Colm Toibin’s ‘The Wizard’ Captures a Literary Giant Up Close

Mann published his first novel, Buddenbrooks, at the age of 26. He married Katia Pringsheim, the imposing daughter of a difficult family in Munich. Katia may be the most memorable character in “The Magician.”

Credit…Reynaldo Revera

Toibin is a ping dialogue writer, a novelist Tom Stoppard, and gives Katia many of the best lines. He says of one smug archduchess: “I want to see him in the water. The water splashes on the strong in a way that does not benefit them at all.”

“This is how empires end,” Heinrich replies, “a crazy old bat is treated disobediently in a country hotel.”

Mann had a monkish devotion to work. He could be a distant father. A book about her relationships with her children could be called “Inhuman to Mann’s Manns.” At other moments he can be generous and caring.

His family knew about his sexual inclinations. “In their tacit agreement, Toibin wrote a clause stating that Thomas would do nothing to jeopardize their own family happiness,” Toibin writes, “noting Katia without any complaints, with indulgence and humor. figures that make it clear that when he is, he is willing to appreciate her in all her different guises.”

Gay himself, Toibin has always extended his historical sympathies to strangers sexually. As he wrote elsewhere, “There are no 19th century ballads about being gay.” The painful glorification of homosexuality in Mann’s work, particularly “The Magic Mountain,” set in a tuberculosis sanatorium, can make it look like a disease.

Toibin’s fiction is brought to life by his continued careful attention to the sexual undercurrents. In this novel, Albert Einstein makes a kind of pass in Katia – “E equals old goat,” says Mann – and Alma Mahler makes a pass in Mann. Give me Edward St. Aubyn was reminded of this comment: “That was the wonderful thing about historical novels, I met a lot of famous people. It was like reading a very old copy of Hello! magazine.”

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