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We are clearly meant to sympathize with Thomas Mann, the title character of Colm Tóbín’s novel The Magician. A gay youth trapped in an uptight heterosexual world, he has the makings of a hero, but even as a twenty-something, he may still strike some readers as a pompous, slightly creepy stick-in-the-mud. At the age of thirty, Thomas sadly but dutifully attempts to suppress his sexuality and marries the wealthy, brilliant and loyal Katia, and the book morphs from a Künstlerroman into a roiling family saga.

The couple have six children. The oldest, Erika and Klaus, live a bohemian, celebrity-driven life during those strange years in the late 1920s and early 1930s when Germany was both a beacon of free expression and a seedbed for genocide. Then there’s bookish Golo, neurotic Monika, steady Elisabeth, and musically-inclined Michael. Together with Mann’s brother-in-law, Klaus, and his brother, Heinrich, there are more than enough characters to populate a novel.

Granted, Mann himself remains something of an emotional dud, and as he grows older, his lust for teenage boys feels less like pining for some lost ideal of male beauty and more like the longings of a dirty old man. However, he rarely acts on his desires, and then it’s nothing more than fondling and kissing. Indeed, Mann’s restraint and stodginess are ultimately seen as virtues. As the third-person narrator muses through the mind of Mann during Hitler’s takeover of Germany: “The very culture [Mann] had represented since the [First World] war — bourgeois, cosmopolitan, balanced, unpassionate — was the very one [the Nazis] were determined to destroy. The tone he used in his prose — ponderous, ceremonious, civilized — was the precise opposite of the tone they wielded.” In short, the urbane Mann provides a counterweight to the madness of his countrymen.

The Magician covers a lot of ground, beginning when Mann is a teenager and ending shortly before his death in 1955 at eighty years old. We move from the Manns’ upper-middle-class home in Lübeck (bombed to smithereens in the Second World War), and soon find the Mann brothers — both of them writers — in Italy. Before long, the family is in Munich and Thomas has scored a hit with his first novel, Buddenbrooks. Twenty-some years later, The Magic Mountain is acclaimed as a masterpiece, and five years later Mann receives the Nobel Prize in Literature. As the Nazis come to power, force the world into a catastrophic war, and are soundly defeated, the peripatetic family moves from Munich to Switzerland, Princeton, Los Angeles, and finally back to Switzerland. Tóbín tends to zero in on dramatic moments in the family’s life — something bad is always happening to someone, even as Thomas’s fame and wealth increase — but there’s a lot of personal information: Tóbín covers his subject’s life with the dedication of a dutiful biographer.

Indeed, the ideal reader of The Magician is probably someone as steeped in the life and works of Mann as Tóbín is. The rest of us will mostly be carried along by Tóbín’s seamless prose, though one can’t help feeling the protagonist — for all his globetrotting and participation in global politics — is a bit of a cold fish. In The Master, one of the best novels of the best twenty years, Tóbín rose to the challenge of turning a writer’s interior reflections into a scintillating read, but the creative process of Henry James was perhaps more compatible with Tóbín’s own imagination. If his latest attempt to bring a writer to life is less successful, I’d prefer to blame it not so much on the author, but on his dreary subject, a man even his children found difficult to love.

This review originally appeared in the California Review of Books.


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