Novelist Thomas Mann gets new treatment in Colm Tóibín’s ‘The Magician’ – People’s World

Thomas Mann became an honorary member of the Academy of Arts of the German Democratic Republic in May 1955 at an event honoring Friedrich Schiller. At the German National Theater in Weimar, East German writer Johannes R. Becher presented the certificate of honor as Erika Mann congratulated her father. Behind her is the writer Victor Klemperer. Mann would have died at the age of 80 three months later. / Federal Archives, Bild 183-30557-0008 / Horst Sturm / CC-BY-SA 3.0

There are many books, including biographies, of Thomas Mann as well as other members of the Mann family. There are far fewer novels by this writer. Now Irish novelist Colm Tóibín has presented us with exactly that. His novel about “The Magician,” as Mann was known in his family circle, centers on the man, his time, the writer, the husband, the father, the brother, and yes, his hidden fantasies (think Death in Venice).

Tóibín’s book is as substantial as a Mann novel, however, it is easier to read. The author takes his time, exploring in numerous scenes Mann’s family background, his childhood, his marriage to Katia von Pringsheim, his first major success with Buddenbrook, the family saga based on his own family.

Tóibín creates Mann’s world very well and does his time justice. He does nothing to excuse Mann’s inability to see World War I for what it was, and writes happily about his older brother Heinrich with respect. The very left-wing Heinrich becomes an interesting character in his own right in the novel, a recognized moral authority. “Heinrich’s article began,” writes Tóibín, “by insisting that there is no victory in a war. There were only wounded, dead and wounded. “Thomas,” he continues, “was heartened to be part of a movement that included workers as well as businessmen and people from all parts of Germany.”

In Munich, in the days after World War I, as Germany lived through its ultimately failed revolution of 1918-19, Heinrich was part of the movement, supported and led by socialist and communist writers such as Kurt Eisner, Ernst Toller and Erich Mühsam, which resulted in the creation of the short-lived Munich Soviet Republic. Tóibín devotes time to these troubled days and shows the attitudes of the anti-revolutionary and bourgeois Thomas Mann family at that time.

The establishment of the Munich Soviet Republic had been preceded by the abdication of the Bavarian king and the creation of the Free State of Bavaria. This free state was led as Prime Minister by the writer Kurt Eisner, assassinated after 100 days in office. Heinrich Mann gave the oration during the memorial ceremony a few weeks after this murder. “It took a while for Thomas to accept that there was a new and functioning government in Munich and that it was made up of poets, dreamers and friends of Heinrich. He was comforted by the news that no equivalent successful revolts had taken place in other German cities.

Thomas is told by an emissary of this government: “You were on the list of people to be retained”, he said. “I was in the room when this list was read. And two of the leaders insisted that your name be removed. One was Erich Mühsam and the other was Ernst Toller. Toller spoke eloquently of your virtues.

Mühsam and Toller have considerable significance in Tóibín’s book, especially the horrific fate of Mühsam, who was violently tortured and killed in a concentration camp. Thomas Mann is asked for his intervention to try to save him.

“There’s a reason I wanted to see you alone,” Toller said.

He was even more nervous than before. Thomas wondered if he was going to ask for a large sum of money.

Eric M.ühsam is held by the Nazis. They arrested him after the Reichstag fire. I know he was tortured. ”… As he sat alone in his office, he felt he could raise interest in Mühsam’s case around the world, maybe even in America, but that could make matters worse. for him.

During Mann’s exile in the United States, mostly in Los Angeles, he was repeatedly pleaded to try to help save German writers fleeing Nazism. He also comes under pressure from Heinrich and his own children Klaus and Erika to take a clear stand against Nazi Germany and urge the United States to join the war. All three are very active in the antifascist struggle.

The question of citizenship naturally dominates the family after leaving Germany. Erika takes fate into her own hands and contracts a marriage of convenience with the poet WH Auden. Previously, between 1926 and 1929, she had been married to future Nazi star actor Gustaf Gründgens. So Auden and her friend and fellow British writer Christopher Isherwood meet the Mann family in Princeton. Tóibín seems dismissive both of English writers and also of Virginia Woolf. With regard to Auden, biographers have noted how grateful the Mann family was to her, and it would appear that Tóibín is taking poetic license. It is also inconsistent with historical fact to suggest that Virginia Woolf was aloof from the British anti-fascist movement. She supported the Spanish Republic during the Civil War and also backed the campaign to award the Nobel Peace Prize to incarcerated German pacifist writer Carl von Ossietzky.

True to historical fact, by contrast, Tóibín’s description of the FBI monitoring and interrogating the Mann family:

The Thomas Mann House in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, photographed 2020 / Mirkomlux, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

Erika returned, there was a letter waiting for her from the FBI, who wanted to interview her, wanting to know the names of anyone in America who had been involved in the anti-fascist movement in Germany before 1933.

When they visited Thomas, they “then made it clear that they were here to find out more about Bertolt Brecht and his associates and Thomas realized he would be in a difficult position no matter what he said. Brecht had certainly been hard to avoid in the circle of German exiles on the west coast, but his contempt for Thomas and his work was also widely known. Although his visitors promised complete confidentiality, he suspected that news of this encounter would be leaked. He thought of contacting Brecht before the end of the day to let him know that this meeting had taken place.

Brecht and Mann had little to do with each other, and therefore Brecht does not appear in person in this novel.

The American secret services continue to follow Mann and intervene during his visit to Germany after the war:

“My mission,” Bird said, “is simple. I represent the United States government and I’m here to tell you that we don’t want you to go to the Eastern Zone… “We don’t want you to go there,” Bird continued. “If you go there, you will find America a cold place when you return.”

Mann defies this threat and travels to Weimar. This marks the end of its acceptance in the United States

When Thomas was named a communist by a Beverly Hills hotel that didn’t want to host an event where he could speak, he couldn’t blame Heinrich or Klaus for tarnishing his reputation as an imperturbable man of reason. . Nor could he blame Brecht, who lived in East Berlin.

He and Katia move to Switzerland, where they reside until their respective deaths, never returning to live in Germany.

Colm Toibin
The magician
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021
512 pages, $28
ISBN13: 9781476785080


Jenny Farrell

Comments are closed.