The Magician 
by Colm Tóibín.
Viking, 438 pp., £18.99, September 2021, 978 0 241 00461 6
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Thomas Mann’s​ most noteworthy appearance in Irish letters until now came in one of the last poems of W.B. Yeats. In the spring of 1938 the poet read a piece in the Yale Review by Archibald MacLeish, the only article on his work ‘which has not bored me for years’ – a disarming piece of Yeatsian egotism since most of the article was not about him. True, he made a prominent appearance at one point, praised as ‘the best of modern poets’ for achieving a ‘public’ voice, but MacLeish was critical of Yeats’s later work: it hadn’t taken up the challenge of the times and addressed ‘the social and political and economic structure of the postwar world’ as it ought to have done. Yeats was unimpressed by the assumption that ‘the right public material’ should be ‘politics’, as he wrote to his friend Dorothy Wellesley, copying out for her his nettled response to MacLeish’s criticism, a deft little poem titled ‘Politics’, which contrasted the conversation of expert men chewing over the perilous state of contemporary Europe with the vision of ‘a girl’ standing across the room. Yeats is conscious that he ought to be concentrating on the important matters being discussed, but the poem ends:

Maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms;
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

Thomas Mann comes into all this because, in a lightly sardonic spirit, Yeats took as the epigraph to his poem a phrase from Mann which MacLeish had cited on the same page as his account of Yeats’s failure to keep up to date: ‘In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.’ Well, if so, then so much the worse for ‘our time’, seems the gist of Yeats’s response.

It would have been a very striking thing for Mann to say. In his most substantial work as a public intellectual, an unwieldy tome called Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man which had occupied him during the Great War, Mann had cast himself as resolutely opposed to things political, not just in his capacity as an individual but as a representative of Germany: politics, he said, was ‘foreign and poisonous to the German character’, hence, among other things, its innate antipathy to democracy. Politics is ‘participation in the state, zeal and passion for the state’. ‘Not only do I disagree that human destiny should be absorbed in state and society,’ Mann countered, ‘I even find this opinion repulsively inhuman.’

So the tag that Yeats quoted in order to refute it came from a writer whom an interested reader might have expected to say precisely the opposite. Then again, it isn’t entirely clear that Mann said it in the first place: the provoking phrase that Yeats attributed to him is actually offered by MacLeish as a paraphrase of something that ‘Thomas Mann, who has reason to know, says of the nature of our time.’ He had ‘reason to know’, presumably, as a famous exile from the Nazis, but maybe more particularly as the author of ‘The Coming Victory of Democracy’, a lecture which he had been delivering on a tour of the United States designed to stiffen American resolve against fascism. Mann had already modified his opposition to democracy some years before, and now his message was that its advocates had to take on some of the more bracing qualities of ‘socialistic morality’ if they were to stand a chance of prevailing. But his tone is very much needs-must, and anyway his advice hardly amounted to saying that the language of politics exhausted the scope of human destiny. To that suggestion, he and Yeats shared an implacable opposition: if Mann did utter the phrase somewhere it would have been, like Yeats, to remark on the desperate state of things from the perspective of one for whom, as he wrote in a letter of the time to a fellow author, ‘aesthetic problems are basically much more interesting and more natural to us than any politics.’ Had he known it, Yeats would have found in Mann an ally against the age.

The unacknowledged kinship runs deeper still. You could imagine a much more straightforward poem that pitted public discourse against, say, the intimate conversation of lovers, but Yeats does something much odder than that: he sets public language against the private and wordless intensity of an absorbed gaze. And here, too, Yeats was entirely in tune with Mann, who was similarly fascinated by the way that catching sight of someone you don’t know can make you forget yourself – or, rather, suddenly discover yourself to be something other than you had thought.

The most celebrated instance in Mann’s fiction is the beautiful boy Tadzio in Death in Venice, the vision of whom conjures the eminently respectable man of letters Aschenbach into secret reveries of pagan transport: ‘It was a world possessed, peopled by Pan, that closed round the spellbound man, and his doting heart conceived the most delicate fancies,’ Mann writes, contriving to sound at once keenly sympathetic and deeply amused. In a similar spirit Mann describes the way Hans Castorp, the hapless young hero of The Magic Mountain, finds himself comically immobilised by his infatuation with Claudia Chauchat, a fellow patient at his Alpine sanitorium. But it becomes clear that this obsession is really replaying a schooldays pash for a golden boy called Hippe, the intense erotic charge of which is quite undiminished by its only event being the loan of a pencil. Still, at least Hans exchanges a word or two with Hippe, which is more than Aschenbach ever does with Tadzio, if that is even what he is called: Aschenbach never knows for sure. But then in such heady circumstances you have left mere language behind. Hans doesn’t know what name to give the way he feels about his lovely schoolmate, but then he doesn’t want to give it a name anyway, since that would bring the thing into a public realm of discussion and judgment: ‘Hans Castorp was penetrated by the unconscious conviction that an inward good of this sort was above all to be guarded from definition and classification.’ The whole comedy of The Magic Mountain lies in the endless, spurious, impassioned verbosity of its inmates, all of whom are busy defining and classifying their rival theories of life while their own lives slip away unremarked.

Mann freely admitted that his writing had a ‘tendency toward autobiography’, but you might already have guessed that the combination of indulgence and satire marking such passages was the work of someone dealing with rich but tricky elements of his own experience. ‘Verily it is well for the world that it sees only the beauty of the completed work,’ he says in Death in Venice, ‘and not its origins nor the conditions whence it sprang.’ But of course the world has always seen a good deal more than completed beauty, and often the elaborate game of not-quite-disclosure playing out in Mann’s books positively incites you to wonder about their originals. Everyone recognised members of the Mann family in his first masterpiece, Buddenbrooks. Indeed, his mother was rather pleased with the way she had turned out. And the barely concealed portrait of his wife and her brother in ‘The Blood of the Walsungs’, which culminates in a giddy Wagnerian scene of sibling incest, proved much too close to the bone for his outraged father-in-law. Later, Arnold Schoenberg was startled to find in Doctor Faustus a composer in league with the devil whose fame depended chiefly on inventing the twelve-tone system. A presentation copy from Mann inscribed ‘For Arnold Schoenberg, the real one’ was not well calculated to placate him.

So Mann is an excellent subject for Colm Tóibín, who, both in criticism and fiction, has always been interested in the processes by which, as Auden once put it, the writer ‘fetches/The images out that hurt and connect/From Life to Art’. This novel, a thoughtful and deeply acquainted biographical study, explores the stuff out of which Mann’s great novels and stories grew. Sometimes the material is merely anecdotal – Heinrich Mann’s luggage goes missing and Thomas realises he can use that detail in a story – but what really matters in Tóibín’s account of the life is the way that Mann’s creativity grew from a colossal act of repression. The book is arranged around a series of intense, often fleeting crushes: a classmate at school, the painter Paul Ehrenberg, his own son Klaus, young men who sit admiringly through his lectures, the architect of his Californian house, sunny boys on the beach, a handsome waiter. These hidden intensities constitute a kind of shadow life, which is strikingly at odds with the role of celebrated public sage and family man that Mann pulled off so convincingly. Mann wanted both, and as it happened he had both. The hero of his story ‘Tonio Kröger’, a portrait of the artist, gazes at a nice married couple and understands that he will never be like them, for ‘a properly constituted, healthy, decent man never writes, acts, or composes.’ But at the same time Kröger is quite undeluded by his own identity as ‘a bourgeois who strayed off into art’, ‘a bourgeois manqué’. ‘I can conceal myself in the middle class without actually becoming middle class,’ Mann wrote elsewhere, but with concealment necessarily comes the possibility of exposure. The most nerve-wracking chapter of Tóibín’s book describes him in 1933 waiting fretfully in Lugano to see if the intimate diaries that he had left behind when he fled Munich would ever arrive or whether the Nazis would intercept them. He knows that, once discovered by Goebbels’s propaganda machine, his lingering accounts of ‘moments that he treasured but could share with no one … chance meetings, silent and furtive’ are bound to be forced into the harsh light of public consideration, revealing the secret ‘conditions’ from which his fiction and his whole manner grew, and that his ‘completed work’ would then be exposed as mere ‘masks designed to disguise base sexual desires’.

Incredibly, despite his son having entrusted the posting of the suitcase to a Nazi sympathiser, the diaries did arrive, much to Mann’s relief. But, perhaps no less incredibly, Mann did not destroy them for another decade, and at the end of his life, after some hesitation, he decided not to burn all the similarly revealing diaries that he had written subsequently but instead to leave them for the enlightenment of posterity, as though belatedly letting the cat out of the bag. ‘Let the world know me,’ he wrote in the diary, ‘but only when everyone’s dead.’ The existence of an enormous secret which was in a way completely obvious was an integral part of his conception of who he was, and it is a predicament which sounds a bit like a joke: I mean a joke in the spirit of the great New Yorker cartoon in which a troubled elephant confides to his analyst: ‘I’m right there in the room and no one even acknowledges me.’ Mann’s comedy of the meaningful non-statement is odd but, for the reader, it has a curiously addictive quality. As Michael Wood excellently put it, we repeatedly find ourselves asking ‘why we are smiling when there doesn’t seem to be anything to smile about’.

Tóibín is not the first person to advance an interpretation of Mann as a virtuoso of life in the closet, and he generously lists in an appendix the numerous works of scholarship he has consulted. But the theme has an especially lively pertinence for him as an author in his own right, for his fiction is characteristically fascinated by secrets acknowledged or unacknowledged or somewhere in-between, often though not always sexual. He wrote with great humaneness and humour about Irishmen coming out in his novel The Blackwater Lightship, for instance: one character, struggling to get to the point, is asked by his bewildered mother: ‘Are you after joining the IRA?’ Still, however excruciating the process might be, that novel communicates as robustly as Middlemarch the wisdom that being honest to yourself about yourself is good for you – which is I suppose what all narratives about self-realisation must be about. By contrast The Magician, which is not about coming out but about staying firmly in, occupies a much more complicated and neurotic world, in which Mann’s negation of his homosexual feelings is admittedly a kind of moral failure and a source of self-recrimination but is at the same time recognised as the necessary precondition of his extraordinary genius. Perhaps unsurprisingly Mann greatly admired Freud, less as the advocate of emancipatory self-acquaintance than as the thinker who recognised that ‘civilisation is only possible under the pressure of certain prohibitions,’ and who understood that ‘sublimation and repression’ were crucial elements in the making of culture. He could hardly have found an account closer to his heart.

‘Eternal love for boys,’ Mann wrote gnomically in his undestroyed diary towards the end of his life. But as the scholar Hermann Kurzke has said, it would be quite wrong to see Mann as leading some sort of double life in the way that, say, Wilde did. That he did not commit forbidden acts was no doubt partly down to timidity, but it was also the product of a tenacious romanticism which led him intuitively to feel that the most precious experiences were those that avoided the vulgar trap of something actually happening. (‘Heard melodies are sweet,’ as Keats observed, ‘but those unheard/Are sweeter.’)The most memorable episodes in Tóibín’s book portray Mann in moments of erotically charged proximity to a boy or a man, the intensity of which depends on the agonised certainty that nothing at all will come of it: ‘I would never have wanted to go to bed even with the Belvedere Apollo,’ as Mann once said, rather winningly.

The idea of a Jekyll-and-Hyde doubleness also misses the mark in that the spirit of concealment that informed both his life and work was an accepted part of the family set-up: some of Tóibín’s most striking passages describe the alliance that Mann and his wife, Katia, constructed around this unled life of homosexual longing, no less strong for being entirely tacit. ‘She halfway understands my anxiety about the contents of the suitcase,’ Mann wrote as he waited to see if the Munich diaries would ever appear: halfway understanding seems just right. In Tóibín’s novel, as Mann sits gazing at the original for Tadzio, he becomes aware that beside him Katia is intently burying herself more deeply in her book: ‘When they were alone later,’ Tóibín says, ‘they would not discuss it, he was sure, since there was nothing to say.’ His children were quite as conscious of the complication that their father clearly found necessary to life, though they were less disposed to let things remain unuttered: ‘All his love stories belong to the realm of the forbidden and the deadly,’ Mann’s daughter Erika pointed out, ‘though he was, after all, a happily married man and sixfold father.’ Mann reportedly responded to her observation with a dismissive ‘Yes, yes,’ as though the contradiction was not the sort of thing to be spelled out.

Fellow admirers will deduce from my account that The Magician is a sort of companion volume to The Master (2004), Tóibín’s celebrated novel about Henry James, and a book similarly preoccupied by the thought that what might normally be construed as psychological damage can turn out to be just what a novelist needs. This is partly a matter of a similarly subterranean homosexual life that never realises itself: The Master contains several scenes with enticing but untouchable men that anticipate the intensities of The Magician – moments of ‘sexual almostness’, as Tóibín calls them in one of his fine Jamesian essays. But in James’s case the instinct to retreat wasn’t limited to his encounters with young men: it presided over his emotional life at large, and the two most important relationships that he willed to come to nothing, at least as Tóibín portrays things, were actually both with women – Minny Temple, who inspired the heroines of Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady, and the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, whose tangled intimacy with James provoked some of his most celebrated short stories. Like his sister Alice, Tóibín says, James ‘recoiled from engagements, deep companionship, the warmth of love’. But while for Alice this flinching away from possibility led to a sickly, reduced life that never really got going, for her brother it came to be the sine qua non of his art.

The question that James repeatedly revolves in his stories, and which underlies Tóibín’s accounts both of James and of Mann, is whether the price can possibly be worth paying. In ‘The Lesson of the Master’, for instance, an aspiring novelist, Paul Overt, is advised by Henry St George, a successful writer of the second string, not to go through with an intended marriage, offering himself as a warning example: the single-minded purity of purpose that his gift demanded has been sacrificed on the altar of what Overt recognises as ‘full, rich, masculine, human, general life’. He accepts the Master’s advice and is naturally appalled to learn after a couple of years of lonely toil on his novel that St George has married the very woman Overt had had his sights on in the first place. St George never completely fulfils his notional genius, but he is affluent and happy. Meanwhile, like Alberich in Das Rheingold, Overt has denied love, not for gold but for art: was it worth it? ‘The best answer to that perhaps,’ James says, with terrible scrupulosity, ‘is that he is doing his best, but that it’s too soon to say.’ The devastating possibility implied there is the subject of another masterpiece which has clearly compelled Tóibín’s imagination for a long time. In ‘The Beast in the Jungle’, James portrays a man whose life has been haunted by the thought that some terrible catastrophe is to strike him, a conviction so strong that all the normal enrichments of love and relationship have been put on hold. Only at the last minute, when it is far too late, does our hero realise that the half-life he has led in the shadow of disaster has itself been the disaster that he feared all along. ‘You realise’, Tóibín writes in an essay, ‘that the catastrophe the story led you to expect was in fact the very life that James chose to live, or was forced to live.’

James,​ like Mann, wrote fiction ‘full of silences and suppressions and erasures and things withheld’, in Tóibín’s words. The impression is rather like that which James himself registered after reading a selection of Robert Louis Stevenson’s letters: ‘One has the vague sense of omissions … one smells the thing unprinted.’ James clearly matters to Tóibín more than any other novelist does, and The Master is probably his most self-scrutinising work. But you can see how the case of Thomas Mann allows him to revisit once more the compulsions of the earlier novel: the connection between subterfuge and the making of novels, and the quiet ruthlessness with which the novelist treats the raw material that life offers him. Tóibín’s admiration for Lyndall Gordon’s A Private Life of Henry James (1998), a study of James’s relationships with Temple and Woolson, valuably left its mark on The Master. Gordon presents James, as Tóibín says, ‘as a selfish and determined artist feeding on the very experiences from which he was in flight’: the carnivorous implication of that emerges in the novel when James recognises in himself ‘something alive and fierce and predatory’, and Tóibín shows him to be rattled by Woolson’s tart inquiry as to whether he had ‘plans to include’ her in the next book. James in real life was prepared to speak of art as ‘hard as nails – hard as the heart of the artist’, and there is something unpitying in his willingness to prioritise the needs of fiction over what might seem more normal sorts of human obligation: T.S. Eliot strikingly said of James’s criticism that it ‘preyed not upon ideas, but upon living beings’. At the same time, Tóibín’s affection for James is palpable: his haplessness and social awkwardness are treated indulgently, he is frequently seen to be a kind person, and he is shown to be someone who is himself at times disconcerted by the hard-heartedness of the imagination which he nevertheless felt obliged to serve.

Mann does not come out of The Magician quite so well: The Master dwells within the ebb and flow of Jamesian consciousness, while this new novel is more of a chronicle in which Mann himself mostly remains a closed book. Tóibín has never been a flashy stylist, and though it is slightly tough to characterise his manner, as Terry Eagleton once did, as an ‘austere, monkish prose, in which everything is exactly itself and redolent of nothing else’, he certainly has chosen to specialise in the virtues of plainness. This novel seems to me to take that disposition a step further: the pitch of the narrative feels deliberately remote, at times almost like a translation or a paraphrase, as though to imply the presence of an immensely greater psychological intricacy that has eluded the words on the page. I take this as a sort of homage to the spirit of secrecy which animates Mann himself, and I think the effect, which is very artful, grows on you. Part of the inspiration for such an alienated style must come from the implicit hilarity of historical novels (‘Eleanor Roosevelt led them briskly along a corridor,’ or ‘Alma Mahler called’), and some sentences could have come unchanged from a biography (‘In May they booked a hotel on the island of Brioni off the coast of Istria and took the overnight train from Munich to Trieste and then a local train’) or a helpful work of explication (‘In his invention of the twelve-tone system, Schoenberg had established the theory of atonality in classical composition most clearly’).

But at other moments you detect a purposeful decision to keep a distance, as if to leave the real inwardness of the characters be: ‘The more he studied the newspapers the more it became clear to him that England, France and Russia were spoiling for a war,’ or ‘Sometimes, the conversation between Thomas and Paul could be frank, as they agreed that male sexuality was complex and could take many turns.’ Mann ends Tóibín’s novel feeling that he has been for much of his life less a person than ‘an ambassador for himself’, at one remove from the reality of being him, and this is an impression which the prose of the novel conveys very well throughout: against such periphrastic efficiency the edgy romantic hush of the erotic moments comes across as doubly striking, as the use of a different language.

If authorship feels a bit iffy in The Master then its moral dubiousness has only deepened in The Magician. For one thing Mann’s successful career as a novelist seems inseparable from his extremely unsuccessful career as a father: he joins the distinguished Tóibín gallery of monstrous parents. (One of his non-fiction books is called New Ways to Kill Your Mother, another, about literary fathers, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know.) ‘Your humanity is widely appreciated and applauded,’ Mann’s youngest son writes to him. ‘These feelings of adulation are not shared by any of your children.’ It was the children who named Thomas Mann ‘The Magician’ (or most of them: Golo apparently refused to join in), a filial mixture of regard and disdain; and magic is one of the organising ideas in Tóibín’s book. A ‘Master’ is not the same as a ‘Magician’, and the difference also contributes to the sense of a harsher judgment operating here than that meted out to James. A master might have pupils or even slaves, but if you master a subject you are approaching it in a spirit of patient diligence and with a desire to comprehend – the spirit that James charmingly evinced when, challenged on the detail of one of his characters, he protested: ‘I really think I could sit a stiff examination on that lady.’

Magic is a bit different from that, especially as it features in the works of Mann. In one of his most grotesque stories, ‘Mario and the Magician’, the ability of the gruesome cabaret conjurer to provoke frenzied applause in his audience is clearly a metaphor for the weirdly occult power of fascism; and part of the horror is the bewitched inability of the narrator to drag himself and his children away from the spectacle. A similar sense of paralysis is also the effect of the magic mountain, the atmosphere of which suspends in its residents the will to re-enter the world – and it is the effect too of heedless Tadzio, whose spell keeps Aschenbach in Venice to await his certain doom. In short, magic puts you in someone else’s control, which is what, in a different way, the appropriative act of the novelist does as well. ‘I am artist enough to let anything happen to me,’ the real Thomas Mann said, ‘for I can use everything,’ which sounds like a boast about a magical power, but equally confesses a kind of dependence which is anything but mage-like: Tóibín imagines Mann lamenting his reliance on the raw material of life, unable to conjure himself ‘above the ordinary world from which the work emerged’. ‘He needed material for his novel as a ship might need ballast,’ he writes elsewhere. ‘His was not an art that could ever manage to be pure.’ The purity at issue is both aesthetic and ethical, and what Tóibín has Mann here call ‘a grubby business writing novels’ is subject to some pretty unmitigated judgment in these pages. In one particularly telling little exchange after the Manns have met their new grandson, Thomas says fondly: ‘I love Frido.’ ‘Enough to use him in a book?’ Katia retorts.

For much of the story Mann is someone who finds the essential privacy of his imagination violated by a historical obligation to speak about political wrong. The fiery vehemence with which his brother Heinrich was always willing to do that, and the passion which his radicalised children brought to the same task, left his own reticence looking to them like self-protective evasiveness or simple incapacity. His own view, at least as Tóibín presents it towards the end of the novel, is that while ‘speaking out’ on public issues might enhance one’s opinion of oneself, it would merely prove to be ‘a pose as much as any of the others he had taken on in his life’.

That is a chastened note on which to draw things to a close and it might look to be describing a very idiosyncratic kind of moral failure. But the strife engendered when an intensely inward mind finds itself cast into remorselessly political times was perhaps more of an epochal predicament than it sounds. The great works of Yeats, with whom I began, are all about a lonely romanticism finding itself forced to enter the public world of ‘what’s difficult’, and finding that one way of attempting the task was to become a man of masks. In fact it strikes me that Yeats, about whom Tóibín has written beautifully as an essayist, might be a good candidate for another biographical novel sometime: a ‘smiling public man’, as Yeats says in ‘Among School Children’, doing his civic duty while secretly entranced by the image of ‘a Ledaean body, bent/Above a sinking fire’. The body in question is of the wrong gender, true, but Thomas Mann would have got it.

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Vol. 44 No. 5 · 10 March 2022

Seamus Perry quotes Henry James saying: ‘I really think I could sit a stiff examination on that lady’ (LRB, 24 February). In fact he said ‘stand a stiff cross-examination’. There is a difference between sitting a written exam and being cross-examined viva voce. Perry doesn’t tell us who the lady is. It’s Mrs Brookenham from The Awkward Age. The quotation is from a letter James wrote about the novel on 17 July 1912 to the Oxford literary scholar Robert William Chapman (1881-1960), who is now best known as the editor of Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson. (Richard Burton once said in a television interview that he would like to have been a scholar like R.W. Chapman.) The letter is in the Lubbock edition of James’s letters (1920), but not in the Edel edition (1984), which is a pity.

Bernard Richards
Brasenose College, Oxford

Vol. 44 No. 6 · 24 March 2022

I’m grateful, I suppose, to my friend Bernard Richards for correcting my error (Letters, 10 March). Henry James said of one of his characters ‘I really think I could stand a stiff cross-examination on that lady’ and not, as I had it, ‘sit a stiff examination’. So the remark is about forensic interrogation rather than the challenge of a three-hour paper. My gratitude is only complicated because I have fondly carried that latter phrase around as part of my mental furniture for years, ever since I heard John Bayley credit it to James in a class, evidently much amused by the thought of the Master so ready to enter the exam hall and turn over his question paper. Bayley wrote in his memoir of Iris Murdoch that James said he could ‘take “a stiff examination”’ and in his Essay on Hardy (1978) that he ‘could answer a stiff examination’, a telling contrast to Hardy who, Bayley was quite sure, ‘would fail on Tess, would not even know an exam was on’. I was evidently quoting a fading memory and I stand corrected, but I admit to feeling a little bereaved.

Seamus Perry
Balliol College, Oxford

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