Book Review: The Magician by Colm Tóibín

About the Book:

When the Great War breaks out in 1914 Thomas Mann, like so many of his fellow countrymen, is fired up with patriotism. He imagines the Germany of great literature and music, which had drawn him away from the stifling, conservative town of his childhood, might be a source of pride once again. But his flawed vision will form the beginning of a dark and complex relationship with his homeland, and see the start of great conflict within his own brilliant and troubled family.

Colm Tóibín’s epic novel is the story of a man of intense contradictions. Although Thomas Mann becomes famous and admired, his inner life is hesitant, fearful and secretive. His blindness to impending disaster in the Great War will force him to rethink his relationship with Germany as Hitler comes to power. He has six children with his clever and fascinating wife, Katia, while his own secret desires appear threaded through his writing. He and Katia deal with exile bravely, doing everything possible to keep the family safe, yet they also suffer the terrible ravages of suicide among Thomas’s siblings, and their own children.

In The Magician, Colm Tóibín captures the profound personal conflict of a very public life, and through this life creates an intimate portrait of the twentieth century.

Published by Picador Australia

Released 31st August 2021

My Thoughts:

Prior to reading The Magician, my knowledge of Thomas Mann could be summed up as ‘German, wrote Death in Venice’. What I didn’t know about Thomas Mann – apart from everything – was this:

‘After Einstein, you are the most important German alive.’

The Magician, so named after the nickname given to Thomas by his eldest daughter in childhood, is the sort of novel I love best. A sweeping and grand tale about a family within the context of a changing world. The politics, the art, the literature and music, the morality; this is more than a novel about the life of Thomas Mann, it is a history of the rise and fall of early 20th century Germany and the imprint this left upon its people, and the wider world.

Tóibín writes like no other author, and I was completely swept away by this novel. We are with Thomas Mann from teenager to the age of eighty, getting to know not just him, but his parents and siblings, and then his wife and children, and beyond that, grandchildren, as well as all the other people who moved in and out of his long life. Through all these interactions and relationships, we see history unfold in an intricate way. The novel is so well informed, as you would expect from Tóibín, and not knowing anything about Thomas Mann prior to reading, I am not in any position to reflect upon the accuracy of this novel, nor would I even want to, as to do so would tarnish the reading experience. There is humour alongside great tragedy, a mix of devotion and destruction when it comes to the interactions between members of the Mann family. The two eldest children grow into their own fame and notoriety; each of the six have unique challenges that arise from being a child of Thomas Mann. It’s within this microcosm of human experience that we see what it must have been like to be so at odds with and ashamed of the nation you were born into, while also mourning the loss of it, or at least, what it once was and promised to be. I haven’t read any other novels about Germany, or being German, from this perspective and I really appreciated the way in which Tóibín pulled at the threads and explored nationalism in such an intimate way.

In a novel so intricate and in depth, with so much precise characterisation, I feel I got to know each of the characters extremely well. Katia, Thomas’s wife, was my favourite. I felt she was so enduring, so supportive of him, and so fiercely intelligent and intuitive. Thomas, I have mixed feelings about. There is no doubting his literary genius and I admired the way he contemplated the workings of the inner artist, but there were aspects of his character that didn’t sit well with me, chief among them his attraction to young boys (including his eldest son) and the way in which he would write about the people he knew, with no consideration for the way in which he portrayed them. Katia managed him quite well, she knew him perhaps even better than he knew himself and she was able to read his desires and act swiftly and with discretion when the need arose, but even so, the effect this had upon their children was more toxic than either of them anticipated. There was a consensus among the children that their mother was devoted to their father at their expense. There were many benefits to being a Mann, wealth and protection chief among them, but there were great burdens too, all of which were portrayed with care by Tóibín.

The Magician is not a light novel, nor is it short, so don’t approach it with the view of a quick read. It’s a sweeping and involving novel that lends itself to contemplation about the world as it was in the first half of the twentieth century. It’s an unforgettable novel that has the whisper of a masterpiece about it. This one is solidly recommended to those who enjoy fictional biographies, historical fiction of the twentieth century, and novels about literary figures.

‘If music could evoke feelings that allowed for chaos as much as order or resolution, Thomas thought, and since this quartet left space for the romantic soul to swoon or bow its head in sorrow, then what would the music that led to the German catastrophe sound like? It would not be war music, or marching music. It would not need drums. It could be sweeter than that, more sly and silky. What happened in Germany would need a music not only sombre but slippery and ambiguous, with a parody of seriousness, alert to the idea that it was not only desire for territory or riches that gave rise to this mockery of culture that was Germany now. It was the very culture itself, he thought, the actual culture that had formed him and people like him, that contained the seeds of its own destruction. The culture had proved defenceless and useless against pressure. And the music, the romantic music, in all the heightened emotion it unleashed, had helped to nourish a raw mindlessness that had now become brutality.’


Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

16 thoughts on “Book Review: The Magician by Colm Tóibín

  1. Pingback: The Magician, by Colm Tóibín | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  2. Pingback: The Magician | Colm Tóibin – Brona (This Reading Life)

  3. “This one is solidly recommended to those who enjoy fictional biographies, historical fiction of the twentieth century, and novels about literary figures.”

    Because this ticked all three of these boxes for me, I kept going with this story. In the end it was not so much one to savour as to endure! Although I exaggerate for effect 🙂

    I did find the historical setting really fascinating but I’m just not sure what the point of the book was?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Life According to Literature Tag | Theresa Smith Writes

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