‘The Magician’ is infused with the larger issues of the 20th century

“The Magician,” by Colm Toibin. (Scribner/TNS)

“The Magician” by Colm Toibin; Scribner (512 pages, $28)

In the manner of “The Master,” his celebrated 2004 novel about Henry James, Colm Toibin has produced a fictional account of German writer and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann — the Magician, as Mann’s children sometimes called him. The novel at first seems curiously flat, biographical reportage with dialogue often sounding like stiff translations from the German; but little by little the inexorably accumulating details make Toibin’s Mann more interesting than the mere facts of his admittedly larger-than-life story.

Though following the contours of an actual life might give Toibin a pass on plot, events conspire to invest this life with much of the drama of the 20th century’s most pressing social, cultural and political questions. While much of “The Magician” is taken up with the doings (and undoing) of Mann’s remarkable family — the artistic accomplishments, anti-Nazi activism, sexual adventures, addictions and suicides — the book gets its momentum and heft from the way these experiences intersect with the larger world, in particular, the way Toibin has Mann making sense of them, in his life and in his art.

The interior drama, like James’ in “The Master,” often involves homosexual feelings expressed almost solely in fiction, and then in transcendent form, as in Mann’s best-known novella, “Death in Venice.” And just as that story of an older man’s obsession reflects Mann’s own interest in a young boy on holiday, in Toibin’s novel Mann’s other works are clearly linked to his life — from the bourgeois family in “Buddenbrooks” and the sojourn at a sanatorium in “The Magic Mountain” to “Doctor Faustus,” with its character modeled on composer Arnold Schoenberg and plot drawn from Mann’s beloved Goethe.

It is when these connections become at once more intimate and abstract that “The Magician” feels, oddly, more real. When it comes to World War II and the depredations of the Nazis, all we’ve read about this man prepares us for a deep and nuanced vision of Germany moving via culture and corruption from old world to new, with Thomas Mann as both its observer and its embodiment.

Listening to his son’s quartet play the Beethoven Opus 132, he wonders, “If music could evoke feelings that allowed for chaos as much as order or resolution ... then what would the music that led to the German catastrophe sound like? ... (It) would need a music not only somber but slippery and ambiguous, with a parody of seriousness, alert to the idea that it was not only desire for territory or riches that gave rise to this mockery of culture that was Germany now. It was the very culture itself, he thought, the actual culture that had formed him and people like him, that contained the seeds of its own destruction.”

And yet, “While an American citizen,” he says late in life, having moved across Europe and America and finally back to Switzerland, “I remain a German writer, faithful to the German language, which is my true home.”

Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing in Cornucopia, Wisc.

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