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The Magician

Reviewed by Helen’s Reads

The Magician is a fictionalised biography of the German-born, Nobel award winning writer Thomas Mann. Prior to reading this novel I had never read any of Thomas Mann’s work. I was aware that he had written Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain, though I knew little about his life story other than the barest of facts, but Toibin’s novel provides a fantastic overview of Mann’s life and times, and is clearly impeccably researched.

The novel has a sweeping arc, covering, as it does, the period 1891 to 1955, and offers the reader both a literary family saga and an overview of an incredibly turbulent swathe of history.

As I read the book I was amazed at the times which Mann and his family lived through, and how deeply events impacted upon them. With its roots in Lubeck and Bavaria, the family was ultimately forced to flee their homeland by the Nazis, and went on to live in Switzerland, Princeton, California and then Switzerland again. Apart from a brief visit to Germany on a lecture tour after the second world war, they never again returned to live there, compelled, for a variety of reasons over the years, to wander the world as cultural exiles.

I was equally amazed by the Mann family itself, who were incredibly well connected and were at the centre of an international literary and cultural web. They had friends at the highest levels of society, politics and culture, all over the globe, and the list of names is truly astounding, including Einstein, Brecht, Schoenberg, Mahler, Auden, and Isherwood.

Other family members were equally as notable on the world stage as Thomas Mann himself. Mann’s brother Heinrich was also an author; Thomas’ children Erika, Klaus, Michael and Golo all had careers in cultural and artistic circles that gained them notoriety at worse and success and esteem at best, and along with their father they all played key roles in fighting fascism during the second world war.

The novel depicts Thomas Mann has having a sometimes contradictory nature: how he has suppressed homosexual tendencies and fantasies but marries Katia, with whom he has a successful and devoted relationship for life, with 6 children together; how he totally misreads history at the start of the First World War, but is incredibly prescient about the growth of fascism and the rise of Hitler; how his family retains close links and connections despite rifts and suicides; how he can be single minded in his writing, but indecisive and almost passive at times of personal crisis.

This epic family and historical story sweeps the reader along, and is beautifully handled by Toibin who is a masterful story-teller. The prose does sometimes feel different in tone and style to Toibin’s other books, but is nevertheless rich, and he conjures the scenes vividly in ways that reveal him to be as much of a Magician as Thomas Mann himself (the name “The Magician” was given to Thomas by his family, and provides the title for Toibin’s novel).

The characterisation throughout the novel is excellent and, like them or loathe them, the characters are all brilliantly realised. (I was especially fond of Julia, Mann’s Brazilian mother, and Katia his wife.)

The Magician is epic in its ambition, in its scope, and its achievement, but is an extremely accessible, interesting, enlightening and thought-provoking read. It is a story offering insight to a complex man with a complex family, living in difficult and turbulent times, which I really enjoyed and in which I was completely immersed.


To be published late September. We will have signed copies too!

Pre-order here