Colm Tóibín is a cosmopolitan whose literary range makes him appear less rootless than capable of putting down roots everywhere. In the 1980s he set novels in Argentina (The Story of the Night) and Catalonia after the Civil War (The South) to music, borrowing characters from both Greek tragedy (House of Names) and the New Testament (The Testament of Mary) however, found it possible to return regularly to its source, his homeland Enniscorthy (The Blackwater Lightship). His non-fiction books show an unadulterated familiarity with everything from Indian art house cinema to the popes’ clothing choices. His prose is elegant without pomp, and his standard subjects – troubled families, sexual secrecy – large enough not to be repetitive, even on a new novel that turns 10.
The form and style of The Magician are more or less the same as The Master, his brilliant 2004 novel about the life and times of Henry James. The Master was a relatively humble affair, limited to the brief but productive period in James’ life that spawned works such as The Spoils of Poynton and The Turn of the Screw. Like James, his new subject, Thomas Mann – the magician of the title – combined public decency with private deviation. But The Magician is longer and its canvas is denser.
The American Civil War took place backstage at The Master, with James being protected by his personality and health from seeing the worst. The events of World War II hit the Manns more directly, plunging them into exile and politics in a way that James never was. In fact, as water for the fictional mill, the Manns are a little more promising than the Jameses. Their dysfunction and their habit of hiding fit so naturally into Tóibín’s universe that it is believed that Tóibín would have (and would have) invented them if the Manns hadn’t already existed.
Tóibín stays close to Thomas’ perspective and almost follows him from cradle to grave. It begins with the bourgeois life of the Lübeck men, from which Mann draws Buddenbrooks for his precocious and still wonderful debut. He marries the dubious Katia Pringsheim, daughter of a secular Jewish family, in a marriage solid enough to withstand both Thomas and Katia’s seldom recognized awareness of his true sexual nature. Thomas is able to father six children, strengthened by “a special Riesling from Domaine Weinbach”. Katia, on the other hand, can “recognize the nature of his desires without complaint, memorize the figures on whom his gaze was most likely to rest in a good mood”.
The husband’s marriage would make a perfectly fine Tóibín novel on its own, but the birth of the children makes for embarrassing Romansh wealth. The two elders, Erika and Klaus, inevitably steal the scene when they show up. They are beings of Weimar in the 1920s, they are everything that Thomas is not: open about their sexual nature, extravagant in their artistic experiments and, what is almost as dangerous, their politics. In doing so, they seem to follow the other Mann sibling, Thomas’ older brother Heinrich, who is on the left, who serves as a temperamental foil here, just like William James, Henry’s brother in philosophy, in The Master.
The most unfortunate feature of The Magician, and one that it shares with The Master, is the decision (Tóibín is too practiced to be a mere mistake) to advance the narrative through dragging sentences not found by those in a pure biography distinguish between: “When Hitler came to power in March 1933, Thomas and Katia were in Arosa, Switzerland.” Fortunately, in his revisions of material from Mann’s posthumously published diaries, Tóibín is full of reports on the wishes he was in In fact, it has never been expressed less artlessly.
Mann’s eyes – and more rarely, but always chaste, his hands – fall on many a strapping young man on these pages. Even in his most careless time – undressing for an x-ray in a sanatorium, in his long exile from Germany after conflicting with the Nazis – man is always drawn to and comforted by masculine beauty in the swimming pools, Princeton and on the beaches from Santa Monica. Tóibín’s writing in these passages is up to the challenge of showing him vulnerable, human and a little pathetic at the same time.
Tóibín also succeeds in portraying his politics convincingly and sympathetically. Mann was never an activist, clumsy with ideologues and never knew what to say to the many politicians who wanted to recruit him for their purposes. His accusations against Hitler during the war cannot be blamed for lack of passion, but his own brother and children were disappointed. In her opinion, Mann’s interventions were always either too weak or too late.
In Tóibín’s story, Mann’s reluctance to be an ideologue had its origins in many things: in his views on the autonomy of literature, his commitment to a certain conception of Germany, and a careful assessment of the risks for himself and his family to be more open . But he shows that the reluctance also stems from the deeper patterns of his psychology, his ability to hide is often difficult to distinguish from simple cowardice.
A braver man, according to Tóibín, would not have been the same writer. His literary virtues were too closely tied to his personal mistakes. The moral ambiguity that makes Mann such a challenging biographical subject makes him a worthy protagonist for a novel. Like the master, it represents a triumph for its author.
The Magician is published by Viking for £ 18.99. To order your copy for £ 16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph bookstore