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Sep 16, 2021
We’re sorry, this service is currently unavailable. Please try again later. Dismiss By Evelyn Juers Normal text size Picador, $34.99 The German writer Thomas Mann is an enigma. He and his work, together, seem to conceal hidden meanings and unless the reader – especially of his epic novels – makes an effort to engage with this hide and seek, his books can look like a difficult mass of words. For decades this was exacerbated by Helen Lowe-Porter’s terrible translations into English. Luckily the translator John Edwin Woods came along, to reveal the humour, intelligence, and richly nuanced beauty – George Steiner called it “luminous elegance” – of Mann’s prose. Thomas Mann, the subject of Colm Toibin’s latest novel, seen in 1916 a colourised photograph. Credit: Mann created worlds that take hold of us. His children called him The Magician, which also suits him for the games of concealment – syntactic, didactic, symbolic, comedic – that are part of his aesthetic. One of his favourite concepts, he once said, was attenuation. In stories, music, life and love, he relished those hovering moments when something is anticipated but weakened from waiting, from being withheld, the (somehow exquisite) fear of failure. As readers, we are curious about his mix of Hanseatic and Brazilian heritage. Puzzled by his princely bearing and love of luxury. By the fact that he needed to socialise and be recognised, as much as he needed to be left alone in his study. Intrigued by his wife Katia Pringsheim, with whom he had six children, and that their marriage was not upset by the homoerotic undertow of his desires. We pay close attention to the precariousness of his relationships with his family, the suicides of his two sisters and two of his sons, one of whom killed himself after reading his father’s diaries. Credit: Addressing these quandaries, there are dozens of Mann biographies, a slew of writings about and by members of his large family, down to the grandchildren. There are recordings, documentaries and films. Like an oracle, his work is mined for significance by scholars. More lightly, at the Buddenbrookhaus in Lubeck, his home town, you pay an entry fee, wander through empty rooms, entertain ghosts; the shop sells his favourite brand of cigar. Nearby at Niederegger’s cafe, you treat yourself to marzipan cake and hot chocolate with whipped cream, as he did. The mere thought of whipped cream (he confessed in his diaries) always made him purr. In December 1929 at Stockholm’s Concert Hall, Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Aged 54, he was the author of essays, stories and novellas, including Death in Venice, and two impressive novels, Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain. The Nobel citation stressed that the prize was primarily for Buddenbrooks. It is an autobiographical novel about a family in decline. He wrote to a friend, “I am not the kind of person who lets something like Stockholm go to his head ... everything has remained the same ... work keeps one modest”. Nothing remained the same. In 1934 his brother, the writer Heinrich Mann, urged him to use his Nobel Laureate status to lobby for the Nobel Peace Prize to go to the journalist Carl von Ossietzky, who opposed Hitler and was imprisoned and tortured. Thomas Mann added his name to a petition of notables that included Albert Einstein, and Ossietzky (in absentia, and already broken) was given the prize “for his burning love for freedom of thought and expression and his valuable contribution to the cause of peace”. Advertisement From 1933, Thomas Mann lived in exile, where he clung sullenly to the precious notion of German culture. His family kept prodding him to denounce the Nazis. In 1936 he took the plunge and spoke out against anti-Semitism. His criticism of Hitler’s regime gathered force. The BBC broadcast his speeches into Germany where those found listening were shot or arrested. After the war, as an American citizen, he protested against McCarthyism. He died in Switzerland in 1955. If there are many ways to characterise Thomas Mann, and if everything has already been said, this has not stopped Colm Toibin from retelling the whole complex story from his own perspective in The Magician. Does Toibin feel that Mann is being forgotten? That he needs to be reimagined for a new generation of readers? Is his book a rescue mission? Colm Toibin tells the complex story of Thomas Mann from his own perspective in The Magician. Credit:Joshua Bright Toibin first read Mann’s work as a teenager. He knows his books and biographies thoroughly and has applied this large knowledge in a number of excellent essays and reviews. In 1996 in The London Review of Books, for example, he tackled three biographies of Mann, by Anthony Heilbut, Ronald Hayman, and Donald Prater. The piece began, “All his life he kept his distance. At readings and concerts he would notice a young man, gaze at him, make his presence felt and understood, and later, in the semi-privacy of his diaries, record the moment.” Toibin agrees with Heilbut, that not only in the diaries but in all his work, Mann is “steeped in the homoerotic, his major characters are shaped by their uneasy and ambiguous homosexuality”. Now, in his novel, it is as if Toibin has had enough of Mann being somewhat prissy about his sexuality. He highlights Mann’s homosexual desire, undresses him, he even allows him a few fictional affairs. I am always amazed by the audacity of biographical and historical novelists to change the script like that. The Magician must be turning in his grave. Loading He gave us his books, and arguably, his diaries are his greatest work. He was his own spokesman. At best, Toibin’s novel is an easy-to-read fictional account of Mann’s personal and creative life, but it is no literary match. It also lacks the spirit of Toibin’s own greatest achievements, The Master, his novel about Henry James, and The Heather Blazing. Evelyn Juers is the author of House of Exile: The Lives and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann (2008), The Recluse (2012), and The Dancer (2021). The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from books editor Jason Steger. Get it delivered every Friday . Save
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