“Tóibín’s book shows the absurdity of the widespread expectation that it is the writer who is supposed to be the nation’s sage, who will point out the right political direction for the state, and who will find the right words to comment on important social events,” writes in her review our editor, Kasia Krzyżanowska.
In our times, writing great and acclaimed novels may provide authors legitimacy to lead the democratic world. However, it does not necessarily equip the writer with rational political arguments. It is peculiar how a democracy chooses talented writers and poets as its patrons, expecting them to share wise words about humanity and responsibilities — even though they sometimes sound surprisingly banal.
It is in this spirit that Colm Tóibín wrote his recent novel The Magician. The book tells the story of Thomas Mann from cradle to old age, and consists of eighteen chapters describing selected life episodes. Work on this novel began in 2018 — and when Tóibín had the first four chapters ready, he learned that he had testicular cancer with metastases to his liver and lungs (he writes about this in an ironic LRB essay). He had to speed up with work, so that at the very end he remove more than 55,000 words describing technical matters — and left only the action. In the book, Tóibín again uses the third person intimate – his favorite style of writing – entering the mind and emotions of Thomas Mann who is drawn into the unpredictable course of history.
Tóibín’s book shows the absurdity of the widespread expectation that it is the writer who is supposed to be the nation’s sage, who will point out the right political direction for the state, and who will find the right words to comment on important social events. Such an approach breaks with the school reading of Mann as the father of democratic and European Germany, who always knew the direction of the wind of history. From Tóibín’s perspective, however, Mann is completely lost in his attempt to understand events.
In one scene, the novel’s protagonist notes with regret that he had never read any books on political philosophy and had only a sketchy knowledge of German philosophy. Nevertheless, this did not stop him from writing Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, a book conceived as a reaction to his brother Heinrich’s pro-socialist articles, in which he seriously analyzed the essence of the German spirit (along with the rejection of Western values, which he conceived as democracy, reason, rationality, and individualism). Tóibín briefly mentions how the book, published in 1918, was received: Mann thought of the book as a voice in the debate, but “by the time it was published, however, the debate had moved on. While some reviews were unpleasant, few bothered to go into any detail on why they disliked the book. Heinrich’s new novel, on the other hand, was acclaimed.”
These brief sentences summarize Thomas’s image as a writer out of step with political change, who writes only in competition with his older brother rather than about and for the world.
As Tóibín said in an interview with Belivermag, Thomas Mann was just a novelist who indeed knew something about music, but was completely lost when it came to politics and history. The Magician offers fantastic descriptions of how political events surprise Mann time and again. Although people around him murmur about war in 1914 (even his oldest children pick up street rumors indicating civil unrest), the writer, for some unknown reason, is firmly convinced that these warnings cannot possibly come true. Then the war breaks out and the revolutionary Bavarian Soviet Republic is established in Munich, made up of “poets and dreamers and friends of Heinrich”. Thomas observes these events with contempt. He does not tremble over the future of Germany and the threat of Soviet influence, but cares only about the possibility of his property being confiscated and his bourgeois tranquility being violated. Then comes the clamor of rumors about the Nazis growing stronger in Munich, and Thomas still cannot see that the first persecutions of the Jews are an ominous harbinger of the future (and he constantly fails to take any action).
Tóibín finds almost a pleasure in highlighting Mann’s political indolence. He shows his constant puzzlement over developments, and points to Mann’s deliberate isolation from society, indicating a complete lack of a sense of political sentiment.
Tóibín indicates in a short paragraph that at one point Mann’s only friend (and godfather to his daughter Elizabeth) was the politically active writer, later a Nazi, Ernst Bertram, with whom he exchanged political views. The Irishman writes mercilessly about Mann’s inner life: “Thomas followed the news about Adolf Hitler without much interest. There had always been cranks and fanatics in Munich. It hardly mattered whether they were left-wing or right-wing.” From this perspective, Mann is far from the heroism of an intellectual and spiritual leader; rather, he has the views of an undistinguished middle-class citizen of the time. He decided to condemn Hitler quite late, in 1938, after returning from a series of lectures in the States, just because he wanted to be sold and read in Nazi Germany for as long as possible. Tóibín’s Mann, treated with a great deal of irony, decides to publicly oppose Hitler in a fit of anger at Erika and Klaus, his oldest children demanding some moral action from their father.
And it was this person who was entrusted with educating post-war Germans to become democrats. When Thomas Mann emigrated with his family to the United States at the beginning of the war, the American administration took an interest in him. Americans wanted him to become “the greatest German of our time” — in the novel, this is how the influential Washington Post owner Agnes Meyer advertised Thomas Mann to the Roosevelts. The Americans simply saw that they could use Mann to advance their agenda in Europe, so they arranged him to record German lectures for the BBC. Feted as a defender of humanism and democracy, Mann became involved in big politics somewhat by chance, certainly not by his own choice. Tóibín’s Mann would rather sit at home and write his short stories and novels.
This brings us to the question of freedom. The Mann of The Magician had a very undetermined life; things just happened to him. Tóibín writes as if Mann was not in complete control of his life, as if his fate was simply the result of circumstances, which he had no ambition to change (although, paradoxically, he is mentioned as one of the main inspirers of the new German soul). As a young man, it was his mother who managed his professional work; later he quite easily gave the decision-making power to his wife Katia and daughter Erika. How characteristic is the scene when it is these three who must decide on the details of Klaus’ funeral (Mann’s son), and how irritated Mann is that no one around him wants to take responsibility for its organization. His function as a public intellectual just happened to him — someone thought he would be useful to the Americans, and his itinerary for his travels in postwar Europe was tightly controlled by the FBI. By accident he became a husband as well: one time he saw the daughter of a wealthy mathematician and artist at a Munich theater and decided she was the one he had to marry. In the novel, Mann’s homosexual desires, persistent throughout his life, are not reflexive; they just are, and are embraced by the writer. Great historical events do not devastate his life, literary prizes (including the Nobel) do not improve it, and family life does not provide much sense of meaning. Ultimately, there is no major life change in him: only certain dislikes and predilections are sharpened.
In fact, his only space for freedom was his work. He took it deadly seriously: in one of the scenes, when he learns of his son’s death, he sees some paper with notes and, to Erika’s disgust, “in a natural impulse” begins to add more sentences. Claudio Magris mentioned in one of his essays that Katia and Erika were afraid to enter Mann’s room to announce the outbreak of World War II, lest they interrupt his work. It was his work that gave him a sense of agency and power, so it is not surprising that in The Buddenbrooks, a novel modeled on his family, he made himself the main character, leaving out the rest of his siblings. This gesture is a taunt to his parents and his older brother, who from childhood was trained to be a great writer. It was in his novels that he could freely model the fates of people known to him. This was the case, for example, when he created the character of Adrian Leverkühn from Doctor Faustus, modelled on the composer Arnold Schönberg.
Outside of this imaginary world, Mann felt no freedom nor sought to expand the scope of it. In fact,
his well-known pseudonym, The Magician, in the context of this book becomes an ironic commentary on his life, which was dull, rigid, and directed by someone else.
Only at the end of the novel does Tóibín show Mann as breaking out into freedom: Thomas disregards the itinerary set by the Americans and goes to give a lecture in East Germany. This takes place, however, after the deaths of Klaus and Heinrich, two men whose opinions he both feared and craved for; when he is old and has little to lose, and when his fame in America is already fading. But this one moment of freedom is coupled with a sense of defeat: Mann discovers that throughout all his life he has been cheating, that he has been a fraud (and not a magician) among those who have lived seriously. He finds the essence of life in a character he himself once created: in Felix Krull, the German version of Sorel. In one of Mann’s last internal monologues, Tóibín succinctly captures this moment of shedding his masks: “If he were to be offered a chance to say a final word about the human spirit, he would like to do so comically, he thought; he would dramatize the idea that humans could not ever be trusted, that they could reverse their own story as the wind changed, that their lives were a continuous, enervating and amusing effort to appear plausible. And in that lay, he felt, the pure genius of humanity, and all the pathos.”
And finally, it is worth mentioning that The Magician is also a meta-book. Tóibín once again finds pleasure in imagining the writer’s fate: in one of his earlier books, The Master, he similarly fictionalized the life and thoughts of Henry James. This time Tóibín, drawing on the writer’s diaries, novels, and biographies, has invented Thomas Mann in social situations, as he arrives at his ideas. Tóibín shows how he imagines the creative process, and how much fiction owes to reality.
An ethical question arises here as well — to what extent can one use another’s life for one’s own literary purposes?
In The Magician, Mann wondered whether the living Schönberg would sue him for infringement of personal rights; Tóibín can rest assured that no one will legally claim Mann’s good name. The fate of the famous writer from Lübeck became an opportunity to show the casualness of events that is experienced most by those proclaimed patrons of freedom.
In collaboration with Hannah Vos
The first version of this article appeared in Polish in Więź.