An in-depth portrait of a writer and his family.
Thomas Mann is a Nobel Prize winning German author, known for his expressive and controversial writings. Tóibín tackles Mann's complicated family life in the midst of the turmoil of Germany (and the world) in the early to mid twentieth century. From Mann's early childhood to the end of his life, this novel spans generations.
As always, I want to put a disclaimer that this book touches on sexuality, Lolita-esque age gaps, suicidality, and mental health. None of these will be touched on in any detail in this review, but I want to include a warning before you pick up the book
Here's the thing, you always know that you are going to get a beautifully written book when you read Tóibín. No matter his topic, he brings depth and life to all of his topics. Unfortunately, in this case, the best portions of the book are when Tóibín writes about the political and social upheaval in Germany. You can feel the tension in the writing as though you are living in Munich during the 1918 revolution or walking through the streets of a destroyed city post World War II. These portions keep the story moving which is desperately needed when you are digging through a 500+ page book. For me, these sections were the things that kept me moving through.
Thomas Mann is an author that I have heard about, but never read which means that I came into this book with zero context which I find to be really helpful when reading a fictionalized account of someone. You have less to compare to the "facts" of history and it's often easier to embrace the story. The Magician is meant to be a sweeping book that offers a glimpse into the mind and life of Mann. At times, it does feel like a glimpse into his world, but more often than not, it simply reads a biography of Mann. We rarely get an intimate portrait, he remains enigmatic and stoic in a way that lacks connection to the reader. The moments that come through the most clearly - his confusion over his sexuality and the autobiographical aspects of his writings - are straight from his diaries. Nothing about Mann in this novel feels groundbreaking. Again, it felt more like a biography than a novel in which we are hoping to gain some sort of insight into the man himself.
Now, I totally get that it feels like I am not liking this novel, but the fact is there are pieces that I really loved. As I mentioned, Tóibín's depiction of the political and social climate in Europe is haunting and so beautiful. It probably helps that is the period of history that I actually study, so I have a special place in my heart for it. However, it is accurate, beautiful, and so well done. The other piece that I enjoyed so much is the generational aspect of the story. The Mann family is absolutely fascinating. We begin with Thomas's mother, Júlia da Silva Bruhns, a Brazilian transplant married to his senator father. The portrait of Julia through Mann's (and subsequently Tóibín's) eyes is so compelling. She's both vibrant and out of place in a rigid society. We then have Mann's complex relationships with his siblings - Heinrich, Julia, Carla, and Viktor. These are vibrant and the dynamics are ever-shifting just like in a real family. The relationships really bring some of the best moments of the books, but it's almost always when we are with those characters alone and not with Mann. It really feels like, as a reader, while Mann's family is fascinating, that he may not have been the perspective to stick with to tell the story.
Final note, I did really appreciate the way that Tóibín addresses and navigates the challenges of Mann's homosexuality. Particularly taken in the context of the changing social mores of German society. When Mann is a young adult, his homosexuality is not an accepted form of life. However, in the aftermath of the First World War, that really shifted in Germany, particularly in Berlin. We get to see the comparison of Mann's repressed sexuality versus the open lifestyle of his children, Klaus and Erika, who live their life with such freedom. If I could just have a book on the children of Thomas Mann, I would read it because they were an insanely talented and diverse group.
Bottom line, if you are a fan of Tóibín then it falls very much in line with his other work. The writing is beautiful, the topics are interesting, but the execution is slightly flawed. A solid book that didn't grab me completely, but was still enjoyable.
The Magician is available September 7, 2021 at a bookstore near you! Thank you so much to #NetGalley and Scribner for the early access to this book in exchange for my honest review.