. 

The book humanizes Mann, presenting him as an ordinary man in extraordinary times, who happens to also be a towering literary genius.

Unfortunately, my TBR pile has just grown substantially, as I not only have to read more of Mann but of Tóibin as well.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this book. It brought Mann to life for me. It took Mann a long time to accept Germany, the country of Goethe, great poets, musicians and philosophers would accept Hitler as leader. Part of his hesitant criticism was to protect his publisher. By the time he understood Hitler was now Germany personified it was to late. I enjoyed your post very much.