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Book review: Colm Tóibín’s 'The Magician' is magic

Book review: Colm Tóibín’s 'The Magician' is magic

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The Magician

The Magician

Let me begin by offering up my humble and pithy summation of Colm Tóibín’s novel “The Magician” for the paperback blurb pages: “The Magician” is magic!

Tóibín is, of course, a literary heavyweight, so I doubt that my clout or that of The Free Lance–Star will be enough to make the paperback edition if any other newspaper with a circulation north of 200,000 uses the same play on the title. Nonetheless, I felt I had to enthusiastically gush as quickly as possible because I can understand that a reader might be a tad skeptical about reading a 500-page novel on the life of German author Thomas Mann.

There are arguably very few authors who could tempt the world with a portrait of Thomas Mann, whose reputation, as with many white male authors of the 20th century, has diminished even though Mann’s homosexuality does offer a welcome wrinkle in diversity. But Tóibín is one of the handful of authors who could bring Mann to life in such fascinating and convincing detail. He’s done this before when he used a similar concept when he wrote “The Master” on Henry James, which made many of the best-of-year lists. His novel “Brooklyn” was made into an award-winning movie (complete with Hollywood changing the ending), so his name and work are familiar to many.

Mann’s place in history also extends beyond his literary achievements. His ultimate denouncing of Hitler’s rise to power forced him and his family to flee to Switzerland and then the United States, where he became a mouthpiece in the U.S. for support of its entrance into World War II. His lectures during the war filled concert halls, and as one government official told him, only Einstein was a more important German figure living in the United States during the war. And through it all, Mann wrote.

Mann’s novels are not Tóibín’s focus as he explores the family dynamic between Mann and his children, as well as between Mann and his wife, who understood from the outset of their marriage that her husband’s physical longings were not satisfied in their marital bed. Despite his status as Germany’s greatest writer, Mann was prone to doubt and often wished he was a composer like Beethoven instead of a writer of mere words.

“Thomas wished he had been able to do this as a writer, find a tone or a context that was beyond himself, that was rooted in what shone and glittered and could be seen, but that hovered above the world of fact, entering into a place where spirit and substance could merge and drift apart and merge again.”

Some writers, however, are able to hover above the world of fact and enter that place where spirit and substance do merge. Tóibín has proven again that he is such a writer.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer in Spotsylvania County.

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