My first book after a month of no book-reading is in line to be my favorite book of the year. Although the two cataract surgeries in mid-August went well, it took time for my eyes (and brain) to be comfortable reading. I was excited to read this book and it has turned out to be a stunner. A book that has lots of surprising factual anecdotes, a view of 20th century Germany from a German person, and a nuanced story of both the inner life and family interactions of this brilliant writer is not to be missed.
Tóibín, who wrote the wonderful The Master about Henry James, has now outdone himself with a fictional account of Thomas Mann’s life, using his revealing and very personal diaries. Mann was born in 1875 in Lubeck, Germany to an upperclass merchant family. He married Katia, a woman from a very wealthy, highly cultured family in Munich; they had six children. He seems never to have lost his sexual interest in other men and appears to have focused frequently on young beautiful men, though he apparently was discreet and careful in acting on that interest. The family had to leave Germany when Hitler came to power, as Katia’s family was Jewish.
Before and through World War I Mann was a strong proponent of Germany as exceptional. He wrote, motivated by his desire to oppose his brother Heinrich’s liberal and internationalist views and his veiled dismissal of Thomas, that Germans would not accept political democracy, that authoritarian government was what they wanted. His essays written during the war expressed views that had fallen out of favor by the end of the war and those writings were forgotten. After the war, he came to see three Germanies. The first was that of his two oldest children who were quite non-traditional in their views and actions, think Cabaret, the movie based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. The second was also new and “included a mass of middle-aged people who used the winter nights to read novels and poetry; they would crowd into halls and theaters to witness him lecture or read from his work.” The third Germany was represented by the village where his mother had lived; life after the war resumed as if there had been no war until inflation made that life impossible.
He and Katia were vacationing in Lugano, Switzerland in 1933 at the time of the Reichstag fire; they did not return to Germany until after the war ended and that was for only a brief, unsettling visit. At a dinner in Washington before the US entered the war, discussion turned to what should be done with a defeated Germany. “Suppress it,” Katia said. She was asked whether they would return to Germany after the war. “The war will never be over for us. We will never live in Germany again. The idea of mingling with Germans who complied, who stood quietly by, or who took part, is horrifying.”
The impetus for writing The Magic Mountain, the book of his that I read years ago, makes a good story. After they had four children, Katia was diagnosed with lung disease and went to a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. When Thomas went to visit her, he fell into the routine comfortably, closely observing the patients, welcoming the rest times. Katia’s doctor turned his attention to Thomas and ultimately he was given an x-ray and was told he was no longer just a visitor. Though “He nodded politely and meekly,” when he heard this, he was already mentally on the train headed back home. His family doctor there told him to get in touch with him if he started coughing up blood. Mann contrived to lure Katia home too, clearly with no ill effects, as she lived until 1980.
Thomas Mann is a such a rich subject; he was a brilliant writer, an important public figure, a person who faced horrifying risks to his life. His navigation of Nazi Germany and his observations of postwar Germany are riveting. The revelations of his most personal thoughts and emotions and his often unpleasant interactions with his six children who grew up in such calamitous circumstances serve to reveal a less appealing person.
A couple of tidbits: did you know that Thomas Mann’s older brother wrote the book that the Marlene Dietrich movie The Blue Angel was based on? And you probably didn’t know that after Mann’s bisexual daughter Erika was stripped of her German citizenship, she married W.H. Auden to have British citizenship. This book was filled with revelations like these.
Colm Tóibín, The Magician, Scribner, 2021, 500 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.