The Magician, by Colm Tóibín, Viking, 448 pp, £14.95, ISBN: 978-0241004623
In October 1914 a group of ninety-three prominent German scientists, writers and academics, stung by British propaganda highlighting alleged atrocities committed by the imperial army during its invasion and occupation of Belgium, responded with an open letter in defence of the Fatherland and its army’s conduct of the war. The manifesto, An die Kulturwelt (To the Civilised World), published in ten languages, responded to a number of points of accusation, arguing that Germany never had any aggressive intent but war had been forced upon it; that its violation of Belgium’s neutrality was simply a pre-emptive response to Allied plans to do the same; that the execution, and extra-judicial killing, of civilians there had arisen only after attacks by guerrilla fighters on the German army: it was a travesty, the intellectuals argued, to portray the Germans as criminals merely “for having justly punished these assassins for their wicked deeds”. The infamous destruction of the university library of Leuven, with the loss of 230,000 volumes, including 750 medieval manuscripts and more than a thousand incunabula, was, the ninety-three insisted, also provoked by an attack by civilians, after which “our troops with aching hearts were obliged to fire a part of the town as a punishment”. There had been no violation of international law by Germany, in contrast to the behaviour of “wild Russian troops” on the eastern front. Allied charges of barbarism indeed smacked of the hypocritical, for “[t]hose who have allied themselves with Russians and Serbians, and present such a shameful scene to the world as that of inciting Mongolians and negroes against the white race, have no right whatever to call themselves upholders of civilization”. “Have faith in us!” the manifesto concluded. “Believe, that we shall carry on this war to the end as a civilized nation, to whom the legacy of a Goethe, a Beethoven, and a Kant is just as sacred as its own hearths and homes.”
Although Thomas Mann, the subject of Colm Tóibín’s new biographical novel, did not sign the manifesto of the ninety-three, one can be fairly sure that, unlike his elder brother ‑ and fellow novelist ‑ Heinrich, a man of the left and at this time a pacifist, he would have endorsed almost all of its arguments. Mann in fact wrote repeatedly on the subject of the war, publishing, during the course of the conflict, three essays defending Germany’s cause, and in 1918 a personal manifesto, Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (Considerations of an Unpolitical Man). What Mann means here by unpolitical requires some clarification. It is not that party politics does not interest him but rather that he sees no role for it in society, since Germany has already reached its spiritual apex in the unitary state forged by Bismarck and ruled by the Kaiser: further tinkering, further public chattering, further politicking, is neither necessary nor desirable. Democracy as commonly understood is not really, it seems, a German thing. “Germanness” (Deutschtum) – has always stood out against the poisonous foreign influences of the Roman Catholic, Western and “literary” world. Against the French concept of civilisation it has posed the superior German category of Kultur. Mann summons Nietzsche to the colours: “The enormous manliness of his soul, his antifeminism and rejection of democracy. What could be more German? What could be more German than his contempt for ‘modern ideas’, the ‘ideas of the eighteenth century’, ‘French ideas’, whose English origin he understands, the French being merely their apes …”
Since Colm Tóibín in The Magician is writing a novel rather than a historical biography he does not extensively quote from or even summarise Mann’s writings on Germany at this relatively early stage of his intellectual development. Instead he dramatises them, a process in which perhaps a little that is interesting is lost – a sense of the sheer floridity of his subject’s political opinions – but of course much more is gained in keeping the reader on side.
It is June 1914 and the Mann family is staying at its holiday home in Bad Tölz on the Isar river in Bavaria when news comes through of the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand. As Thomas collects his newspapers each day he has intermittent conversations with the town newsagent, Herr Gähler, an outspoken patriot who “combine[s] opinions he had just read hours before with prejudices of his own”. Mann is slightly less keen on war (a “short, sharp war”) than is Gähler, but he believes that Germany’s enemies are spoiling for a fight and thus it may not be possible to avoid it. He does not mention his conversations with the newsagent to his wife, Katia: “He knew that she did not want any talk of war in the house.” But on the evening after one of these exchanges he enters his study and experiences something in the nature of an epiphany.
Every word in every book on these shelves was, he realized, a German word. Unlike [his brother] Heinrich, he had never learned French or Italian. He could read simple English but his ability to speak the language was rudimentary.
He takes down books by Goethe, Heine, Hölderlin, Platen, Novalis:
It would not be hard to destroy all this. Germany, despite the strength of its military, he thought, was fragile … And it was surrounded now, isolated and vulnerable, by countries with which it had nothing in common.
Moving into the drawing room he picks up a phonograph record and plays an aria from – who else? – Wagner.
It was the yearning in the voice that made him think about what could now so easily be lost. And a feeling, too, of a striving towards light or knowledge in what Wagner had written, something tentative and unsure, but focused too, reaching out into the spirit …
The other countries hated Germany and wanted it defeated. That would be the cause of war, he thought. And Germany had become powerful not only in its military might and its industry but in its deepening sense of its own soul, the intensity of its sombre self-interrogation. He listened to the aria conclude and saw that no one outside Germany would ever understand what it meant to be in this room now and what strength and solace this music gave to those under its spell.
The politico-historical thread which forms a large part of the narrative of The Magician is in a sense the story of Mann’s gradual unlearning of the insights about his country and its culture that came to him so clearly on that evening in Bad Tölz. The escape from enchantment (Entzauberung) was to be a long and painful process for the novelist ‑ and of course even more so for others. Perhaps Mann’s intellectual path might have been slightly eased had he relied less completely on Wagner, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer for his sense of Germanness and engaged more with the sceptical Heine; or if he had striven towards the light of the greatest of German composers, Salzburg’s Wolfgang Amadeus. But perhaps these two lively spirits had black marks against them, Heinrich Heine a Jew who exiled himself to Paris, Mozart not just a Roman Catholic but a freemason.
The Magician’s narrative runs on the separate but frequently interlocking strands of political history, family history and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the history of Mann’s writing career. Coming from a wealthy mercantile family which made its fortune in the north German Hanseatic town of Lübeck, he was largely locked out of his family’s wealth on his father’s death but significantly improved his personal financial position when he married Katia Pringsheim, the daughter of an academically distinguished and immensely wealthy Munich family of Jewish origin. He also began to earn significant income from his writings.
In 1929 Mann’s son Golo (Angelus), in Tóibín’s narrative, warns his father of the growing threat of the national socialists. “‘They have no support,’ Thomas said.” Golo replies that their support is growing; they are contesting elections but also running a powerful and dangerous private army. But for Thomas the Nazis are almost too ridiculously thuggish, too proletarian, for him to believe they will ever count:
He did not think for a moment that the Nazis would ever take power. Some days they were merely a nuisance, representing a coarseness that was entering every aspect of life. Waiters were not as polite in restaurants as they used to be. The staff in the bookshops he favoured were not as compliant. Katia complained much more about finding suitable household help. The post, he was sure, was slower.
In 1929, as he delivers well-attended lectures across Germany to anxious liberals in the wake of winning the Nobel prize for literature, he is convinced that these people, his readers, depend on him as someone who can still be admired, whose novels are read all over the world and who in Germany “[stands] above the fray”. A year later, following an election in which the Nazi party (NSDAP) increases its representation in the Reichstag from twelve to 107 deputies, Mann is shouted down by organised bands of hooligans at a public lecture in Berlin.
Thomas understood that he would never be able to speak in Germany again without fear of a repetition as long as the Nazis were in the ascendant. No one who wished to hear him would deem it safe to attend one of his events. He agreed to have his speech printed and was pleased that it went into three editions, but knew that it made no difference.
The desperate struggle that is happening in Germany, it is becoming clear, is inadequately expressed by the word “fray”, and it is impossible to any longer stand above or aside from it. After Hitler’s accession to the chancellery in 1933, and the exile of Mann and his family to, successively, Switzerland, France and the United States, he will come to realise that he has long underestimated the Nazis, and perhaps even misread the German soul.
Colm Tóibín presents us with one account of Mann’s gradual progress away from German nationalism. It might not be the last word on what seems to have been a complex and tortured journey, but it functions well in the context of the demands of a novel, where the shifts in perspective must be presented dramatically and are often portrayed through Thomas’s interactions with others, principally members of his large and turbulent family. First and most important of these is his wife, Katia Pringsheim, who is deeply suspicious of his friendship with the nationalist (and later Nazi) writer Ernst Bertram. On the outbreak of the First World War Katia asks her husband to consider how they would feel if their two boys, Klaus and Golo, were old enough to be conscripted, “and we were waiting here each day for news of them”: “And all because of some idea.”
The doings of the Mann family provide much of the necessary human interest of The Magician. Highly gifted and highly-strung, they are a problem for Thomas from the start, but all of them, and in particular the eldest pair, Erika and Klaus, have the function, along with his brother/rival Heinrich, of slowly pulling him towards a braver, more radical opposition to Nazism. Thomas, like his friend Bertram, is homosexual, but unlike Bertram he largely corrals his orientation into occasional deeply felt but unconsummated crushes on handsome young men. He has opted, in his marriage to Katia, for a life that is regular, materially comfortable and ordentlich, a life that will allow him to work. Both generations of the Manns are entitled, but in different ways: the parents know what is due to them as members of the highest echelon of the bourgeoisie: they are firm with servants, look down on Heinrich’s good-hearted but somewhat racy wife and even in their dramatic escape from fascist Europe manage to jump the queue. Erika and Klaus are brilliant creatures, but lack the discipline of their father, who it must be said is endlessly patient with their wayward behaviour. And in spite of their constant attacks on his political timidity, they can always rely on him to bail them out financially. “If I read any more interviews with Erika,” an exasperated Katia says at one point “I shall release her abject letters begging for money to the press.” In exile the siblings’ radical antics fail to charm conservative America and their literary and artistic achievements are just not quite enough to compensate:
The freedoms they supported, the vehemence of their politics, would be frowned upon.
They were in their thirties now. They could no longer be written about as the fiercely talented young Manns, but rather as people who had failed to make a substantial mark on the world, who wanted the world to pay them a homage that they did not quite merit.
In America, Thomas Mann moved from cold Princeton to sunny California, and then in his final years to Switzerland, but he never returned to live in Germany. He did visit again in 1949 to celebrate the two-hundredth centenary of the birth of Goethe, when he travelled to Weimar in the East as well as Frankfurt in the West, resisting huge pressure from “the free world” to boycott the German Democratic Republic. It was not just in totalitarian states, it seemed, that governments wished to tell artists what they could and could not do.
The third strand of Tóibín’s narrative concerns Mann’s work, and the major novels and novellas each have a walk-on part. Buddenbrooks is of course based on his childhood in Lübeck and the business dealings of his sturdy and hard-working Protestant ancestors. Katia’s prolonged visit to a sanatorium in Switzerland provides the idea for The Magic Mountain, while we are less than surprised to discover that on a sojourn in a hotel on the Lido of Venice in 1911, Mann encounters a beautiful Polish boy with blond curls, wearing an English sailor suit. Sixty years later, Björn Andrésen will enthral and confound an ailing Dirk Bogarde.
Why is the novel called The Magician? Well his previous, enormously accomplished and successful biographical novel based on Henry James was called The Master, so one can certainly understand the title’s appeal to the marketing folk. But what else? Thomas Mann apparently performed little conjuring tricks for his children when they were young and at a later stage they referred to him –is this possibly a little less believable? – as “the magician”. As Klaus and Erika Mann achieved a reputation – or notoriety – in their own right a cartoon appeared showing the young Klaus saying to his father: “I’m told, Papa, that the son of a genius is never a genius himself. Therefore you can’t be a genius!”
But was Mann a genius ‑ or even a magician? Curiously, the latter word does not have an altogether positive resonance in his published work: in the 1929 novella Mario and the Magician, the magician, a cheap but sinister village hall hypnotist who cruelly manipulates his uneducated audience, is widely interpreted as being an allegorical stand-in for Mussolini. One of my favourite quotations about the business of writing, which is attributed to Mann, is: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” The elusive Thomas in The Magician is often seen retreating alone to his study, to sit and think in “the hard and hidden place where a subject was lured towards the light”. This, I suspect, is the kind of writer that he was: one who worked over and over on his ideas and his sentences until they eventually came out to his satisfaction. It is also, quite obviously, the kind of writer Colm Tóibín is. With Thomas Mann and his family he has chosen a fascinating subject, and he has delivered a beautifully crafted story, shaped by informed historical judgment, human insight and frequent quiet humour, its many pleasures unobtrusively achieved yet cumulatively deeply impressive. I do not know if we can call him a magician, but I think we can say he is a master.
Enda O’Doherty is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.