“The Magician” by Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin is a literary treasure. From his pure fiction like “Brooklyn” to his biofiction such as “The Master” to his plays, essays, journals, critical reviews and teaching, he has made an outsize impact on the world of literature for the past 40+ years. He is an advocate for the voiceless, unafraid, and unabashed. He has long been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and equality.
My first encounter with Toibin was reading “Homage to Barcelona”. He captures the essence of a city that is, and always has been, fascinating in every way. I followed that by reading his first novel, “The South”. I was hooked and have followed Toibin’s work ever since .
My favorite has been “The Master” (2005), I was not a big fan of biofiction previously. Toibin showed me how rewarding elegant literary treatments of larger-than-life historical titans can be.
When I heard that Tobin’s next effort was going to be another biofictional epic, this time centered on one of my all-time favorite authors — 1929 Nobel Prize winner, Thomas Mann, I was “all-in”. While I have read all but one of Mann’s novels, as well as several biographical treatments of Mann and his family, “The Magician” took my knowledge and understanding to a whole other level.
Toibin’s approach is not centered on recording a moment-by-moment accounting of Mann’s life. He certainly focuses chronologically on critical events and experiences that served as the foundation and inspiration for Mann’s most famous works. There is a great deal of new (likely true or at least fully plausible) detail surrounding his remarkable (and not fully functional) family.
I most appreciated the deeper treatment of seminal themes that Mann experienced throughout his life: 1) fascism vs. communism that first tore apart Germany, then Europe and finally the world, 2) the tension between unbridled mercantilism/capitalism vs. arts, aesthetics and humanism, 3) the conflict between the way people present themselves to family, friends and society vs. the way they really are and want to be. This third area centered in large part on Mann’s lifelong struggle with sexual identity.
Toibin is at his best while sharing insight into the stresses Mann felt as an increasingly influential public figure on both sides of the Atlantic. He was pressured by many at all levels — family, friends, influencers, world leaders — to engage or not, keep secrets, and/or speak-out. He was initially careful, hesitant, reluctant, and even afraid, later understanding how vital just his voice was to so many.
I learned so much in every way; Mann’s life choices were far more subtle, nuanced, traumatic, and complex than I had earlier understood. Colm Toibin is an artist to forever cherish.
Thanks to Scribner for the physical galley for review. Much appreciated..