book review

The Magician Resists the Shallow Gestures of the Hollywood Biopic

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Publisher

Thomas Mann called his fifth novel Doctor Faustus. Read a certain way, it was a power move — the author’s way of asserting himself as Germany’s greatest living writer, the heir to Goethe. Of course, Mann already had a Nobel Prize, which he’d won in 1929. He had acclaim, affection, respect, and readers, both for his fiction and his writing as a public intellectual, weighing in on the issues of the day. (He was born in 1875 and died 80 years later; there was plenty happening in Germany for him to opine on.) What more could he want?

Mann’s was a cinematic life — his politics alone made him an exile twice over (in Los Angeles, fleeing the Nazis, then in Switzerland, fleeing McCarthy). But The Magician, Colm Tóibín’s new novel about Mann, resists the shallow gestures of Hollywood biopics, reaching for something mainstream film couldn’t get at, or wouldn’t bother with. How does an artist create, and can a true artist live as the rest of us do?

There are already several biographies of Mann (Tóibín’s acknowledgements list the ones he found useful) and The Magician is not a scholarly text. In both this novel and The Master — Tóibín’s extraordinary 2004 fictionalization of Henry James — the fundamental aim is to understand real men whose art has outlasted them. With James and Mann both, Tóibín is especially interested in these writers’ queerness (it’s hard to apply the contemporary language of identity to these men’s lives, but I think this word works) and the effect this had on their lives and work. Tóibín, the author of nine previous novels himself — as well as several volumes of nonfiction, some heartbreaking short stories, and sprightly criticism — knows he can’t say anything definitive about James or Mann. He mostly seems to be saying thank you to his heroes. It’s hard to imagine a reader for these novels who didn’t share the author’s affection for their protagonists.

The Magician begins with a teenage Mann and his siblings, in the family’s stately home, waiting for their mother, Julia, to emerge for a party. The scene is a nod to Death in Venice, one of Mann’s masterpieces: The first moment the hero, a middle-aged German writer, spies the object of his intense interest, a 14-year-old Polish boy, he and his siblings are waiting for their mother. Given this, I expected The Magician to focus on Mann writing Venice (can’t judge a book this way, but the jacket also implies this). It would have been familiar territory for Tóibín — The Master focuses on James in the years following the failure of his play Guy Domville. Instead, The Magician roams from Mann’s childhood in Lübeck — the port town immortalized in his first novel, Buddenbrooks — to the United States, and back to Europe.

Indeed Mann’s autobiographical debut, in which a patriarch dies and a fortune is lost as his heirs fiddle about, provides Tóibín a template. Both novels are family sagas but at the same time probe deeper — to ask about religion, politics, money, and the degraded modernity we have all inherited. But where Mann’s novels are patient (a contemporary reader might say plodding, but I disagree), Tóibín’s work has an often maddening pace, the book speeding through the decades: the death of Mann’s father, the dissolution of the family firm, Mann’s short-lived apprenticeship as a clerk, and finally, his wholesale immersion in art.

There were moments I wish he’d lingered in, like this silent exchange between Mann and his brother, Heinrich (who would also go on to become a writer of some note, the two locked in lifelong competition): “Heinrich, who was 18 then, clearly saw that he was being studied by his younger brother. For one or two seconds, he must also have spotted that the gaze included an element of uneasy desire.” Tóibín writes about Mann, but when he takes his time, he also writes like Mann — braiding together the intimate stuff of family and the life of the nation — a tidy trick:

Some in Lübeck took the view that the brothers were, in fact, not merely examples of a decline in their own household but presentiments of a new weakness in the world itself, especially in a northern Germany that had once been proud of its manliness.

The bulk of The Magician is about Mann’s marriage to Katia Pringsheim, and the six children they had together. The novel is frank about Mann’s desires, and renders them with thoughtful complexity. Mann lusts after his friend Paul, but at the same time, “He recoiled from the thought of sleeping with another man, waking in his arms, feeling their legs touch.”

The novel doesn’t portray the marriage as a sham; it neither condemns Mann for his muddled sense of himself nor considers his wife a patsy. Indeed, Tóibín’s Katia relishes her role in her husband’s work: “I love that you turned me into a man in the book, and such a sweet man … It will be read by every German who cares about books and it will be read all over the world.” Katia is not a martyr who sacrifices her selfhood in service of a great man; Tóibín explores her near-incestuous bond with her twin brother, and considers her a full partner to Mann in constructing a great life:

Written into their set of tacit agreements was a clause stating that just as Thomas would do nothing to put their domestic happiness in jeopardy, Katia would recognize the nature of his desires without any complaint, note with tolerance and good humor the figures on whom his eyes most readily rested, and make clear her willingness, when appropriate, to appreciate him in all of his different guises.

Tóibín establishes intersections between Mann’s personal life and his art; how a trip to Italy sparked one of his most famous stories. “Thomas had never arrived in Venice by sea before. In the instant that he caught sight of the city in silhouette, he knew that he would write about it.” Yes, we might have guessed. But Tóibín has a liberty that the biographer must envy. In his telling, Mann’s opposition to the National Socialists is both a moral and aesthetic choice: “… he would make his style even more exalted. He would speak to the Nazis using all the systems at his command; he would speak to them from a commanding German place, using tones that had served writers before the Nazis were ever imagined.” The author is less interested in providing a clear explanation of how the Mann family ended up naturalized Americans living in Los Angeles, but that’s what Wikipedia is for, I suppose.

The Mann children are worthy subjects themselves — Erika, the eldest, would have her own career as a writer, and was saved from the Nazis by a lavender marriage to W.H. Auden. But Tóibín’s Erika and her siblings never interested me as much as her father did. Still, if the family crowds the man off the page, this is by design. Tóibín’s Mann does not build a family life as a disguise for the outside world; it’s a refuge from his own self.

That true self nevertheless emerges, sometimes discomfitingly. After fleeing Germany, Mann agonizes about how to keep his diaries, left behind, out of the hands of the Nazis:

What made him wince, however, were his memories of what he had written about Klaus. As a youth, his eldest son had struck him as being especially beautiful. Once, on coming into the bedroom that Klaus shared with Golo, he had found Klaus naked. The image had remained with him, enough for him to record in his diary how strangely attractive he found his son.

There’s no condemnation in The Magician, nor is there pity. Instead there’s the understanding that a great artist might be, after all, only a human.

When I finished The Magician, I returned to Death in Venice and found it more unsettling than when I last read it. I flipped through Buddenbrooks and was seized by a desire to lose myself in its long descriptions of a way of life now long gone. I considered the possibility of another winter of quarantine; would The Magic Mountain, with its slow and poetic depictions of solitude, and snow, and illness, and quiet, be a comfort? I suspect that Tóibín would consider my turning back to Mann a mission accomplished. The family nickname for Mann — at the family table, he entertains the children with tricks — provides Tóibín his title. It’s apt. That these books endure, and still possess the capacity to surprise, to thrill, to clarify life itself — it does seem a bit like magic.

The Magician Resists the Shallow Gestures of the Biopic