Books & Literature

Book Review: The Magician, by Colm Tóibín

LITERARY STUDIES: Colm Tóibín captures the profound personal conflict of the very public life of Thomas Mann, and through this life creates an intimate portrait of the twentieth century.

A highly readable masterwork.

Seventeen years ago, prolific Irish writer Colm Tóibín published a fictionalised life of Henry James, The Master. Now he returns to that format with The Magician and this time his subject is Thomas Mann.

A prolific and respected author of novels and short stories, Mann tried to keep away from politics, unlike his older brother Heinrich, a fine novelist in his own right and stringent socialist. Although not overtly political, Mann’s novels, of course, reflected German society back at itself. Happily married to the brilliant Katia, and father to six very individual children, Mann was fundamentally homosexual. Many of his works contain allusions to this struggle, none more so than possibly his most famous work, Death in Venice.

Tóibín explores all of these wondrous contradictions.

The Magician fundamentally tells the story of an extraordinary family, with Mann at its centre. It is redolent of one of Mann’s own novels, or Heinrich’s Man of Straw, or even Len Deighton’s Winter: a saga of a German middle-class family, through the first half of the 20th century, full to the brim with strong characters.

Through the novel, we witness Mann writing his various works, sharing in the reflection of his own life and preoccupations as they populate his work. In the background, but looming large, is the development of modern Germany, from advanced industrial nation, to World War 1, through Weimar, hyperinflation, the rise of the Nazi Party, the Second World War, and post-war rebuilding and reconciliation.

Through these pages, the reader is immersed in another world, another family, and yet as the narrative progresses, becomes part of that world. Tóibín has done a masterful job of merging meticulous biographical research, with superb story-telling. And yet to claim that this work defies categorisation is disingenuous: this is first and foremost, a novel.

Another masterpiece from this writing powerhouse, and possibly one of his best. The Magician is that rare creature: an unabashedly literary work, which is also a rollicking good read.

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

Distributed by: Pan Macmillan
Released: 31 August 2021
RRP: $32.99

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