February 2024 Open Book Group – The Magician by Colm Toibin

Welcome to Michelle. I enjoyed moderating The Magician by Colm Toibin.


Paul Thomas Mann was a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature winner. His novels and novellas are noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual. His analysis and critique of the European and German soul used modernized versions of German and Biblical stories, as well as the ideas of Goethe, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer.


Mann was a member of the upper-class Hanseatic Mann family. He portrayed his family in his first novel, Buddenbrooks. His older brother was the radical writer Heinrich Mann. Three of Mann’s six children – Erika Mann, Klaus Mann and Golo Mann – also became significant German writers. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Mann fled to Switzerland. When World War II broke out in 1939, he moved to the United States and then returned to Switzerland in 1952. Mann is one of the best-known exponents of the so-called Exil-literature, German literature written in exile by those who opposed the Hitler regime.


Tóibín’s The Magician is a work of historical fiction with Thomas Man and his eccentric, family, rather than his works of literature, at its centre. Toibin takes through Thomas Mann’s life from his birth in the north German city of Lubeck in 1875 to his death in Switzerland in 1955. We read about his marriage to Katia Pringsheim and the lives of his talented and unconventional children. 



15 OBGers gathered for our inaugural meeting of 2024. Everyone had enjoyed Toibin’s The Magician. His clear and free-flowing style made a long book very absorbing. As he had chosen to describe the Mann family through historical fiction, we found ourselves constantly googling to check the difference between fact and fiction. Toibin was generally factually correct, but several members noted that they would have preferred to read a straight biography. One member countered this. She was taken with Toibin’s imaginative exploration of Mann’s inner creative life. This would not have been possible in a biography.


Toibin proved to be a favoured writer of many in the group. Another of his historical fiction works The Master about a similar genius, the author, Henry James was recommended. As were his fiction novels Brooklyn (OBG Nov 2010), and Nora Webster. One member referenced Maestro a docudrama about Leonard Bernstein (find it on Netflix – essential TV viewing). There are parallels between Bernstein and Mann. Both were closet gay men married to understanding women. The demands of their creative lives overshadowed their family relationships. This brought the discussion to why Katia had married Thomas. We agreed she would have looked pragmatically at her options and decided his wealth and status would compensate for any lack of romantic feelings.


The Mann household was very patrician. The family revolved around Thomas Mann’s needs. He refused to talk to anyone as he disappeared into his office for four hours every morning. He showed little interest in his children. We wondered if Erica and Klaus’ rebellion at an early age was an attempt to get his attention. However, we considered it more likely that such family dynamics were common in that period. Children were left to their own devices. Erica and Klaus were exceptionally talented unusual children. Certainly, they explored their sexuality and abused substances at an early age, but they also were proven writers and celebrated cabaret actors. Erica’s friendship with Christopher Isherwood (she unsuccessfully, asked him to marry her so she could have a British passport) indicates the circles she was moving in during the hedonistic Weimar Republic in the 1920s. Isherwood writes about this time in his novel Goodbye to Berlin that one member recalled was later the inspiration for the film Cabaret starring Liza Minnelli.


Mann was swept up in the nationalistic fervour for Germany after World War I. Mann was slow to denounce Hitler when he came to power. One member argued that if you are not there and your life is going fine in America, it may be easy to be slow in your reactions. Another member noted that many in Germany also let the status quo continue for too long before criticism became dangerous. How long are Americans going to accept Trump is not the danger he is/could be to the world? Mann’s intellect and the haranguing of his left-wing brother Heinrich should have prompted a faster response.


Many noted how wealth protected the family and other upper-class Germans from the ravages of World War II. Pointedly, when they were able to return to Germany Toibin describes wealthy Germans around a meat-laden table, enjoying food, many German and British people would not experience for another decade.


There were several sensitive scenes in The Magician where Toibin explored Mann’s attraction to young men. However, there was a dark side to Mann. He was attracted to prepubescent boys, sometimes as young as ten. He wrote about his fantasies, including those for his 12-year-old son Klaus, in his secret diaries. One member recalled Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice based on Mann’s semiautobiographical novella of the same name. In both works the 50-year-old protagonist Aschenbach is captivated by a beautiful 14-year-old boy whom he surreptitiously follows during a holiday in Venice. While Toibin provides no evidence that Mann acted on his desires, several members were uncomfortable that Toibin did not describe this for what it was – paedophilia. It was as if Mann’s status continued to protect him.


We would highly recommend The Magician. If today’s meeting is a portent of things to come in 2024, we are in for a stimulating year.


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