Irish novelist Colm Tóibín has won the £30,000 Rathbones Folio prize for The Magician, a fictionalized biography of the writer Thomas Mann. It follows the life of the German Nobel winner, whose works include Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain, against the backdrop of Europe’s turmoil in the first half of the 20th century.
Like his 2004 novel about Henry James, The Master, this book uses fiction to imagine the mind of a writer from the past. Guardian reviewer Lucy Hughes-Hallett called it “an enormously ambitious book, one in which the intimate and the momentous are exquisitely balanced.”
A statement from this year’s judges, Tessa Hadley, William Atkins and Rachel Long, called The Magician “a capacious, generous, ambitious novel, taking in a great sweep of 20th-century history, yet rooted in the intimate detail of one man’s private life ”.
Long added that, after reading 80 books during the judging process, Tóibín’s novel made her “fall in love with reading all over again”.
Tóibín had written four chapters of The Magician when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. Six months of chemotherapy followed. “I knew that if the cancer came back, the chances of writing the book were zero,” he said. “Once I could start working again, I worked really hard and really fast.”
Only when the novel was complete would he worry about his health, he decided. “Anyway, I finished it,” he said. The cancer has not returned.
The Rathbones Folio prize was set up after the 2011 Man Booker prize judges attracted controversy for praising books with “readability” that “zip along”. The new prize would aim, said literary agent Andrew Kidd who came up with the idea, to bring literary gems to as wide a public as possible. Unlike the Booker, it considers nonfiction and poetry as well as fiction, and all the books considered for the prize are selected by an academy of peers, with judges chosen from that academy. Previous winners include George Saunders for short stories, Tenth of December, and Raymond Antrobus for his debut poetry collection The Perseverance. Last year’s winner was Carmen Maria Machado for her memoir of her In the Dream House.
Tóibín has been shortlisted for the prize once before, and for the Booker three times. Winning the Rathbones Folio for The Magician feels “important and gratifying”, he said.
“It was a difficult book to write. Researching it took 15 years, but the task was to make it read as the story of a family in a turbulent time rather than a piece of historical research.”
Having risen to the top of a shortlist that included Booker winner The Promise by Damon Galgut, Tóibín said it was “a surprise” to win. He has no idea what he’ll do with the prize money yet, and is currently busy teaching at New York’s Columbia University. In May, he plans to continue work on a new book that is a “kind of sequel to [his much-loved 2009 novel] Brooklyn.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism