Cover Image: The Magician

The Magician

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

In this fictionalised biography, Colm Toibin reimagines the inner life of the 1929 Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, tracing Mann’s life from his childhood in the 1890s in a recently confederated Germany to his death in exile in the 1950s.
Each chapter is anchored to a specific city and year, often linked to a turning point in his life or the composition of one of his works. The thinking process behind Buddenbrooks, The Blood of the Walsungs, Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus, Felix Krull, and various political essays and speeches are prominently featured.
Knowing very little about Mann and his works, I approached this book as fiction and focused exclusively on how Toibin interprets the Manns as characters, without worrying about biographical accuracy.
What emerges from Toibin’s subtle narrative is an elusive and contradictory Thomas, who as a boy hid his literary ambitions, as an adolescent concealed his sexuality, and as an adult withheld his political views until it was absolutely impossible not to choose a side. I found this ambivalence truly fascinating.
His detachment from real life and his reluctance to act/react also contrast strongly with the outspoken political engagement of his brother Heinrich and his eldest children Erica and Klaus, creating tension in the family that drives the plot forward.
Katia, Thomas’s wife, is another brilliant character. In so many ways she is so much stronger, more sensible and capable than Thomas. She tacitly understands and accepts Thomas’s sexuality and she’s the one who held the family together.
The incisive character studies and the weaving together of private and public lives in a turbulent century really makes for an unputdownable read. Plus, I absolutely adore Toibin’s beautiful, cool, spare prose. It's a book I would  highly recommend.
Was this review helpful?
Thomas Mann. Writer, husband, symbol of German literature. The story is a simple one, except, it’s not. Thomas Mann’s life was touched by exile, by loss of identity, by his homosexuality which could never be expressed, by suicide. In this novel spanning his life, we see a man who was asked to be so much, but carried his own burdens throughout his life.

I feel I should disclose up front that I didn’t realise Thomas Mann was a real person until around half way through the book. That’s entirely on me – in fact I was quite shocked that I hadn’t previously heard of a writer so prolific in German culture. However, while I take full credit for the fact I didn’t know anything about him, it’s interesting that the book itself made me question whether he was a real figure, and it’s there I’d like to start in this review. When I’m reading historical fiction, I want to be fully immersed in the lives of the people I’m reading about. I want the facts to be so woven with the fiction that I don’t know where the boundaries are (and indeed question whether there are any boundaries at all). What made we wonder if this was about a real person was that at times the tone of the novel felt like a history book, like I was being informed of the facts before we went back into the fictional account.

That’s not to do this novel a disservice – it is a compelling read and I found myself speeding through the fascinating life of the main characters, not just Mann himself, and feeling some real moments of tension, pain and loss. There are some chapters that feel really beautiful in their humanity. And that’s the reason for my 3 star review – I wanted more of these moments and less of the facts about Mann’s life. I wanted to really get inside his head and understand what it was like to live that life, a life spanning countries, wars and trauma, but also hope and joy. When I was given those insights, I was enthralled.

If you have any interest in Thomas Mann, I’d thoroughly recommend, and if you don’t, I’d recommend so you can find out more. This is a lovely read, with some real standout moments that make it worth investing the time in.

*Thanks Viking and Netgalley for gifting me this copy in exchange for an honest review!
Was this review helpful?
There's no doubting Tóibin's credentials as a writer, and this is a well-written and thoroughly researched book, but I just never fully connected with the characters at all. At points heavy going, but sometimes wonderful, this was a very mixed bag for me, I'm afraid.

(With thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC of this title.)
Was this review helpful?
This is a fictional autobiography about the life and times of the German Nobel Prize wining author, philanthropist and social critic,  Thomas Mann.  Born in Lubeck in 1875, Mann's desire from childhood was to  "write stories":.  However the young Thomas proved to be unmotivated at school and was enrolled as an apprentice clerk in an insurance company.  Like this school work, this apprenticeship didn't last and Mann was discharged for his lack of application. However these early days at a desk  enabled him to begin writing his stories.  Death in Venice on of his most famous books was written in 1912 followed by The Magic Mountain in 1924.  

Mann married in 1905 and he and his wife Katia, a wealthy socialite from Munich, had six children. In 1929 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for "Buddenbrooks".  Mann was a closet homosexual with an infatuation for young men and weaves this into his literary works.  Two of his children were also openly bisexual and outspoken critics of Hitler and the growth of nazism.  Together with his Jewish-born wife, Mann was forced to flee to the US in the 1930s.  Recognised as one of the greatest authors of this time, Thomas Mann became a reserved but outspoken critic of Hitler throughout the war.  He was a strong advocate for democracy but never returned to live in his home country.  The Magician is an engaging account of Mann's eventful life which describes the highs of literacy awards and the personal tragedies of suicide and addiction,  While not exactly a page turner, I enjoyed this portrait of a life lived through one of the most turbulent periods in our history.
Was this review helpful?
The Magician is Colm Toibin's fictionalised account of the life of Thomas Mann, written in the style of a biography and covering the whole of the writer's lifespan, his time in Germany, USA and other places of refuge as the events of the twentieth century unfolded around it. It is astonishing to me that as a very lengthy account of a writer of whom I knew absolutely nothing, that it held my  attention from start to finish. 

Toibin is a deceptively good writer. Much of the writing seems at first prosaic, but it builds, layer upon layer, its depiction of the characters of Mann's life and the events that befell them. Every one of the wider cast of family depicted in the story is uniquely fascinating. It also evokes in gripping detail the atmosphere of Nazi Germany and the paranoia of McCarthy- era America, Highly recommended.
Was this review helpful?
The Magician by Colm Toibin is a masterful, incredibly well researched novel about the life of Thomas Mann. This is true to form for Toibin who has taken other writers as the subjects of his work before, which I am constantly impressed by. I think that this impulse comes from a true love of reading and writing and I love that he pays homage to his influenced in this way. However, I think because I didn't know anything about Thomas Mann before reading this book and while I still admired the project and the writing, I didn't particularly connect to the book. 

However, this novel does not only follow the history of one man but the history of Germany and Europe around the Second World War, giving several conflicting and interesting points of view. The enduring theme in the novel is about art and beauty in the face of persecution and war and horror, and I think Toibin achieves this well, in addition to his reverential exploration into the life of the artist in general, and Mann's own life.

The novel spans Mann's whole life but the ending chapters where Mann is an older man looking back and fondly doting on younger relatives, knowing the end of his life is near is particularly moving, and Toibin always deals with hard subject matters gracefully. I like that he gave a lot of importance in the story to the older man's life instead of merely writing him off as being old and not as interesting. He writes so well about aging, the body and passing of time and even though it wasn't a favorite I'm always impressed by Toibin's writing.
Was this review helpful?
Beautifully written novel based on the life and writings of Thomas Mann. Great insight into his novels and into life in Germany before, during and after WW2.
Was this review helpful?
To write a fictionalised account of a real life whilst remaining, in all key respects, true to the original, must be one of the most difficult things a writer can do. And when your subject is someone whose existence is as single-track, as desk bound and - honestly - as risk avoidant as that of Thomas Mann, that challenge is taken to a new level. In The Magician, Toibin succeeds in creating a fascinating, thought-provoking mix of novel and biography. I learned much about Germany during and in between both world wars, and a lot about Thomas Mann, a writer I'd previously known almost nothing about. Toibin's writing is exquisite, the attention to detail a virtue, placing you exactly in the room with the characters. But I did struggle slightly, and that is because I just did not like the main character. When war comes, when a dilemma presents - when a child dies, for god's sake! - the man simply absents himself. And whilst Toibin's efforts to depict a complex, nuanced, difficult situation is laudable (far more laudable than his subject's behaviour!) it was not sufficient to convince me. I struggled therefore to care very much what happened to Mann, or his wife - whose motivations I likewise had issues with - and found myself, as Mann got older and frailer, partly wishing him to hurry up and die. This is not to say that the novel was lacking in emotion, or ability to affect. I was moved several times - by the plight of his children, by those of his mother, his brother, his brother's wife. Just never by the problems of Mann or his wife. So, in summary. This is a deeply accomplished piece of fiction. I had no problem finishing it, long as it was. Toibin is a hugely talented writer and I look forward keenly to his next work. But. On the tricky subject of sympathy, and full in the knowledge that not every character has to be loveable, or likeable, or anything short of despicable (how many villains are brilliantly compelling, after all!), I personally found there to be an issue.
Was this review helpful?
I knew nothing of the life of Thomas Mann before reading this book and I am aware that the Nobel prize winning author was a very private man. He did, however - if Colm Toibin is correct - lead a fascinating life and has a story worth telling beyond his novels. From his childhood in Lubeck and his relationships with his siblings to his eventual life in American, Mr Toibin takes us with him.

I’m not sure I would have picked up a biography of Thomas Mann although I have read a couple of his novels. I like Colm Toibin’s books and this is an excellent story well told. The insights of a life on the edge where the inner thoughts are recorded is beautifully done. Especially well captured is the relationship between Thomas Mann and his wife, Katia. Given his homosexual experiences, it seems unlikely that the marriage will succeed but they have six children and many adventures.

There is much here and the book is long because each of the children deserve a story of their own and Thomas and his competitive brother - also a writer - take a bit of time to describe. I think the book succeeds because of Mr Toibin’s excellent writing and the huge character and life of his well chosen subject. Having read this I am going back to reread Mann’s Magic Mountain and to read some of his other books.

I was given a copy of this book by Netgalley.
Was this review helpful?
I'm trying to find a positive, but struggling. This book disappoints on so many fronts, despite being set in the most fascinating eras of recent times when huge political, cultural and societal changes were taking place, especially in war-torn Europe.
I requested The Magician because of my interest in German literature, culture and history, and have read two of Mann's novels, but I could not engage with the story or the characters. The majority of the characters are spoilt, self-centred prigs with a toe-curling sense of entitlement, and very soon I realised I didn't care what happened to any of them. Perhaps that was Toibin's intention - showing shallowness behind the lofty intentions - but for me The Magician didn't read that way.
I was irritated by the constant name-dropping of authors, politicians etc. with the assumption that the reader was familiar with their importance in society at the time (perhaps a glossary with a few details might have been helpful to those with no knowledge of these years?). 
The pace of the novel is very uneven; one moment we're getting every second of a dull incident, the next we're cannoned years forward with little sense of what has happened in the meantime. It doesn't make for satisfying reading. The writing itself is often turgid and stilted, especially where dialogue between family members at home is concerned.
I have no issue with the blurring of fact and fiction in a novel. It's a valid and often very successful way of telling a story when we really cannot know what took place in private. I understand that as Mann recycled real-life experiences when writing his books, Toibin is doing the same with Mann's life and some of his own. However, The Magician simply doesn't work and it feels staid, dated and a waste of an opportunity.
I read to the end hoping for some magic to appear and make it feel worth my time, but there was no rabbit in the hat...
Was this review helpful?
The Magician is the story of Thomas Mann, author of Death in Venice amongst other famous  novels. The book starts with Mann as a child and the death of his father, and follows his life through his secretive life as a gay man to his marriage and rise of the Nazi regime in Germany.
I am a huge fan of Colm Toibin and his ability to find humour in the most desperate of situations and create characters the reader relates to and follows on their journey. I found this book slow and uninspiring but it won’t stop me seeking out Toibin’s next book.
Was this review helpful?
A fictionalised biography of the acclaimed German author Thomas Mann and chronicling his life and the major events of the 20th century world he lived through. A somewhat unemotional book this is very different to Colm Toibins previous novels I had enjoyed. It was interesting learning about Mann and his family, their tragedies and Mann's latent homosexuality that is dealt with in a gentle manber.
Was this review helpful?
The Magician spans the turmoil of twentieth century Europe following the life of German author Thomas Mann and his family. Toibin reimagines the everyday life of the Mann family exquisitely, providing the reader with a seat at the familial table as the years tumble and the world known disintegrates and reforms. Moving with the Mann family around Europe and ultimately to exile in America, Toibin weaves the creative process of book writing with the narrative of political change.

The work of Thomas Mann was unknown except by name to me prior to reading The Magician, but the warmth and life conjured by Toibin throughout the story will undoubtedly result in more interest in reading the original works. 

The rich lives lead by seemingly all members of the Mann family are at times unbelievable, but oh so captivating. Take the time to savour this beautiful book.
Was this review helpful?
I was drawn to read The Magician without knowing who Thomas Mann was (sorry!!). 
The story of his life and family is truly fascinating, while based on fact Colm Toibin adds depth and feeling to the story covering difficult issues they faced including homosexuality, anti Semitism and both World Wars.

A really great read regardless of whether you knew who Thomas Mann was.

I was given a copy of The Magician by NetGalley and the publishers in return for an unbiased review.
Was this review helpful?
What an absolutely stunning novel with a fascinating angle to Thomas Mann's life.  Colm Toibin's writing is, as always, exquisite, and I enjoyed every hour / day (it is a LONG book) in the company of his fictionalised versions of these characters.  When I started reading the book, I was in fact visiting Lübeck and wanted to tour the Mann house, but unfortunately, it was undergoing renovations and closed to the public. 
I am already making a list of people who will get a copy of this book for Christmas - it more than lived up to my (already high because.... Toibin!) expectations.
Was this review helpful?
Tóibín writes beautifully, drawing the reader into the story of Thomas Mann. This is a book immersed in German culture, literature, art and music, and follows Mann as he is shaped by his surroundings, his repressed sexuality and the turbulent history he lived through. 
While this is a fictionalised account of Thomas Mann’s life, this did have the feel of a non fiction book. I know nothing about Mann, and while this book has made me want to learn more, I felt at times Mann did feel a little mechanic, for lack of a better word - I would have liked his inner thoughts and feelings to be explored more.
Was this review helpful?
Drawn by the author's name and repute, rather than by the content, at first I really wasn't sure how much I would love this book. It wasn't long however before I found myself just keeping on reading, curioser and curioser about where it might lead. Based on a real life, it could only lead one way, of course, but how it takes you there is quietly gripping, creating an engagement with and concern for a man, a family, I have never had any previous interest in and shall never think of again. Now I know why Tóibín has such legions of fans.
Was this review helpful?
"The Magican" is the wonderful Colm Tóibín’s sensitive and captivating account of the real-life Nobel Prize winning author Thomas Mann. We meet Mann as a teenager in 1891 and follow the story of his life, through two world wars, various family triumphs and tragedies, and the episodes in his life that inspired his most celebrated works. 

The story is clearly fictionalised, allowing us an insight into the thoughts and feelings of Thomas and his family members. However, it is also meticulously researched, giving the reader a window into the real events, politics and tensions of the time, as seen through the eyes of Mann and those closest to him. The book is very lengthy, and deals with themes such as anti-Semitism, suicide, and the illegality of homosexuality at the time. Tóibín’s skills as an author, though, mean that the tale retains a deftness of touch that renders the work philosophical but not heavy-handed.

Although I had little prior knowledge of Thomas Mann or his work, I don’t believe these hampered my enjoyment of this fascinating story, and I would strongly recommend this book to any fans of Mann’s, or historical fiction more widely.

My thanks to the author, NetGalley, and the publisher for the arc to review.
Was this review helpful?
A highly accomplished and well researched fictional biography of the German novelist Thomas Mann.  Not only is it well written, it also takes the reader through the life events that inspired his storylines and shaped his work. It explored the struggles that Mann had with his sexuality in a way which was non-judgmental and objective and helps the reader better understand the man and the writer. The extended family - his mother, brother, children and in-laws - also featured in their varying degrees of damaged complexity and when I finished the novel, I felt I had learnt quite a lot about all of them but had also been entertained. Having only read one Thomas Mann novel myself (the Magic Mountain), I do feel compelled to search out some of the others as well as the works of his son and brother.

With thanks to the author, the publisher and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review
Was this review helpful?
This is a writer I have greatly enjoyed in the past. Nora Webster and Brooklyn were humorous, beautifully-observed and psychologically deep. Much of Toibin's skill comes from the vivid evocation of scene and setting through implication, through what is overheard or intuited. In this biographical novel of the writer Thomas Mann (author, as the book's cover reiterates, of Death in Venice) this style works well in the early scenes where Thomas is growing up, discovering his bisexuality but still marrying. But once he becomes a well-known figure with a bewilderingly intricate array of relatives, the reader struggles to maintain sympathy or interest. Events such as the Weimar inflation, Hitler's rise to power, the outbreak of World War 2, are described with the thoroughness of a conscientious biographer - we are told where Mann was at the time, and who with - but with none of the psychological acuteness, the significance of the minor detail, that I expect from Toibin. There is no sense that we are dealing with one of the leading intellectual novelists of the century. Mann makes rather simplistic remarks such as 'I won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I know what language Dante wrote in!' Early on, there are some enjoyable descriptions of Gustav Mahler at work conducting his Eighth Symphony, though I don't think it is quite accurate to say 'It was a sign of Mahler's fame and power that he could summon an orchestra and chorus of this size and scope' - the point about the Eighth is that it not just orchestra and chorus, because there are so many solo singers too. There is an enjoyable scene describing a visit to the beach at Venice where Visconti's excellent film serves as a reference point.  I feel that Toibin's success in previous books is due to close observation of characters who express themselves through feelings rather than thoughts, but here this approach is sadly out of keeping with the subject. I can recommend the first third of the book but I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the rest of it.
Was this review helpful?