In 2005, Irish writer Colm Tóibín published The Master, a work of fiction about Henry James that went to great lengths to plumb the gay depths of that notably celibate man. The novel was widely admired but struck some of us as having an oily quality as well as an inability – though not for lack of trying – to emulate the master’s technique.
Now Tóibín has written a novel about Thomas Mann, one of the most-celebrated German novelists of the 20th century, the author of The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice, which was adapted into Visconti’s famous film. Recently Mann has been subjected to revisionist biographers fanning the flames of any homoeroticism, so we thought we knew what to expect from Tóibín.
Well, we didn’t expect this. The Magician is a numbingly dull regurgitation of the outline of Mann’s life that doesn’t give the remotest clue as to why he should have been known as a magician and seems blind to the endlessly quicksilver quality of his voice. There are bizarre misprisions. Tóibín declares that Mann didn’t know French even though the letters contain correspondence – with André Gide, no less – in that language. Yes, Mann confesses his lack of conversational French, but Tóibín should know that a long section of The Magic Mountain – the dialogue between Hans Castorp and Madame Chauchat – is written in French. Besides, the consul in Buddenbrooks constantly peppers his conversation with French.
It’s a characteristic blunder that shows Tóibín’s incomprehension of the high bürgerlich world he has stumbled into. The problem is not his highlighting of Mann’s flashes of desire for the odd boy but how he crowds his whole narrative into a frame of extraordinary tonelessness and lack of shimmer.
The upshot is the dullest conceivable rehearsal of this intensely dramatic life. Mann fled Hitler’s Germany, first for Princeton, like Einstein, and afterwards to California with Brecht and Schoenberg, whose music inspires his devil’s pact book Doctor Faustus. His tetralogy Joseph and his Brothers pays homage to FDR, whom he knew. Mann’s long marvellous letters convey his life with colour and drama, poignantly tinged with the shadow of death from the suicides and heartbreaks in his family. A touch of the latter comes through in Colm Tóibín’s disappointing book, but it is all painting by numbers. Fled is that magic.
Picador, 448pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 4, 2021 as "The Magician, Colm Tóibín".
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