Conjuring in Wartime: Colm Tóibín Evokes the Art of Thomas Mann

October 10, 2021   •   By Anne Goldman

The Magician

Colm Tóibín

A CURATOR ONCE explained to me that the job of art museums is to deprive objects of environment. Moisture ravages vellum. Changes in temperature grind ceramics into rubble. Sunlight maps the surface of Old Master paintings with as many fine cracks as a windshield attacked with a bat. These days, when I look at an Egyptian amphora or a Greek vase under glass, I’m reminded of what perishes as much as what lasts.


But what happens to the artists themselves when they are torn from their own atmospheres? In The Magician, Colm Tóibín reimagines what it cost Thomas Mann to sustain his writing life after fleeing Germany in the early 1930s. Mann shuttled for a time between France and Switzerland, then escaped the continent altogether for Princeton before resettling in Pacific Palisades, where he built the house that still bears his name.


One of the pleasures of reading this book is watching it push against the expectations of the war story. Most World War II narratives are highly colored, billboard-loud affairs. Propaganda exploits hyperbole and caricature — obvious techniques, yes, but still catching for contemporary novelists, who mostly summon the key of Beethoven or the stirring equivalent of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man to evoke global turmoil. This novel echoes the quiet mourning that wells up in Schubert and the spare lyricism of 12-tone composer Arnold Schoenberg.


In his earlier work The Master (2004), Tóibín spotlights four years in the life of Henry James. This narrative economy sits well with James’s own in The Portrait of a Lady, which hinges upon a single intercepted glance. Sweeping but subtle, The Magician spans seven decades, plotting the trajectories of the Nobel Prize–winning Mann alongside his wife Katia and their talented and unconventional children. Along the way, Tóibín sketches other luminaries with whom the Manns cross paths: Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, Christopher Isherwood, Arnold Schoenberg. The long lens of this family portrait sometimes diffuses focus, but the narrative moves with the implacable pace of a stately river. The bright vagaries in the Mann children’s lives counterpoint the steadiness of purpose their father maintains, who lives for the times when a new literary subject intrigues “him enough to make him want to get up in the morning.” Abrupt moves across nations and ruptures in speech: this is the milieu in which Mann worked. Of his two eldest children, returned as adults to “his orbit” in Pacific Palisades, Mann reflects, “They were living outside their own language, their own country.” So, of course, is he.


The novel begins with a teenage Mann engaged in a tense familial literary competition. Mann’s elder brother, Heinrich, is tacitly accorded the status of intellectual, and his parents consign Thomas to his merchant father’s business. His poems are dismissed by the vibrant if insouciant mother from whom he learns to tell stories and the father who fixes him with as pitiless a gaze as the fictional Samsa family fastens on Gregor. (Much later, Thomas’s American publisher would ask this ardent admirer of Kafka to write an introduction for The Castle.)


Succeeding chapters of The Magician explore Mann’s relationship with Katia Pringsheim, daughter of a refined Jewish family in Munich who counts Gustav Mahler among their intimates. Marriage to Katia supports Mann’s writing even as it cuts him off from full expression of his sexuality. His two elder children are less accommodating. Writer-provocateurs — people whom our own day would call performance artists and activist intellectuals — Klaus and Erika are as quick to take up same-sex lovers as their father is to shy away from his erotic interests. They also plunge into the political debates before which their father equivocates.


Over and against the grand gestures and Sturm und Drang that are the stock-in-trade of his brother and adult children, Mann maintains “his reputation as an imperturbable man of reason.” The irony is patent for the fictional man, who understands himself — whether he is right or wrong, the reader must decide — to have “made the great compromise” in focusing his work less on the spirit “beyond himself” and more on “what shone and glittered and could be seen.” His children and his brother, who engage in more passionate, impulsive politics, tend to see the Nobel Prize–winning author as a “bourgeois manqué” in the vein of the titular character of his own story Tonio Kröger. Like other Mann protagonists, this one bears more than a passing resemblance to his creator — a European who, like Tóibín himself, writes brilliantly across continents.


Throughout this novel, Mann rules his family with more restraint. Skepticism and yearning alternate in his interior life. Because the book occupies his perspective, albeit with telling exceptions beautifully managed through letter and dialogue, its primary tone is a complex, fine-grained mixture hostile to operatic effusion. As in The Master and On Elizabeth Bishop, his exquisite biography of the poet, Tóibín is at his best in The Magician when evoking feelings so composite that they recall the wake left by haunting musical phrases.


The Magician does not shy away from open conflict, but its savagery unfolds at the dinner table rather than the front. The children, like their parents, lance those responsible for missteps and failures with startling quickness. At instances, the cold fury exposed in these conversations feels as heightened as the rhetorical exchanges in Greek tragedy. (After all, The House of Atreus, though set amid warfare, is a family drama.) Mann’s own sins are mostly those of omission. Tóibín leaves judgment up to us, but one of the gravest and most poignant marked by his children occurs after Klaus, his ravaged and most beloved son, commits suicide. Throughout the book, the blanched faces and strangling silences gesture toward what Death in Venice shows clearly, that loving means hovering near the edge of the abyss. We know from the start that we are seeing the world through Mann’s eyes, but in its first chapters we don’t always have the necessary tools to remind us that this perspective is partial. The bitterness that wells up in his arguments with his children allows readers to walk around the writer from different angles.


But so does the lyricism that plays under the surface. These passages resonate because Tóibín uses them carefully. They temper the austerity that Mann clothes himself in as the world undoes itself. The book’s first sentence — “His mother waited upstairs while the servants took coats and hats and scarves from the guests” — only seems straightforward. The retrospection established by its beautiful cadence, which prompts intimacy only to conjure watchfulness and division alongside it, recalls the feeling atmosphere with which Joyce opens “The Dead.”


A similar evocative paragraph near the book’s end roots itself in the particular but culminates in transformation. Mann calls up “the badly tuned piano in the hotel and the orchestra that played” one evening in childhood:


What came to him then, as he conjured up these things, was a change in the air, as though he were waking on one of those very mornings, the days ahead appearing infinitely long, each moment to be relished and lived in without worry or hesitation, a dampness in the room and even a coldness in the early morning sunlight, and the sea breathing in and out just a short walk away.


Here is the conjurer’s art. The rise and fall of the lungs cease but to be repeated — much as an instrument cedes the melody to another — by the rise and fall of the sea.


Like Bishop’s “One Art,” the ironic instruction manual for living with which it is in dialogue, Tóibín’s novel schools us in how to lose everything from the keys that open doors to the places and faces we give up with far less grace.


So much that feels substantial in the mind transmutes as fast as clouds: the beauty of the men who drive Thomas Mann to the page, the children who support and suffer him, the regard he has for his country, the worldly tribute writing brings. Looking back in Pacific Palisades, Mann reflects, “Once […] he had possessed gravity. His prominence lasted a decade and then it wore off.”


Still, the accents of his childhood home Lübeck remain in his inner ear. At its heart, this book is a luminous tribute to another’s faith in language — that stay against personal tragedy and political disaster. Tóibín’s own art of loss creates inflections as lasting.


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Anne Goldman is a professor of creative writing at Sonoma State University and the author of Stargazing in the Atomic Age (2021).