Marriage is great fodder for fiction. Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, The Magician, tells the story of the life of Thomas Mann. In a sweeping narrative, it takes in German culture and politics of the first half of the twentieth century, Mann’s creative life, as well as his family and erotic life. But most of all, according to the author, it’s the story of a marriage.
Tóibín came to Zurich this week, and I jumped at the chance to hear him talk. He was interviewed on stage in a gorgeous venue, the 100-year-old Kaufleuten, a legendary nightclub, pub-restaurant and cultural space. It’s the kind of place Mann might have frequented when he lived in Zurich. James Joyce once had a play staged there.
The character of Mann craves a lot of things – stability, routine, recognition, young men’s bodies. He was one of many homosexual men of his time who married for convenience or safety. Yet his marriage to Katia Pringsheim, a student of physics and mathematics from one of the wealthiest families in Germany, was no less interesting for that.
“The marriage was intense, and the loyalty between them was intense, and the love was intense. It was in many ways a great relationship,” Tóibín said.
I agree, at least in how Tóibín depicts the relationship. But Katia remains a bit of a mystery. Once in the book, there is a scene where she is pressed to justify why she married Mann and she says it’s personal. All she reveals is that her father was a philanderer and she knew she would never have that trouble with Mann (who obviously fancied her beautiful twin brother). Marriage to Mann gave Katie a certain freedom. Coming from a rich, cultured, high-achieving family, he was a prize for her too.
Katia Mann is shown tolerating her husband’s roving eye and infatuations for boys and young men. More than that, she is quite magnanimous about it. Mann’s sexual life was mainly lived in his head and he rarely dared to follow up on these feelings. She seems to have understood that. Now I’m making the same mistake as the moderator on Wednesday night, treating the book as if it were a biography, and Tóibín the biographer.
A rich tapestry
Mann’s life is so interesting – a gay man, literary genius, dissident, exile, father of six extraordinary children, the most famous German voice in the United States during the war – it’s easy to get sucked into only thinking about him.
So, more about the writing. It’s a linear narrative from childhood in Lübeck to the end of his life in Switzerland, divided into chapters entitled the year and place. Overall, a rich tapestry. After lingering in Lübeck, the story skips along through Mann’s career and home life. We enjoy dinner party conversations with a great number of clever and unconventional people, there are terribly poignant scenes of Mann receiving tragic news, his imaginings and travels, moments and settings where he got his ideas – the Davos sanitorium, the famous Lido in Venice – and regular interactions with (mostly negative) political events.
We see the marriage in action, in their conversations and habits, getting to the point as readers where we know what is unsaid between Thomas and Katia. But Tóibín never shows us any physical intimacy between the pair. I wish I’d had a chance to ask why he shied away from the marital bed but there were no questions from the audience.
I managed to scribble down a few notes in the dark. “There’s a difference always between what we think we feel, what we feel and what we say. A novel can show that gap,” Tóibín said.
The German question
The Irish writer had plenty of research material at his disposal to fill that gap. The lives of the Manns have been exhaustively documented in diaries, contemporary accounts and biographies. We even heard Thomas Mann’s voice in the Kauflauten theatre from a 1942 broadcast in English, one of several speeches he made railing against the Nazis. A nice touch.
Mann’s brother Heinrich and three of Thomas Mann’s children were also writers, so we also have their body of work to add to Mann’s oeuvre. Many of the Mann circle were the subjects of biographies themselves. Tóibín credits 35 works in the back of his book. It must have been quite a struggle to stop researching and start writing.
Interestingly, all of the titles Tóibín mentions are in English and I wonder how Germans feel about an Irish writer (researching in English) speaking for Mann who is after all a national treasure. But Tóibín didn’t want to be drawn on this. The interviewer Blas Ulibarri tried to ask about the German reception to the book but Tóibín just said, “the Germans are very nice” and pointedly put his microphone back down on the table. Because he came straight from a book tour in Germany, we would all like to have heard more.
Anyway, I loved the book. A lot happens, there are many scene changes, just as there were in Mann’s life – from his staid home city of Lübeck to Munich, Lugano, South of France, Princeton, Los Angeles and back to Switzerland.
The Nazis’ rise to power is the dramatic engine of the middle part of the book, not just because it forces the Manns into exile but because of the delay before Mann publicly denounced Hitler. His timidity almost cost him the love of some family members. But Tóibín makes this conflict between Mann’s private views and his public position an understandable failing.
Mann’s routine is dull and unchanging, working every morning in his study wherever he lives, taking meals and having conversations with his wife and children, receiving visitors. This lack of action presented a challenge, Tóibín said, but he clearly overcame the challenge. There is ample external drama in between the quiet days: complications with Mann’s mother and siblings, the horror of the Second World War and the unruly behaviour of his children.
Three out of six younger Manns were gay, two of them openly and joyously so, in the years before Hitler choked all the joy out of German life. The same three – Klaus, Erika and Golo Mann – were also prolific writers. All the Mann children were damaged by the experience of losing their homeland, however much they were protected by their parents’ great wealth.
Tóibín’s The Magician (Penguin) is the third great work of biofiction I’ve read this year, all by Irish writers. If you want more after finishing The Magician, I highly recommend Nora (New Island) by Nuala O’Connor, a banquet of a novel written in the voice of James Joyce’s wife Nora Barnacle. Covering the same era, it’s another story of fame, genius, an unconventional marriage, the peripatetic life and difficulties with grown children.
A Quiet Tide by Marianne Lee is the third title, a masterful debut, also published by New Island Books. It tells the story of the great Irish botanist Ellen Hutchins, a solitary and tragic figure. A fascinating and moving novel that depicts the complexity of early nineteenth century Ireland in exquisite detail.
That should be enough reading to keep you occupied when the clocks go back. I have no decent photos from the Kaufleuten venue so I opted for this street view of the famous Bahnhofstrasse nearby. It was fun travelling to another city for a night of culture and meeting writing friends, especially with Thomas Mann’s story so fresh in my mind.
Have you been to a reading recently? If you’re in the mood, the Dublin Book Festival is running until November 12with a fantastic online programme. Have a great weekend!
3 thoughts on “Colm Tóibín works his magic in Zurich”
Fascinating post, Clare. Thanks for telling us not just about The Magician and how much you enjoyed it but also about the onstage interview. Now, like you, I’m left wondering just what Tóibín’s German book tour was like.
Thinking about the Thomas Mann book and the other two biofiction books you describe, I find myself critically examining the idea of turning a real life into fiction. Joyce’s Nora is a fictional character anyway, so no problems there, but writing a novel about a man who died as recently as 1955 is somehow not quite the same as writing fiction about the life of Shakespeare or Jane Austen. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong, but I can imagine a lot of pitfalls in creating a book that reads like a biography but isn’t.
Whoops. I’m confusing Nora and Molly Bloom, aren’t I? I imagine a version of Molly and Leopold Bloom’s lives from Molly’s point of view has already been written. So now my feeling a little bit queasy about fictionalizing the lives of real people who lived during the past, say, 100 years applies to Nora as well.
Thanks for stopping by, Kim. I can see why you have reservations because it’s quite an audacious thing for a writer to do and raises a lot of questions about artistic licence. But the genre seems to be gaining popularity. I think it can work really well in the right hands. There are so many fascinating lives to choose from. Hard to resist! Another approach is to look at the famous person from another character’s point of view. Nuala O’Connor did this very successfully in her book Miss Emily, written from the point of view of Emily Dickinson’s Irish maid.