The Magician’s Criticism: Colm Tóibín richly captures our understanding of a great gay writer
The magician Colm Tóibín Viking, € 19.99
In 2008, Colm Tóibín published, in the London book review (LRB), an essay on Thomas Mann and his family. The Manns – honored, hated and prodigiously scorned during Thomas’ lifetime – emphasized Tóibín’s great gifts as a literary portrait painter.
Thomas Mann was, writes Tóibín, “an extremely complex figure, conservative in his manners and ambiguous in his politics … He could have been a senator and businessman like his father without something rich and almost hidden in his nature that set it apart.
Here, perhaps, we can glimpse the tension that may have suggested Mann to Tóibín as a potential subject for a novel. Tóibín has, of course, already written about a writer with “something rich and almost hidden in his nature” in The master, his extraordinary 2004 novel about Henry James.
In fact, the theme of the hidden or half-hidden inner life and its tensions is central to almost all of Tóibín’s fiction, from South (1990) to Nora webster (2014). In this sense, Mann makes an obvious candidate for inclusion in the canon of Tóibín’s novels on the collision of the inner and outer worlds.
As The master, The magician recreates the life of a great novelist who was, as Tóibín himself put it in this LRB essay, “mostly gay”.
The “something rich and almost hidden” that has marked both James’s and Mann’s life is not, I think, just homosexuality, but rather homosexuality in combination with something else, to namely, the necessary stealth of the artist, who inevitably lives two lives: one public and generally posed, the other private and almost always flogged by obsession.
Mann’s obsessions, revealed in his posthumously published diaries, tended to revolve around handsome young men. Mann’s two great biographies in English – Ronald Hayman (1995) and Donald Prater (1995) – characterize Mann as at least partly bisexual.
Clive James summed up the “nagging question” of Mann’s sex life when he remarked that: “The quickest answer is that Thomas Mann, the solid paterfamilias, has also had a fantastic life with handsome young men, most of them barely seen in reality: a smile from a waiter could make him start a novel.
A life divided. In Tóibín’s account, Mann consumes several affairs with young men in his youth. It may have happened that way. We don’t know for sure.
What we do know is that after her marriage to Katia Pringsheim in 1905 (she was wealthy and Jewish, as the Nazis did not fail to point out), Mann’s homosexual desires seem to have found no effect. expression only in his diaries and in his fictions.
He believed that to publish Death in Venice (1912), in which the famous writer Aschenbach longs for the handsome Polish boy Tadzio, was a risk.
Tóibín’s Mann, planning the news, reflects that Aschenbach’s desire “could never be socialized, domesticated, or made acceptable to the world.”
But contemporary critics have understood Death in Venice like a meditation on decadence, Mann’s eternal theme.
Gay readers, of course, got it before anyone else. As The Master, The Magician restores or completes our understanding of a great gay writer who could only speak of his sexuality indirectly: as a symbol, as a coded theme.
“There were some things that ran in the family,” notes Tóibín in his LRB essay. “Homosexuality, for example.” Thomas and Katia had six children. Erika, the eldest, was homosexual; his younger brother, Klaus, was too. They were both writers as well, as were Thomas’ brother, Heinrich, and another son, Golo, who was also gay.
Erika and Klaus prospered during the Weimar Republic. They were open about their sexualities in a way that Thomas could never be. They also understood what Hitler represented long before Thomas (like Heinrich, who predicted, as early as 1936, that the Jews of Europe would be “systematically annihilated”).
In The magician, Thomas ignores the story for as long as he can. We observe the imperturbable bourgeois life that has developed around his dreamy and evasive self finally colliding with history, and all that history implies: upheaval, exile, loss.
Line by line, Tóibín’s prose is simple. He is interested in creating, through the ruthlessly patient accumulation of small gestures, a rounded portrait.
Although there is something like Mann in this method (as Mann himself said, “only the exhaustive is really interesting”), The magician is not a specially Mannish novel.
Where Mann was heavy, Tóibín moves quickly. Where Mann was an essayist, Tóibín prefers action – and in his novels, thought too always resembles action.
Next to The Master, The Magician is one of the richest and most insightful novels ever written about the inner life of an artist.
Colm Tóibín has already written several truly extraordinary novels. The magician perhaps the best of them.
Kevin Power’s novel ‘White City’ is published by Scribner UK. Colm Tóibín will be in conversation with Kevin Power at the Civic, Dublin on October 17th at 6pm; civictheatre.ie