Winner of the 2022 Rathbones Folio Prize
Longlisted for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
I wanted the first book reviewed in Volume Two to have been written by a favourite author. What I have here is not only that, it is a fictionalised biography of the author of my favourite novel of all time. Are you following? I can’t call Thomas Mann a favourite author of mine, because I find his works hit and miss (call me a heretic, if you must), and some (Joseph and his Brothers) are just too long to attempt, but Buddenbrooks is lodged in my heart. I think of it at least once a day. All due to the keyring I brought back with me from the Buddenbrooks house in Lübeck.
The image of Thomas Mann in my head is very much that of the public persona, the respected statesman of German letters. With hidden depths, hinted at in Death in Venice. For Tóibín Death in Venice wasn’t just a hint, it was a reveal of Mann’s true nature, one that he articulated clearly in the personal diary he kept locked in his desk. For his eyes only. No wonder he was desperate to retrieve it after he was forced into exile from Nazi Germany. His reputation would have been in tatters, and he would not have become the formidable public presence he eventually became.
There’s the rub. For the private person wasn’t formidable at all. The pedestal that Mann stands on is somewhat lower after reading The Magician. Not that Tóibín is being unkind (unlike Mann’s youngest son’s takedown quoted on page 396) , but he is showing Mann’s human limitations. Artistic genius requires sacrifice, and Mann’s immediate family made it by having a father who retreated to his study to write his masterpieces, and was not to be disturbed. The study was his sanctuary, an inner sanctum recreated in all his homes from Munich in Germany to the Pacific Palisades in California to Kilchberg in Switzerland. Even when his six children were adults, the study was sacrosanct.
That is not to say that this is the reason why Mann’s family was so dysfunctional, and his children’s lives so rocky. Considered Jewish because of Katia, Mann’s wife, who never gave a thought to her Jewishness until she was exiled. Rendered stateless. Forced to find sanctuary wherever they could. Most (in)famously, Erika in an arranged marriage to W H Auden, Klaus served in the US army, but eventually took his own life. (Suicide running through the family.) Monika’s story was entirely unknown to me: The ship, she and her Hungarian husband were on, torpedoed mid-Atlantic by the Germans. She survived, finally finding refuge in Scotland.
Lives sundered by history is the phrase that comes to mind, as Tóibín shows the deeply personal cost of the times Mann and his family lived in. Yet in comparison to others, it was privileged. Money was never an object, because Thomas always had an income. Unlike his brother, Heinrich, whose left-wing politics played entirely against him, not only in Nazi Germany, but in America, where he sought a living writing film-scripts. Tóibín’s portrait of a broken Heinrich is one of the saddest I’ve ever read.
From the foregoing you can see that Tóibín is spinning many plates, such is the wealth of material. The story itself is challenging, the cast huge and diverse. In fictionalising facts, characterisation is essential. “I never want to write another novel with six children”, Tóibín exclaimed at last year’s Cheltenham Festival. Hugely satisfying for me was the putting of Thomas Mann’s oeuvre into context. I hadn’t realised just how autobiographical some of it was, or how – to use Tóibín’s word – revealing. The final reveal being Mann’s final novel, The Confessions of Felix Krull, the story of a conman, an impostor, a trickster. “This I have been too”, said Mann. Was he referring to himself playing the straight family man, the irreproachable German novelist or the great demagogue? Who knows, but these are the reasons why Tóibín calls him The Magician, even if his children had others.
This review is a contribution to Reading Ireland Month