A 20th Century Magic Mann.

Book Review for “The Magician” by Colm Tóibín.

Summary: The Magician tells the story of Thomas Mann, whose life was filled with great acclaim and contradiction. He would find himself on the wrong side of history in the First World War, cheerleading the German army, but have a clear vision of the future in the second, anticipating the horrors of Nazism. He would have six children and keep his homosexuality hidden; he was a man forever connected to his family and yet bore witness to the ravages of suicide. He would write some of the greatest works of European literature, and win the Nobel Prize, but would never return to the country that inspired his creativity. Through one life, Colm Tóibín tells the breathtaking story of the twentieth century.”

Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Fiction; Settings: Historical; Germany, Switzerland Other Categories: Novel, Biographical, Family Saga, Writers, LGBTQIA+.

The Magician

Seems like I’ve been doing a whole lot of confessing on this blog lately. Well, Yom Kippur is next week, so I guess it is appropriate to give you all another one; I’ve never read anything by Thomas Mann. Yes, I know OF his work, but I’ve never read anything by him. After reading this book, I’m thinking that maybe I should read something of his, since this novel seems to give a very interesting perspective of how he wrote his stories, and how they related to his life and the world around him, particularly at the time he wrote them. It would seem to give them an extra dimension, so I look forward to having that advantage when I do try one of Mann’s novels.

The thing I noticed first about this novel was the writing style, and the first word that came to me was “dry.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean this in a bad way. It’s just that, the tone her is somewhat monotone and slightly dull. It is almost as if Tóibín was slightly in awe of his subject matter, and was afraid to embellish his story too much, as if that would somehow detract from the richness of Mann’s life and works. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t any descriptive passages, because there were. It’s more like where they appeared, Tóibín wrote them with an observatory tone, rather than one where Tóibín was part of the emotions or scenery. This might not make sense, but that was the overall feeling I got from the writing here, which used a somewhat detached, third-person omniscient point of view.

That said, I have to say that Tóibín’s observations about Mann’s life seemed very extensive. Starting from Mann as a teenager, Tóibín takes us through practically all of Mann’s life and career. While this sounds like it could be boring, and/or overly detailed, that’s not at all the case. First of all, Tóibín doesn’t go too much into the facts of any era, while instead, handing us just the right about of insights into how Mann reacted and interacted with the world around him. For example, we understand that Mann was pretty much patriotic to Germany during the first world war (even as he seemed disinclined to support war in general), but totally appalled by the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. Obviously, this was the reason he escaped to the US, and did everything he could to get his family members out of harm’s way.

But beyond that, I think what Tóibín didn’t realize he was doing (or maybe he did), was giving us not only a portrait of a Nobel Prize winning author, but also huge amounts of insight into the personality of his wife, Katia, which also reflected on how he viewed his marriage and his relationships to his children (of which he had six). In the beginning of the novel, Katia seems like she’s not really in love with Mann, and is actually in love with her twin brother. However, as the novel progresses, we see not only a deepening of their affection, but also how Katia accepted Mann’s bi-sexuality, as well as fluid sexualities of some of their children. In the end, Katia comes out as a very sympathetic character, and one much stronger than she appeared to be at the beginning of this novel, and with a growing, quiet, wisdom. In fact, this isn’t just about Thomas at all, but about the two of them, even though the main focus is on Thomas. Together with them, there is a large cast of characters including their six children, Katia’s twin Klaus, and some well-known names of writers and musicians that have recurring appearances.

Obviously, this book was extremely well researched, but Tóibín seemed to know just how to temper imparting important facts with his own imagined ideas of Thomas Mann’s essential character. You may be surprised to hear that despite the slightly gloomy writing style, I found some bits to be very funny, especially when someone was making a critical remark about another person, most often about those that someone didn’t like. These elements of dry humor fit in perfectly with the overall atmosphere with which Tóibín imbued this novel, which was very revealing while at the same time, deceptive. Which, if you think about it, is much like a magician’s act. For all this, I can honestly say that Tóibín did not disappoint with this novel, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this to fans of Thomas Mann’s work as well as those who have never read anything by that author. With that, I’m going to give this book (yet another) 4.75 stars out of five, and round it up to 5. (Looks like I’m going to have to move over to a 10 star rating system, so I can at least get my graphics to be accurate!)


30483411-0-Edelweiss-Reviewer-BScribner released “The Magician” by Colm Tóibín on September 7, 2021. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository UK and US (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and US, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.

This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: New Release Challenge (#35), Historical Fiction Reading Challenge (#30).

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13 thoughts on “A 20th Century Magic Mann.

  1. I’ve never read anything by Mann either, so had thought I wouldn’t read this one much though I usually enjoy Toibin. So I’m interested that you reckon it works even without knowing Mann’s work – I shall promptly add it to my wishlist! I always think Toibin writes his women particularly insightfully, and it sounds as if he’s done that again here with Katia.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi – I’m very interested in reading this. I’ve only read The Magic Mountain, a very long time ago. I tried to re-read it once and found it very difficult! But I do remember liking it a lot. I also read Brooklyn and when I learned that Toibin had a new book out, I had no idea it was about Thomas Mann. Thanks for your review 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting observation/description about dry writing….I’ve never know exactly how to define/describe it. I’ve felt this way about Marie Benedict’s writing in The Personal Librarian and Lady Clementine. Well researched…but….

    Liked by 1 person

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