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The Magician


The Magician

THE MAGICIAN represents a perfect confluence of elements in an extraordinary novel that I have been anticipating for several months since the announcement of its publication date. Colm Tóibín is a brilliant writer, and BROOKLYN remains one of my all-time favorite books. It is a beautiful novel, and I enjoy returning to its pages on occasion to remind me of its wonder. Equally important is the subject of Tóibín’s latest, the German author Thomas Mann.

In college I was required to take literature classes, so I grudgingly selected one in European fiction. My professor was Meno Spann, who more than any instructor in my life opened my eyes to the vast world of literature. Through his lectures, I read Thomas Mann’s DEATH IN VENICE. Other writers were covered during the semester, but Mann became one of my favorites.

"Tóibín brilliantly captures the totality of Mann’s life, along with his loved ones and the German people, all of whom are central characters here."

Tóibín is a very gregarious and sharing writer. In the rollout for THE MAGICIAN, he has submitted to numerous interviews and literary discussions. He seeks to write in a style that “has to seem unforced and natural.” A biographical novel can be difficult for readers hoping, in this case, to learn where the real Thomas Mann can be detached from the character created by Tóibín. But far more than Mann’s biography, this is the story of his family and his life spanning pre-World War I, the rise of Nazi Germany and post-World War II. Tóibín brilliantly captures the totality of Mann’s life, along with his loved ones and the German people, all of whom are central characters here.

Each of the chapters are set at important moments in Mann’s life. We meet him as a child in Lübeck, Germany, in the last decade of the 19th century. Mann’s father was a powerful German political figure whose attitude towards him was simply put in his dying words to him: “You know nothing.” While Heinrich, his older brother, was a successful writer, Mann was expected to enter the business world. He failed at that chosen profession and at age 26 published his first novel. His literary career included a Nobel Prize in Literature and surpassed that of Heinrich. Years later, he would support his brother as the two men, having fled Germany, lived the lives of expatriates in America.

In addition to Mann’s wife, Katia, and their six children, the literary and cultural figures who appear in THE MAGICIAN include Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Bertolt Brecht and German composers. While Hitler and the Nazis do not personally show up in the book, their impact is clear, more so than any character who appears on these pages.

The novel’s scope covers contemporary world history. It is insightful to read and experience how Mann’s view of his homeland changed over the course of his lifetime. As the clouds of WWI gathered in Europe, he saw the conflict as an opportunity for Germany to emerge victorious and lead the world into a new era. The post-war disaster of the 1920s and the rise of fascism were greatly disturbing to him. Once again war clouds gathered, but this time Mann was in no way eager for his country to emerge victorious. Seeking exile for himself and his family, he fled Germany in 1933 and sought refuge in America. The description of their efforts to travel to England and then to America are dramatic but laced with black humor. As desperate Europeans flee their homelands but still want to continue their lives of status, you sometimes don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

THE MAGICIAN is a novel for our times. We have lived through a political era that brings deep desperation to many. In the waning days of WWII, which were thought to be safe in the United States, Mann was encouraged to return to Germany to help rebuild his former homeland. He declined for many reasons, one of which his wife expressed: “Nobody needs a German who cannot stop telling the truth.” I am haunted by how Mann’s words, thoughts, deeds and actions still find meaning and a strong presence in today’s world.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on September 24, 2021

The Magician
by Colm Tóibín

  • Publication Date: September 20, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1476785090
  • ISBN-13: 9781476785097