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Colm Toibin Imagines the Life of Thomas Mann in ‘The Magician’

Toibin gives full rein to this sweeping story, which begins in Lübeck, a coastal city in northern Germany, where Mann’s father was a well-off grain merchant and senator, his mother a passionate woman with Brazilian roots. As “The Magician” suggests, Mann’s personality owed a good deal to this mixed heritage: the father, hard-edged, unemotional, “northern”; the mother in every way his opposite. All of this unfolds in “Buddenbrooks,” Mann’s wildly successful and autobiographical first novel.

Mann scarcely mentioned this novel while writing it, even to his older brother, Heinrich, who would himself become a formidable novelist (“The Blue Angel” was a popular film adaptation of one of his books) and lifelong rival. The young author was “afraid that a single, withering remark might be enough to make him doubt its worth,” having already suffered a nasty comment from his mother, who said after reading several of her son’s poems: “I wish to discourage your urge to write. I know from the school reports that you have no talent at applying yourself to anything.”

“The Magician” proceeds chronologically in discrete life chunks, but from the outset Toibin gravitates toward Mann’s interior life, often working symbolically, as when the young boy is taken by his mother to the beach, where he steps gingerly toward a brisk and thrashing sea. Thomas “would approach the waves, edging himself in, afraid first of the cold, jumping as each gentle wave came, and then letting the water embrace him.” This hesitant approach to life would become habitual.

Toibin follows Mann from childhood through marriage and early success (a Nobel Prize in 1929), into Swiss and American exile from Nazi Germany. It’s quite thrilling to observe him as he negotiates deep, dark waters, as with the rise of Hitler, whom he didn’t take seriously until quite late in the game. For the most part, the novel dwells on Mann’s uncertain (if comfortable) life abroad. Despite personal and political obstacles, he forges ahead with self-absorbed determination, building grand new houses, reconfiguring the nuclear family, pushing forward with his writing with an almost terrifying consistency of purpose. As his youngest son notes bitterly in a late letter: “I am sure the world is grateful to you for the undivided attention you have given to your books, but we, your children, do not feel any gratitude to you, or indeed to our mother, who sat by your side.”

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