Colm Tóibín, one of Ireland’s greatest living writers, spoke about his latest novel, ‘The Magician’, to LitFest audiences on Saturday October 2. The novel is a fictionalised biography of the German writer and 1929 Nobel winner, Thomas Mann. It charts the whole of Mann’s life, his childhood, writing, fame, marriage, family, exile and his homosexuality which he kept hidden – all set against a backdrop of the major historical events of the early twentieth century. ‘The Magician’ has echoes of Tóibín’s 2004 novel ‘The Master’ which is about Henry James.
Tóibín spoke of the challenges of fictionalising a real life character. “I aim to dramatise the story and give people a sense of feeling, of seeing the world through Thomas Mann’s eyes without admiring or liking him. I’m trying to build up third person intimate – not empathy or sympathy. The reader is in him in some way that works only in fiction. You move out from yourself to become someone else. I use facts to build a structure. I’m not interested in giving you information but in emotional engagement.”
There was, says Tóibín, no alternative but to focus on the whole of Mann’s life from Lübeck in 1891 to Los Angeles in 1950. “In order to understand one thing you have to have the scene before. Mann was an immense talent. His first novel, ‘Buddenbrooks’, based on his own family, was finished when he was only 25.”
Tóibín is not interested in dealing with the philosophical issues Mann presents in his later books such as ‘The Magic Mountain’. “I’m not dealing with the secret business of him constructing a novel. That’s taken as given. What happens afterwards is what I use.”
A difficult problem to be overcome was how to convey the important historical backdrop such as the changes in German society and the rise of Hitler without just inserting a passage of factual writing. Instead Tóibín finds inventive ways of conveying these events through the characters’ dialogue. “For example I have Mann’s third child noticing things in the newspapers about Hitler and he comments on this to his father. I ask myself the question – what can I do to dramatise this rather than the information being conveyed like the pages of a history book.”
‘The Magician’ is also, says Tóibín, “an exercise in playfulness, getting something that did occur and building on it.” Based on a Time Magazine photo showing W. H. Auden at lunch with the Manns, Tóibín has Auden making sarcastic remarks about Virginia Woolf. “After a fact my mind is at play. I let my mind wander and I’m able to create dialogue that is playful and very modern, not Germanic or Thomas Mann’s dialogue. I’m playing with ideas.”
Thomas Mann uses many of his own experiences in his novels. Tóibín told the audience, “No matter what you do parts of your own life get into your fiction…In 1911 the Manns went to Venice and stayed in the hotel which is in “Death in Venice’. Thomas Mann looks at the young boy on the beach. People thought the novel was about decay but it was his own story. He kept his desires to himself but was very explicit in ‘Death in Venice’.”
After this far-reaching epic novel what is Tóibín working on next? His first collection of poems is being published in April 2022 and he’s looking forward to giving readings. He’s also writing a sequel to ‘Brooklyn’. “I’m back in my comfort zone with my people who come from my town. Some would say I should never have left it in the first place.”
Marlborough.news would beg to differ!