In August 1939, Thomas Mann was in Sweden, staying in a hotel by the sea. The mornings, as always, were devoted to his writing. After lunch with his family, he would go for a walk on the beach in the afternoon.
Most of the hotel guests gathered early in the lobby to await the arrival of foreign newspapers, but the Manns didn’t bother. They didn’t think much about international affairs. As Colm Tóibín describes it in this compelling fictional biography, it was a calm and adrift time. Then one morning, Katia Mann broke the ban on molesting her husband at work. She went to his room to tell him that war had broken out.
Days of suspense followed. Telegrams. Anxiety. Last minute rescue when they found their place on a plane chartered by the Swedish authorities to evacuate foreign nationals. As they flew low through German airspace, Thomas … person emphatically not grateful in his homeland since he had fled six years earlier – he was shaking.
In London there was a problem. Mann was working on Lotte in Weimar, his novel about Goethe. Among his papers was a sketch of a dining room, with names scrawled around the table: just the kind of thing, the customs officer thought, that a spy might carry. Mann tried to explain. This was an imaginary table plan, an aid to his fabrication of an imaginary conversation that, he hoped, would tell the reader something real about another writer who had died a century earlier. Puzzled by the apparent futility of the project, the customs officer waved him through.
As a subject, as an author. This is the second time that Tóibín has used fiction to imagine his way into the mind of a novelist from the past. In 2004 Teacher He took his readers inside Henry James. Now he has chosen Mann. Both men wrote indirectly about homosexual desire without publicly acknowledging it in themselves. Both spent much of their lives outside their home countries. They both had older brothers who were also distinguished authors (William James, Heinrich Mann) with whom they had complex and competitive relationships. Both were cosmopolitan, with social connections and intellectual interests that allowed them to see beyond the island and class worlds they described.
Another thing they had in common was a taste for strenuous reasoning and very long sentences. This is where Tóibín’s interest in them becomes most surprising. Tóibín’s own prose may be Olympian in its cool simplicity, but it is simple. His limpid stories and novels, like Brooklyn, whose emotional power depends largely on the modesty of his style, could hardly be more different from James’s emotionally and linguistically elaborate creations, or Mann’s turbulent tone. Dr. Faust or the labyrinthine meditations of The Magic Mountain. But it is possible to admire the great predecessors without precisely imitating them. On The magician Tóibín has Mann reflect, after winning his Nobel Prize in 1929, that his literary tone – “heavy, ceremonious, civilized” – identifies him as precisely what newly promoted Nazis detest most. A Mandarin style, a reserved attitude, a dislike for political passion – these are quiet attributes, without ostentation, but, as Tóibín persuasively suggests, they must be treasured as bulwarks against the dream of reason and the monsters it generates.
The magician it is above all a portrait of the artist as a family man; there is comparatively little in it about Mann’s development as a writer or about his status in the literary world. Rather, it places you at the center of a panoramic view of the German cultural scene of the early 20th century. Throughout his adult life, Mann did his best to isolate himself from that scene, turbulent and threatening as it was, but despite all the rigor with which he forbade people to disturb him in his studio, the outside world He kept coming in, most of the time given access by the antics and tribulations of his close relatives.
Like anyone who has read Buddenbrooks she could guess, Mann came from a line of successful Hanseatic merchants. His mother was Brazilian, an exotic figure in sober, bourgeois Lübeck. A widow, she moved with her family to Munich, where she and her children found a society less attached to conventions and more risky and exciting. Thomas was fascinated by the Pringsheim family: rich, bohemian, Wagner-worshiper, Jewish. He wooed Katia, the daughter of the house, attracted mainly, in Tóibín’s story, by her provocatively flirtatious relationship with her twin brother. He wrote a story in which the Pringsheim brothers merge with Wagner’s incestuous Siegfried and Sieglinde. Seemingly unflappable, in 1905 Katia accepted his marriage proposal. Six children followed.
Buddenbrooks it was his first novel, and it was a tremendous success. He was soon famous and wealthy, but the family he presided over was not as solidly well established as the great house he built seemed to suggest. His two sisters committed suicide. His two oldest children, Erika and Klaus, were quirky and unconventional: promiscuous bisexual, precociously talented as actors and writers, but too politically reckless and financially irresponsible to make a career out of themselves. There were drugs. There were scandals. Finally, there was another more devastating suicide, that of Klaus, which Tóibín presents as a test of Mann’s humanity, a test that fails when he chooses to continue his lecture tour rather than attend his son’s funeral. And repeatedly there were young people whom the Mann of Tóibín looks at with such longing, without ever touching them, as the Aschenbach of Mann looks at Tadzio in Death in venice. Katia sees him and says nothing. Their marriage is strong, but never strong enough.
The cast of Tóibín is wide and there are gleaming vignettes. Erika Mann marries WH Auden, not because of sex (they are both gay) but because of a British passport; In a wonderfully comical scene, Tóibín summons Auden by being acidly bitch over Virginia Woolf. There is a memorably pointed account of Alma Mahler’s performance as great lady in exile. But always behind the parade of characters hides the dark background of the decline and fall of Germany and its subsequent division. Tóibín expertly balances the public and the private, and follows Mann’s trajectory from patriotism to disillusionment with non-judgmental delicacy.
In 1914 Tóibín makes rumors of war manifest like the rude rhymes that Mann’s sons sing. “We hate Johnny Russia with his big smelly farts … We hate the English with their cold, cold hearts.” He imagines Mann, on the eve of the war, alone in his opulently furnished and equipped new home, reading German poetry and listening to German music, thinking how much he treasures Germany’s’ deepening sense of his own soul, the intensity of his soul. grim personality. interrogation”.
The First World War, however, appalled and confused him. Write a nationalist essay that you later regret. The Munich revolution of 1918 makes it a target. Ernst Toller, the playwright turned revolutionary leader, saves him from summary execution, whom he does not like. When Hitler comes to power in 1933, Mann, with his Jewish wife, his socialist brother Heinrich, and their openly dissident children, is scarred. He is no longer impressed by high Teutonic seriousness.
First he escapes to Switzerland, advancing towards the south of France, where he frequents the cafes where other German exiles gather – social democrats fighting with communists – and finally to the United States. Watch WWII from transatlantic safety and have enlightening encounters with the powerful. Tóibín’s chilling account of his conversation with the financier and newspaper owner Eugene Meyer is masterful. Meyer’s formidable wife, journalist and art collector Agnes Meyer, has brought Mann and part of his family to the United States. Now he is required to pay for his freedom. Meyer conveys a message emanating, though no names are mentioned, from President Roosevelt. Mann has been publicly calling on the United States to intervene in Europe. Now he is told that the United States will enter the war, but in due course. “Do you want me to be quiet?” Mann asks. “They want it to become part of the strategy,” Meyer says. Mann wonders if “Eugene dictated the editorials of the Washington Post in the same monotonous tone that he uses now.” Still impassive, Meyer tells Mann that if he cooperates, he could be the next German head of state. After their talk, Mann, shocked, decides to move to California, away from the center of power.
When he revisits postwar Germany, he is repulsed by the machinations of the East and the West alike, and each bloc tries to turn a visit that was intended to be a celebration of harmony into propagandist capital. Politics have failed Mann and he turns his back on them. Tóibín grants him one last infatuation not consummated by a complacent waiter, and then leaves him, an old man ready for death, thinking of a Germanic beauty that transcends ideological divisions, in Buxtehude and Bach.
This is an enormously ambitious book, in which the intimate and the transcendental are exquisitely balanced. It is the story of a man who spent most of his adult life behind a desk or taking quiet postprandial walks with his wife. From this sedentary existence, Tóibín has made an epic.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism