Summary and book reviews of The Magician by Colm Toibin

The Magician

A Novel

by Colm Toibin

The Magician by Colm Toibin X
The Magician by Colm Toibin
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  • Published:
    Sep 2021, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rod McLary
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About this Book

Book Summary

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 ...

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. ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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. It's a poignant portrayal and a pleasure to read...continued

Full Review Members Only (633 words).

(Reviewed by Rod McLary).

Media Reviews

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

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...

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