Having written a novel, The Master, based on several years in the life of Henry James, Colm Tóibín has now written a book based on the life of Thomas Mann, the German writer. The Magician takes its title from the name Mann’s children gave him, for his love of doing magic tricks to amuse small children.  Being the Mann family, though, it wasn’t an altogether affectionate term; there was some element of denigration about it. Never was there a family with so much rivalry. Brother against brother, sister against brother, child against father. So the name The Magician, has elements of ‘You think you are a magician, above all the rest of us, but we know what you really are.’

Mann’s father, a pillar of German society, married Julia da Silva-Bruhns a seventeen-year- old Brazilian woman (reputed to have the blood of South American Indians in her veins). She was eleven years his junior, and to the horror of his family, a Catholic. She attended the Reformed Church in Lübeck where they lived, but her free and friendly manner was frowned on by the community.

Julia gave birth to five children and lived a sedate life, but perhaps brought into the family some element of yearning for a more animated life. She tells her children about Paraty, where she was born

There were no Frau Overbecks pursing their lips. No families in perpetual mourning. In Paraty, if you saw three people, then one was talking, and the other two were laughing.

Thomas Mann was a second son, and his older brother Heinrich seized the position of the writer in the family. He refused to work in the family business, and his father gave him an allowance so he could travel and develop his writing life. Thomas Mann didn’t bother much with school and by the time he had left his father had died and the executors of his father’s will found him work in the office of a fire insurance company. He had been sending some of his writing to Heinrich, in the hope that he would support him in his desire to become a writer. But when he spoke about this to his mother, he discovered that Heinrich had betrayed him. His mother produced letters Heinrich had written to her

In this one he describes you as “an adolescent, loving soul, led astray by loose feeling”. and in this second letter, he refers to your verses as “effeminate, sentimental poeticizing.”

Thomas Mann becomes a Nobel Prize winning author, honoured for Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain; his brother Heinrich becomes famous for the film The Blue Angel, based on his book Professor Unrat, but has to rely on his brother for financial support.

In his book Tóibín has three main themes; the rivalry and contempt felt among some of the Mann children (Thomas and his wife Katia had six children) for their father, Mann’s difficulties in being open about his political views and his life after he leaves Germany, and Mann’s homosexual tendencies and his dreams and struggles around them.

What we don’t have is much insight into his writing process. He goes into his study and closes the door. And in the same way his children felt shut out, we the readers are left in the dark. There is some background to his plots; Buddenbrooks was about a rich mercantile family like his own, The Magic Mountain about a stay in a sanatorium based on his wife Katia’s time in one, but what drove him to write and what it was about these books that made them so wildly popular and made Mann so much money is not really discussed.

Instead we have a great deal of discussion about his children ; Erika’s bossiness and radical politics, Klaus’ drug addiction and homosexuality, Monika’s detachment, Golo’s reserve, Elisabeth’s role as peacemaker and Michael’s obvious resentment against his father.

The most interesting and lively writing concerns Mann’s time in America, when he is being courted by a couple of governments to speak in their favour. From intimate dinners with the Roosevelts to meetings with the power broker Agnes Meyer (who had arranged for him to be appointed Lecturer in Humanities at Princeton) he is moving in the highest echelons but still reluctant to speak out against the Nazis for fear of the consequences for his wife’s Jewish parents. Eventually he delivers a powerful speech against Hitler, but it is still too late to please his more radical (and with less to lose) brother Heinrich or his children Erika and Klaus.

I found this book disappointing. It is an engaging read but lacks depth. And I felt that Tóibín’s over-investment in Mann being essentially homosexual was missing the complexity of the man and perhaps more reflective of his own interests.

He did leave diaries where he wrote about being drawn to one beautiful young man or other, but he did very little about it. It did not seem to cause him much suffering, and was, in fact, something of a family joke. It was as if he wanted to ‘be’ that young man, not be his lover. But whether he would have preferred to live his life as a homosexual? Who can say?

Only in his writing about Mann’s response to music does Tóibín rise above the rather pedestrian nature of his story.

Music made him unstable. But as he followed the short movement with its lovely march beats and dance beats, and then the final movement with its lack of hesitancy, its flowing elegance, he felt that the two men he imagined, the two shadow versions of who he was, would not leave him, as other imaginings had left him. They would fit into what he had already been dreaming of, his book about a composer who, like Faust, formed a pact with the Devil.

Some people complain of this book being too much like a straight biography others (Michael Hofman in the TLS ) disparage it as being a ‘bionovel’. I found it a little disappointing but useful as a background to the life of Thomas Mann.

There is still a book to be written that captures the true Thomas Mann.



  1. Enjoyed the review, Gerts! Since I’m a fan of both Mann & Toíbín, I’ve been eagerly anticipating this book although I will confess that it will probably be months before I get around to reading it.
    I’ve seen echos of your criticisms (that it doesn’t give insight into the writing process; that the focus is too much on the kids; that it’s marked by a certain superficiality) elsewhere. Since it’s natural to compare Toíbín’s treatment of one writer with his take on another, I popped over to read your review of The Master and was delighted to find that, like me, you adored the book. Do you think that in attempting to cover Mann’s entire life, rather than a much more limited period of time as he did with James, Toíbín was attempting too much? That the different in the two men’s lives (Mann a family man, James essentially a solitary) led Toíbín to lose focus a bit? Did you think Toíbín was simply having an “off day” so to speak (hey, it happens to the greatest) with The Magician? Inquiring minds want to know . . . .

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I guess most of us perhaps feel we know Henry James more than we know Thomas Mann. James books, especially the novellas like the Spoils of Poynton and The Lesson of the Master and The Aspern Papers are more accessible than Mann’s, and he wrote books where woman were the protagonists, like The Portrait of a Lady and What Maisie Knew.
      I think Thomas Mann was in the ‘great man’ tradition in his writing and the way he lived his life, and his eighty years of life covered a massive sweep of history. A huge challenge to write a life. Perhaps it would have been better as a straight biography, which it almost is. But do read it; you wont be bored.

  2. Very interesting review, Gert. I’m a fan of Toibin’s earlier novels, particularly his ‘Irish’ relationship/family-based novels such as Nora Webster and Brooklyn, but the premise of this new one doesn’t particularly appeal. (I’ve never read anything by Mann, which probably puts me at a disadvantage from the get-go with this.)

    (PS I’m interested to see your response to Janakay’s comments – some great questions there!)

  3. Strangely I have only read Toibin’s biographical and critical writing both of which are very lively. Maybe he was weighed down by his subject here. He certainly did a huge amount of preparation judging by the bibliography. But Mann could be said to lack humour and to take his work very seriously. I was quite shocked to read that Echo the glorious and beloved child that he kills off in Dr Faustus was actually based on his favourite grandchild Frido.

  4. Interesting family dynamics, it must have smarted having the younger brother winning the Nobel prize for literature over the older brother.

  5. Excellent review, Gert. The only Mann I’ve read (‘Only one?!’ I hear you gasp) was The Holy Sinner, based in a medieval epic in which the sin referred to is incest. I’ve even got a translation of the original epic but can’t say I’ve more than dipped into it to see how indebted Mann was to it. (A lot, I seem to remember.)

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