The BookBrowse Review

Published October 6, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Magician
The Magician
A Novel
by Colm Toibin

Hardcover (7 Sep 2021), 512 pages.
(Due out in paperback Sep 2022)
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN-13: 9781476785080

From one of today's most brilliant and beloved novelists, a dazzling, epic family saga centered on the life of Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, spanning a half-century including World War I, the rise of Hitler, World War II, and the Cold War.

Colm Tóibín's magnificent new novel opens in a provincial German city at the turn of the twentieth century, where the boy, Thomas Mann, grows up with a conservative father, bound by propriety, and a Brazilian mother, alluring and unpredictable. Young Mann hides his artistic aspirations from his father and his homosexual desires from everyone. He is infatuated with one of the richest, most cultured Jewish families in Munich, and marries the daughter Katia. They have six children. On a holiday in Italy, he longs for a boy he sees on a beach and writes the story Death in Venice. He is the most successful novelist of his time, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, a public man whose private life remains secret. He is expected to lead the condemnation of Hitler, whom he underestimates. His oldest daughter and son, leaders of Bohemianism and of the anti-Nazi movement, share lovers. He flees Germany for Switzerland, France and, ultimately, America, living first in Princeton and then in Los Angeles.

In a stunning marriage of research and imagination, Tóibín explores the heart and mind of a writer whose gift is unparalleled and whose life is driven by a need to belong and the anguish of illicit desire. The Magician is an intimate, astonishingly complex portrait of Mann, his magnificent and complex wife Katia, and the times in which they lived—the first world war, the rise of Hitler, World War II, the Cold War, and exile. This is a man and a family fiercely engaged by the world, profoundly flawed, and unforgettable. As People magazine said about The Master, "It's a delicate, mysterious process, this act of creation, fraught with psychological tension, and Tóibín captures it beautifully."

Chapter 1
Lübeck, 1891

His mother waited upstairs while the servants took coats and scarves and hats from the guests. Until everyone had been ushered into the drawing room, Julia Mann remained in her bedroom. Thomas and his older brother Heinrich and their sisters Lula and Carla watched from the first landing. Soon, they knew, their mother would appear. Heinrich had to warn Carla to be quiet or they would be told to go to bed and they would miss the moment. Their baby brother Viktor was sleeping in an upper room.

With her hair pinned back severely and tied in a colored bow, Julia stepped out from her bedroom. Her dress was white, and her black shoes, ordered specially from Majorca, were simple like a dancer's shoes.

She joined the company with an air of reluctance, giving the impression that she had, just now, been alone with herself in a place more interesting than festive Lübeck.

On coming into the drawing room, having glanced around her, Julia would find among the guests one person, usually a man, someone unlikely such as Herr Kellinghusen, who was neither young nor old, or Franz Cadovius, his squint inherited from his mother, or Judge August Leverkühn, with his thin lips and clipped mustache, and this man would become the focus of her attention.

Her allure came from the atmosphere of foreignness and fragility that she exuded with such charm.

Yet there was kindness in her flashing eyes as she asked her guest about work and family and plans for the summer, and, speaking of the summer, she would wish to know about the relative comfort of various hotels in Travemünde, and then she would ask about grand hotels in places as distant as Trouville or Collioure or some resort on the Adriatic.

And soon she would pose an unsettling question. She would ask what her interlocutor thought about some normal and respectable woman within their group of associates. The suggestion was that this woman's private life was a matter of some controversy and speculation among the burghers of the town. Young Frau Stavenhitter, or Frau Mackenthun, or old Fraulein Distelmann. Or someone even more obscure and retiring. And when her bewildered guest would point out that he had nothing other than good to say of the woman, in fact had nothing beyond the very ordinary to transmit, Thomas's mother would express the view that the object of their discussion was, in her considered opinion, a marvelous person, simply delicious, and Lübeck was lucky to have such a woman among its citizens. She would say this as if it were a revelation, something that must stay quite confidential for the moment, something, indeed, that even her husband, the senator, had not yet been told.

The following day, news would spread about their mother's deportment and whom she had singled out for comment, until Heinrich and Thomas would hear about it from their school friends, as if it were a very modern play, fresh from Hamburg, that had been performed.

In the evenings, if the senator were at a meeting, or in the time when Thomas and Heinrich, having done their violin practice and eaten their supper, were in their nightclothes, their mother would tell them about the country of her birth, Brazil, a place so vast, she said, that no one knew how many people were there or what they were like or what languages they spoke, a country many, many times the size of Germany, where there was no winter, and never any frost or real cold, and where one river, the Amazon, was more than ten times longer than the Rhine and ten times as wide, with many smaller rivers flowing into it that reached back deep into the forest, with trees higher than trees anywhere else in the world, with people whom no one had ever seen or would see, since they knew the forest as no one else did, and they could hide if an intruder or an outsider came.

"Tell us about the stars," Heinrich would say.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Magician by Colm Toibin. Copyright © 2021 by Colm Toibin. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. From an early age, Thomas is very much in the public eye of Lübeck. How do you think this affects his emotional development?
  2. On page 23, Thomas reflects "No matter where he went, he would never be important again." What do you make of that amount of self-awareness from one so young?
  3. On page 72, Thomas meets Klaus and Katia for the first time. How is their relationship as siblings different from the relationships that Thomas has with his? And what draws him to them?
  4. Almost immediately after his sudden intimacy with Herr Huhnemann (pg. 75), Thomas decides to propose to Katia. Why do you think he made this decision?
  5. On page 107, Mann reflects that he "realized that after his sister's death he had busied himself with writing. Sometimes he even managed to believe that her suicide had not even happened." What do you make of this detachment from grieving? How is it similar to (or different from) the way Thomas handled the death of his father?
  6. On page 177, Katharina Schweighardt, the landlady who cares for Julia Mann, says, "No one who has been used to money can live with that. That is how the world is." How do you see this reflected in other members of the Mann family?
  7. Tóibín describes a profound union between Katia and Thomas. They have an unspoken agreement about his sexuality and how it plays out in their marriage. Why do you think Katia accepts this this arrangement? How do you read her wants and desires as a character?
  8. On pages 209–10, Thomas reflects that "His two eldest children, he understood, could not be damaged as he could be. Their standing in the world depended on their open dismissal of easy sexual categories. Any effort to undermine their reputation would be banished by their own careless laughter and that of their friends. But no one would be amused if sections of his diary were to be published." Discuss why Thomas is afraid. What do you make of Thomas's sexualization of younger boys (including his own son)?
  9. Throughout the beginning of Hitler's rise to power, Thomas struggles with his place in the public eye. What are his reasons for not immediately denouncing Hitler, and do you think they are selfish? Misguided? Why or why not?
  10. On page 276, Thomas says in reference to his writing, "I can make no sense of the present. It is all confusion. I know nothing about the future." How do you think this applies to his approach to life in general, and specifically to his writing up to this point in the novel?
  11. The chapter on page 445 opens with the statement: "The war was over; Thomas had not experienced it. He did not know what its aftermath meant." As Thomas experiences Germany after the war, how does this play out?
  12. After Thomas refuses to attend Klaus's funeral, he receives a letter from Michael, which admonishes him for not being more present to his own children, while always seeking his success as a writer first. What impact do you think this letter has on Thomas?
  13. At the end of The Magician, reflect on what you think Thomas's main motivations in life are. Could he have been successful in pursuing these without women like Katia and Erika?
  14. Once you've finished The Magician, do some group research on the historical Thomas Mann. What aspects of the novel seem to be direct corollaries to his life, and which things may be of the author's imagination?

Enhance Your Book Club

Supplemental reading:
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann (Tóibín recommends the translations by John E. Woods or John Edwards.)
Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature by Anthony Heilbut
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

Supplemental viewing:
Jojo Rabbit
Katja Mann: A Life with Thomas Mann
Death in Venice


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Scribner. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A vivid, imaginative rendering of the inner life of one of the 20th-century's greatest writers — Thomas Mann.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Thomas Mann — the subject of this biographical novel by Colm Tóibín — is regarded as a major 20th-century German writer, perhaps one of the best known of the so-called "Exilliteratur" writers — Germans in exile who opposed the Hitler regime. Author of works such as Buddenbrooks (1901), Death in Venice (1912) and The Magic Mountain (1924), Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.

Against a historical backdrop which includes World War I, the rise of Hitler and Nazism, World War II, the Cold War and McCarthyism in the United States, Tóibín's novel examines the life of Thomas Mann from age 16 in 1891 to just before his death at age 80 in 1955. Although Mann lived through what can only be described as an eventful period in world history, the novel focuses on his personal and family life, his emotions and thoughts, and his art.

At 16, Mann was already writing poetry and developing a deep appreciation of music. Music and literature continued to be the essential threads in the fabric of his life; but, like a darker thread which is only suggested in the novel, there is his repressed homosexuality, which in later years found an outlet in his writing.

In 1897, Mann began to write Buddenbrooks – his first and perhaps his most loved novel. In describing the genesis of this work, Tóibín brilliantly sets out Mann's creative process, explaining how, as with all his novels, Mann drew deeply on the experiences of his own family. Consequently, Mann was criticized for writing a roman á clef – a novel which overlays historical fact with a façade of fiction. This is of course not unlike The Magician, where biographically and historically accurate events in Mann's life are given an added depth and breadth by the author's imagining of Mann's emotions and thoughts as the events unfold.

In 1933, while vacationing in France, Mann was told by his adult children in Munich that it would not be safe for him to return to Germany. Consequently, the family moved to Zürich. In 1939, as the Nazi stranglehold on Europe tightened, the Manns emigrated to the United States, living first in New Jersey where Mann taught at Princeton University, and then in Los Angeles. Tóibín demonstrates how Mann and Katia became prominent figures in the German expatriate community, with Mann recording speeches that were broadcast in Germany by the BBC. The essential theme of the speeches was the significant cultural difference between the German people and National Socialism.

The title of the book originates from an episode in which Mann's son Klaus was frightened by what he believed to be a monster in his room. Mann told Klaus he was a magician and would use his magic to send the monster away. The stratagem was successful and, from then on, his children called him the magician. But in Tóibín's novel, the word takes on a greater significance — Mann is a person who can wield magic with words, whether in his books, his letters or his speeches.

Tóibín has created magic in this book. In beautiful prose, he has brought Thomas Mann to life and given the reader an intimate look at a great author who lived with contradictions — his acclaim as one of the great 20th-century writers set against his hesitant and secretive inner life; his successful marriage to Katia and their six children set against his repressed homosexuality; and his love for Germany and its culture set against the Nazi ideology he detested.

In most of his novels, Tóibín explores the themes of living abroad, the creative process and the preservation of personal identity (and particularly of homosexual identity). In The Magician, these themes find expression in the struggles Thomas Mann experienced with each. It's a poignant portrayal and a pleasure to read.

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Tóibín's Mann [is] more interesting than the mere facts of his admittedly larger-than-life story…the book gets its momentum and heft from the way these experiences intersect with the larger world, in particular, the way Tóibín has Mann making sense of them, in his life and in his art.

The New York Times Book Review
[The novel's] expansive and subtle rhythms carry the reader forward and backward in time, tracing an epic story of exile and literary grandeur, unpacking a major author's psyche in such a way that the life of the imagination becomes, finally, the real and only tale worth telling.

The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Tóibín wields a dramatically stripped-down prose style, one that emphasizes silence and stillness as much as dialogue and action. Its effect is cumulative, and its epiphanies, when they come, are all the more powerful after so much restraint…one of the most sublime endings I've come across in a novel in a long time

The Washington Post
An incisive and witty novel that shows what good company the Nobelist and his family might have been…The Magician is Mann-sized, but it canters along not only on the strength of Tóibín's graceful prose, but also because the reader can hardly wait for the next bon mot from a family member or guest.

Time, Best Books of Fall 2021
Extensively researched and lyrically wrought…a complex but empathetic portrayal of a writer in a lifelong battle against his innermost desires, his family and the tumultuous times they endure.

The New Yorker
Tóibín's novels typically depict an unfinished battle between those who know what they feel and those who don't, between those who have found a taut peace within themselves and those who remain unsettled. His prose relies on economical gestures and moments of listening, and is largely shorn of metaphor and explanation.

Booklist (starred review)
As with his triumphant fictional biography of Henry James, The Master (2004), Tóibín once again takes as his subject a literary titan, the Nobel laureate Thomas Mann ..Employing luxurious prose that quietly evokes the tortured soul behind these literary masterpieces, Tóibín has an unequalled gift for mapping the interior of genius. In Mann, Toibin finds the ideal muse, one whose interior is so rich and vast that only a similar genius could hope to capture it.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The personal and public history is compelling...Tóibín succeeds in conveying his fascination with the Magician, as his children called him, who could make sexual secrets vanish beneath a rich surface life of family and uncommon art...[A]n intriguing view of a writer who well deserves another turn on the literary stage.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This vibrates with the strength of Mann's visions and the sublimity of Tóibín's mellifluous prose. Tóibín has surpassed himself.

Author Blurb Katharina Volckmer author of The Appointment
This is not just a whole life in a novel, it's a whole world – with all its wonders, tragedies and sacrifices. I loved every page of this beautiful and immersive journey into the Magician's mind.

Author Blurb Richard Ford
As with everything Colm Toibin sets his masterful hand to, The Magician is a great imaginative achievement—immensely readable, erudite, worldly and knowing, and fully realized.

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Death in Venice: Book vs. Film

Death in Venice movie posterWhich is better — the book or the film? That question is often debated when a much-loved book is turned into a movie. Death in Venice — the novella written by Thomas Mann and published in 1912 — is perhaps the author's best-known work, not least because it was made into a film by the great Italian director Luchino Visconti in 1971. But which is better?

The novella had its origins in a visit Mann made with his wife and children to Venice in 1911. For some time prior to this, according to a letter he wrote at the time, he had wished to write a story about "passion as confusion and degradation" based on the true story of German writer Johann Goethe's love for an 18-year-old baroness. While in Venice, Mann became fascinated by a young Polish boy he observed in the hotel where he and his family were staying, and also with the recent death of composer Gustav Mahler.

These three matters coalesced in Death in Venice. In the novella, Mann transformed Mahler into his protagonist, writer Gustav von Aschenbach, and Goethe's desire for the young woman became Aschenbach's passion for a 14-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio.

Aschenbach first sights Tadzio in the dining room of his Venetian hotel, in much the same way Mann saw "his" Polish boy. Aschenbach is captivated by Tadzio's beauty and becomes obsessed with the boy but convinces himself his interest is strictly of an aesthetic nature.

Drawing on his belief that his artistic inspiration was profoundly intertwined with his homosexual desires, Mann articulates in Death in Venice the struggle Aschenbach experiences when faced with the beauty of Tadzio, who seems to be enticing him to relinquish his identity as an artist. Discovering later that there is a cholera outbreak in Venice, Aschenbach is convinced that the epidemic is a metaphor for his corrupt passion for Tadzio. On the day of Tadzio's departure, Aschenbach, now very ill, sees him for the last time on the beach and believes the boy is beckoning to him. Aschenbach rises from his deck chair, collapses and dies.

In common with much of his work, Mann articulates in Death in Venice his conflicted feelings about his art and his homosexuality — the innate tension between expression and repression.

The novella was tremendously popular when it was published, and its controversial themes sparked much critical debate, as they still do today. A recent essay appearing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, for instance, looks at the story through a contemporary lens, comparing the Venetian response to the cholera outbreak in the novella to the COVID-19 response by capitalist countries around the world.

Luchino Visconti, a theater, opera and film director, is considered to be one of the fathers of Italian neo-realism in cinema. His later films, including Death in Venice, explore beauty, death and European history.

The film did not review well. Most critics argued that somehow Visconti lost — or discarded — the subtleties and nuances of Mann's novella. Instead of an aged writer, Aschenbach is a middle-aged composer; and instead of articulating Aschenbach's complex relationship with Tadzio — to whom he never speaks — it tells the story of homosexual obsession. In Mann's book, Tadzio is supposed to represent an ideal of beauty that is in many ways separate from sexuality. In Visconti's film, though, Tadzio's sensuality is over-emphasized and thus the tension in the novella between beauty and intellect is undermined and reduced.

But for all that, Visconti's later films were thought to be visually stunning, and Death in Venice was no exception. As the great and late film critic Roger Ebert said in his review, "the physical beauty of the film itself is overwhelming … and Visconti's mastery of visual style almost succeeds in creating the very ideas and feelings that his heavy-handed narrative entirely misses."

So, while the film certainly had its strengths, the critical response suggests the novella is the better work of art.

Death in Venice (1971) movie poster, courtesy of IMDB

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