The Magician: A Novel

by Colm Tóibín

Hardcover, 2021

Call number



Scribner (2021), 512 pages

Media reviews

This dramatisation of Thomas Mann’s private and public life never quite convinces as biography or fiction

User reviews

LibraryThing member msf59
"In books we never find anything but ourselves. Strangely enough, that always gives us great pleasure, and we say the author is a genius.”

"Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous - to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.”

-Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann was the most successful novelist of his time. This sweeping novel traces Mann’s life through boyhood to his death in the 1950s. It spans both World Wars, as Mann and his family flee Nazi Germany, first to Switzerland, then France, ending up in the United States. Toibin took a similar approach with his novel The Master, about Henry James and he works his magic here again, teaming impeccable research with strong prose. Mann remains an enigmatic figure but he did lead a fascinating life.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
This is a biographical novel about the German writer Thomas Mann, and Tóibín sticks to Mann's life, using his authorial presence to create dialog and emotion rather than to play with the established facts. The portrait he paints is of a divided man, on the one hand, a man whose sexual preferences are forbidden and who has friends and family who regularly transgress against the accepted norms of traditional German society and, on the other, who is deeply conventional himself and is often indecisive when it comes to the moments when he could use his reputation and voice to influence events.

Mann is born into a conventional, upper class northern German family at the end of the 19th century, but his world is altered when his father dies when he is a teenager. The family is no longer affluent and his mother moves them to Munich, where she tries to set him up in a career. But Thomas wants the freedom and ease he sees his brother enjoying as a writer and decides to follow the same path. Mann's life is lived during tumultuous times in German history and his own views move from support for Germany in the First World War, to bitter disillusionment at the defeat, followed by the weird days of the Munich Soviet Republic and the later rise of the Nazi Party, which has the extended Mann family separated as they flee in different directions, or hunker down and hope for it all to pass. Mann ends up first in Princeton, NJ and then in California, growing older, indecisive on the best path forward, concerned and disappointed in his children and worried that his early diaries will fall into Nazi hands.

Mann isn't the most exciting of characters, despite the times he lived through, but the novel isn't boring. It is measured, beautifully written and has a deliberate pacing that made the novel oddly soothing to read. There is something so pleasant about a book that demands the reader slow down and just take the novel as it is. I suspect that those readers who have read Mann's works will get a great deal more out of it, but I enjoyed my time with this book and was sorry to have finished it.
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LibraryThing member JulieStielstra
UGH. I was looking forward to this, having hugely admired Toibin's The Master, focused on the life of Henry James. I gave this one 75 pages and quit. The plodding prose felt like he had taken notes on all the biographies in the library, then just recast them in novel-style, like a writing-class exercise based on a Wikipedia entry. I kept waiting for some spark of life, some vivid observation, that never happened. Just page after page of he did this, he thought that, he disliked his job, he wrote some stories, he hung out with artsy friends, he saw this girl... Mann's was a lurid, awful, complicated life, and this was just tedious.… (more)
LibraryThing member maryreinert
To be honest I wrongfully picked this up at the library thinking it was by another author I admire (Colm McCann). I know almost nothing about Thomas Mann but having nothing else to read, I started. I admit, it took me a long time to get into this. The first third of the book is almost lifeless describing in detail the early life of Mann as the son of a prosperous businessman in the small town of Lubbeck Germany. Mann shows early signs of attraction to other young men but follows the path of school and marriage. His marriage to Katia while not loveless was based more upon a respect for one another.

Mann's first book was a huge success in Germany putting him at odds with his older brother who was also an aspiring writer. Mann and Katia eventually had six children. The book becomes much more interesting at this point. All six of the children were rebellious, eccentric, smart, but ill-fated. The eldest Klaus, also a homosexual, lead a sad life of unfulfilled dreams sprinkled with drugs and a strange relationship with his sister, Erica, who was openly homosexual, abrasive, opinionated, and just generally unlikeable.

This is also the story of Germany especially the rise of Hitler which Mann believed was not a threat. Mann had the ability to always "walk a fine line" between reality and idealism. He gained the nickname "The Magician" from his tricks he would play on the children, but that title reflects that ability to avoid taking a stand on many issues. He is remarkably remote from his children and then wonders why they have such angry feelings toward him.

The book is long - it is told in chronological order from his childhood to near death in Switzerland after spending many years in America during WWII. (Princeton and California).

There is no one in the book that I find admirable or even have much respect for. They all come across as spoiled entitled brats - perhaps born with talent but without any sense of responsibility or empathy. They are somewhat interesting but I wouldn't want to have dinner with any of them.
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LibraryThing member ozzer
Thomas Mann’s kids called him “the magician” because of his uncanny ability to deflect and create illusion through his exceptional art. In his fictional biography, Colm Tóibín imagines what may have been going on behind the scenes in Mann’s magic show. To that end, he gives us an intimate portrait of this complex literary figure. Despite obtaining considerable notoriety and influence, Mann was able to remain aloof and opaque throughout his life.

Tóibín suggests that Mann was obsessed with beauty, both physical and musical. While aspiring to express these feelings in prose, he struggled to conceal his homoerotic fantasies. As a young man living in turn-of-the-century Lübeck, Mann was heir to one of Germany’s elite Hanseatic merchant fortunes. Yet he concealed from his domineering father a lack of interest in business in favor of artistic pursuits. Following his father’s untimely death and the liquidation of his business, Mann’s mother moved the family to Munich where Thomas accomplished two of his most important achievements—he became a serious writer and married Katia.

As a member of the wealthy Pringsheim industrial family, Katia, along with her twin brother Klaus, had considerable prominence in Munich. Tóibín portrays Katia most favorably as a strong, independent and supportive wife and mother. Despite never explicitly acknowledging Thomas’ homosexual desires, their separate sleeping arrangements, mutual attraction to Klaus, and her protection of his privacy throughout does suggest a tacit acceptance.

Tóibín devotes much of the novel to how the family coped with the wartime political unrest in Europe, their flight to America, their ultimate return to Europe (but never to Germany) and his relationships to his fascinating family. Remarkably, he gives scant attention to Mann’s prodigious oeuvre. However, Tóibín does emphasize Mann’s uncommon devotion to his writing craft, even at the expense of familial estrangement. His three most prominent novels appear only as vignettes where Tóibín imagines how Mann may have conceived them. Yet this choice seems reasonable considering Mann’s literary work is widely acclaimed while the primary focus of the Tóibín’s book is Mann’s more obscure private life. “Buddenbrooks” tells of a merchant family living in Lübeck during the turn of the century; “Death in Venice” depicts Mann’s sexual fantasy surrounding a young Polish boy he may have met while visiting the city; and “The Magic Mountain” probably was inspired by Mann’s visit to Katia when she was a patient at an isolated Swiss tuberculosis sanatorium.

The core of the novel covers the family’s many tragedies and the two world wars. The two oldest siblings, Erika and Klaus were both writers and flamboyant political activists who openly opposed the Nazis. While Erica had a platonic marriage to the poet, W.H. Auden (only to acquire British citizenship), Klaus became a drug addict eventually committing suicide. Both were gay. Monika survived the torpedoing of the ship carrying her and her husband to safety. Her husband drowned and she was thereafter psychologically scarred. Golo was the family fixer and highly critical of his father’s personal choices. Elizabeth eventually became a noted political scientist; and the youngest, Michael, was a successful musician but remained distant from the family. Thomas’ brother, Heinrich was a less successful writer, living in his younger brother’s shadow. Early, he adopted radical political beliefs and eventually died in obscurity. Thomas and Katia were able to successfully flee Europe to America where they lived in Princeton and Southern California, all the while publicly espousing anti-Nazi sentiments and working to bring their family members to safety.

Tóibín explores Mann’s strengths and psyche through an intimate narrative style. Unlike many modern novels, he adopted a simple chronological timeline, telling the complex and intriguing life story of one of our towering literary figures. Thomas Mann lived through 80 years of most interesting times with some truly unforgettable characters.
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LibraryThing member nancyadair
The Magician by Colm Toibin imagines the life of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Mann. This multi-generational family drama is set against the tumultuous changes experienced by the German people in the 20th c. and I found that aspect of the book as interesting as Mann’s personal life.

Mann appears stolid and conventional, but he struggles with illicit desires. His wife accepts him but also curtails social interactions to protect him from temptation. He cannibalizes his life for his books, neglecting his biological children to birth his stories. He wrote about his family and his wife’s time in a sanitarium. People recognized a portrait of his grandson in a scene.

The oldest children come to age between the wars, living Bohemian and sexually adventurous lives. One daughter marries W. H. Auden, a known homosexual, while another chooses a much older man. The children’s lives are more colorful than their father’s; they are politically active during the rise of the Nazis, while their father will not say anything that would impact the sales of his books or his publisher.

He did not think for a moment that the Nazis would ever take power.

The Magician by Colm Toibin
The rise of the Nazis took Mann by surprise. His wife was from a secular Jewish family. The Manns had to flee their home, given refuge first at Princeton University before they settled in California.

Mann’s speeches extolled freedom and democracy. He was under governmental pressure not to challenge the American stance of neutrality. His family and friends took sides in the political divisions, giving a full picture of German politics.

Mann believed that the seeds of Germany’s destruction lay in its own culture; even the romantic music of Germany ‘had helped to nourish a raw mindlessness that had now become brutality.” “Don’t you see what is happening,” one of the Mann children’s friends warned before he kills himself.

Even after the defeat of Hitler, Mann and his wife cannot accept how their fellow countrymen allowed and abetted the rise of fascism.

It is chilling to recognize how easily people of intelligence and education can underestimate military hate groups and what they consider ‘crackpot’ wannabe dictators. What happened in the 1930s was not an anomaly. Democracies die. Books are burned. Hate finds a victim.

I love Toibin’s Brooklyn and Nora Webster and trusted his pen.The Magician is an immense undertaking and I was impressed by it. And yet, I had great difficulty reviewing the book. It took me days before I realized why–I just did not like Thomas Mann. I understood him, perhaps, but I did not like him. I was uncomfortable with his fixation on the beauty of young boys. I was disappointed that he did not speak out against the Nazis as did his brother and children. He was unable to adapt to necessary changes. He was self-focused. And when I read Death in Venice, which is a remarkable work, my discomfort was multiplied.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The Magician, Colm Toibin, author; Gunnar Cauthery, narrator
So skillfully, Toibin brings the characters to life, leading us down their streets, into their homes, observing them at work, play, in danger, and in casual conversation, giving voice to their aspirations and fears, that after awhile, the reader grows so completely immersed in the book, that the reader becomes part of it, rather than existing outside of it.
The author covers the life of Thomas Mann, a complex personality, from the early 20th century through both World Wars and beyond. A good deal of the book is devoted to family dynamics which represented the formality of the times, the intransigence of the upper classes, and the hate and bigotry that developed for those that were different, more successful, or more powerful, which resulted in the rise of Hitler and the devastation caused by the Holocaust.
Betrayed by his father, discouraged from pursuing the career he preferred, confused by his own desires, Thomas Mann defied the odds. He forged ahead relentlessly, always seeming to land on his feet successfully because of his decisions. He never failed to act, when necessary, even when it meant uprooting the family or encouraging family members to separate.
Mann was politically influential. Was he influential enough, when he was forced to leave his own country with his Jewish wife and relatives, to have had a greater impact on the public perception of Hitler and his monstrous behavior? Did he speak out loudly and clearly enough, or was he guilty of remaining far more neutral than he should have, like many others who merely believed they had to protect their own images and family members, thus becoming almost complicit in the horrors committed by Germany as they turned a blind eye to the plight of those less fortunate?
This man with confused at times. He kept his homosexual sexual desires hidden, largely from the public, but was more obvious in his needs to those who were close to him. By managing his needs more intellectually, than giving in to impulsive sexual desire, he managed to keep the scandal away from himself. He married an influential woman, fathering half a dozen children, and writing powerful books that borught him tremendous acclaim, including a Nobel Prize. All of these actions served to protect his image from scandal and shame during his lifetime.
Although it is long and sometimes tedious with detail, Toibin has managed to bring Mann to life in a human, compassionate way that may or may not be deserved. Forced from his country to avoid arrest and worse, he managed to survive the wars and conflicts during his lifetime, and he did this in relative comfort which was afforded to him by the good graces of others who were influential. However, in his wake, he left a lot of damaged children, a lack of ardent actions against Hitler, and many secrets. Was he truly a Magician as his children called him, or merely a dictator in his family, someone more interested in self-preservation than family relationships or the larger picture of world peace. He survived adversity, presented a formal, well-mannered image to the world, and achieved great success, but when he returned to Germany, where he witnessed the horrors that he managed to avoid, he realized he had avoided the worst of it and questioned his own behavior…but how much did he feel remorse? Did he believe there was hope for a better future? Did Toibin’s ending imply that the beauty of the world would return? That its absence was temporary once the secret ingredient of a peaceful world was revealed, once beauty returned.
Homosexuality, drug addiction, anti-Semitism, and various types of deviant behavior or rebellion were all introduced and developed extremely well with the prurient details in so many current books of today. Obviously, careful research resulted in this fictional depiction of Thomas Mann during his lifetime.
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LibraryThing member Unreachableshelf
Polished prose and sometimes compelling on the level of an individual scene, but the overall the impression given of the major characters is far too remote to make the reader care.
LibraryThing member brangwinn
If you are a fan of Thomas Mann’s writing, you’ll enjoy this fictionalized account of Mann’s life. Earlier, Tóibín used his power of writing to tell the story of Henry James. Like James, Mann never admitted his homosexuality. The book is a portrait of a family man. To say this is an ambitious book is no understatement. It’s lengthy, but enlightening. It’s a book in which little happens. Mann writes a lot, he goes for lots of walks with his wife and he writes, and he writes. In return for safe passage to America during World War II, Mann must be silent about America’s entry into the war. Up until this time he has been vocal in calling for the United States to join the war. Finally tired of politics, Mann moves to California.… (more)


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