Thomas Mann. Enduring Troubled Times. Colm Tóibín’s THE MAGICIAN a novelized biography.

By Jorge Pinto M.

Colm Tóibín’s new novel, The Magician, gives the readers a unique insight into the personality and challenging life of Thomas Mann, allowing them to better understand his works and the troubling events the world endured during his lefetime. In many cases, Thomas Mann’s numerous family members are the main characters of Tóibín’s novel and direct sources of his book.

Colm Tóibín is an award-winning bestseller author who has written several novelized biographies including The Master,/1 about Henry James life abroad. He also wrote a non-fiction book, Mad, Bad, Dangerous The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce,/2 based on a series of lectures about the muddled relations of these great Irish writers with their fathers.

Tóibín is currently a Mellon Professor in the English and Comparative Literature Department at Columbia University and Chancellor of Liverpool University. He was born in Ireland in 1955, which positioned him to understand the culture and work of famous countrymen. Writing about Henry James and Thomas Mann. In his last book, Tóibín, used extensive research including easy to find diaries, correspondence, and other personal documents, photographs, and an extended lists of relevant research on their lives and works. There are certain parallels in the life of both writers. Henry James and Thomas Mann lived in exile. As a writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, critic, and poet, Colm Tóibín understands the labour and challenges faced by his famous predecessors in the same trade.

The Magician is a well-documented novel with facts directly referencing to Thomas Mann’s books, essays, speeches, and his biographical process while writing Doctor Faust. The text is also full of anecdotes taken from letters, testimonies, many easy to find and identify. In some cases, those facts are enriched by invention, using the context of the time and place of special moments.

Since The Magician is a novel, it is difficult to distinguish the specific sources of the quotes he used.

Tóibín explicitly credited several books at the end of the novel. The list is long and varied and is a testimony of the scope of the research he made to write the story filled with historical and relevant events during the life of Thomas Mann and his family.

One of the sources is Klaus Mann’s introspective biography of his family and time, particularly the description of the status of his predecessors in Lübek where Thomas Mann was born and the city of his famous novel about the decline of a family, the Buddenbrooks. Klaus Mann’s interpretation of his ancestors portrays that decline; “Everything seemed perfectly all right with the Manns, so far. A highly respectable family — nothing to be said against them. Their home was one of the finest mansions in town, and the dinner parties they gave were as opulent as they could be”/3.Klaus continues to skillfully portray the economic collapse and the natural trauma that hunted his father, his grandmother, Julia, and the rest of the family when the Senator and grandfather dies; “— all of a sudden — it turned out that the wealth of the family had melted away, almost entirely. The ancient firm was dissolved; the attractive widow left Lübeck, where she had always been a stranger. She moved to Munich, taking her younger children along. Heinrich and Thomas followed shortly, after having somehow juggled themselves through school.”/4.

The testament of the deceased Senator devastated the family, as Klaus described, forcing the mother of relocate with her five children. “The senator had left instructions that the family firm was to be sold forthwith, and the houses also. Julia was to inherit everything, but two of the most officious men in the public life of Lübeck, men whom she had always viewed as unworthy of her full attention, were designated to make financial decisions for her”/5

Thomas Mann married Katia Pringsheim who was the daughter of a very wealthy and well-connected Munich family. Her father was a distinguished mathematician who inherited a large fortune. Thomas Mann, already well known for the success of the Buddenbrooks asked a poet friend to get him invited to the dinners of the Pringsheim family which were attended by important artists like Gustav Malher and Winifred Wagner, the English wife of Sigfried, the son of Richard Wagner. In the novel there is a description of the first time Thomas visited the home of his future wife; “There were, he guessed, more than a hundred people at the Pringsheimssupper, the first one he attended, with tables spread over several of the reception rooms. Most of these rooms had carved ceilings and inlaid paintings and murals. No surface was undecorated./6 At the end of the dinner walking back home Thomas Mann asked his friend if the Pringsheim where Jewish and the poet wandered; They are Protestants now, even though they seem very Jewish. Jewish in a grand way. They converted?”“My aunt said that they assimilated.”/7

After the dinner, Thomas Mann became a regular visitor of the family and in 1905, married Katia in a lavish wedding. The couple produced six children while living in a luxurious villa in Munich located by the Isar river in what today is renamed Thomas-Mann-Allee 10, 81679, Munich, Germany.

His wife Katia’s Unwritten Memories/8, edited by Elisabeth Plessen and Michael Mann, his son Klaus and his daughter Erika, both writers, provided first hand material for Tóibín ‘s novel: “Klaus was now publishing one or two works of fiction every year. Erika became famous throughout Germany for her short articles about what being a new woman meant. She loved being photographed driving a car, flashing her short hair and expressing opinions on sex and politics that were combative and controversial./9

Another important source for the novel is Heinrich Mann, Thomas older brother, who also became a successful novelist and a public figure. The novel describes their striking differences, particularly different political philosophies and professional paths, specially their social and economic status. Thomas´s evident wealth, living in richly designed homes by famous architects in contrast to Heinrich´s modest apartments in Los Angeles, virtually bankrupt at the end of his life.

The ideological contrast between the two brothers is well documented, regarding particularly their views and writings on Germany and the First World War. Thomas Mann´s nationalism and political ideas were opposed to those of his older brother. Tóibín ‘s novel contains a quote with his ideas in 1914, which later Thomas Mann regretted “A short sharp war is the only solution. We should go in after the French like a thief in the night. And the only way to get the English is through their ships. I understand that we have been working hard on a new torpedo. That torpedo will make our enemies shake.”10

At the end of the war, Thomas Mann tried to amend these views in an ambiguous and controversial Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man./11 This text haunted him until, four years after its publication, in a public speech titled “On the German Republic,” he explicitly rejected the nationalistic and antidemocratic sentiments of the Reflections andin a sharp turn, declaredsupport for the Weimar Republic. The Reflections was translated into English in 1982, 65 years after it was published in Germany, many years after the author’s death. This book was never used to demonstrate the leading role he played in opposing Hitler and denouncing the horrors of the Nazis after 1933.

Many of the passionate conversations attributed to Thomas Mann, his family and friends that are part of the novel are imagined by the author, as are the moments of introspection and thoughts or can be credited to Mann if they appear on notes or diaries consulted by Tóibín. The dates of crucial events, including the release of Mann’s books, award ceremonies, like receiving the Literature Nobel prize in 1929, his conferences and radio programs, and of his visits to the White House are accurate. A decisive moment was the realization that returning to Munich was no longer an option in 1933 due to the danger of being harassed by the Nazis or detained by the authorities like what was happening to many intellectuals who openly opposed or wrote against Hitler.

News of the fire in Reichstag in February 1933 reached Thomas and Katia in Switzerland while they were on holiday. Each day, they heard further news of mass arrests and attacks on people in the street. When the National Assembly elections took place a week later, Thomass first instinct was to return to Munich as soon as possible to make sure that the house would not be ransacked.”/12

His oldest son Golo was in Munich living in their house. He was able to send the furniture, some paintings and books to Switzerland by pretending that he was selling them. Golo also managed to withdraw large sums of money from his fathers bank account. While there were manuscripts and letters, including all the letters from Katia written from Davos, that he would like to have transported out of Germany, the most important set of papers, Thomas knew, were his diaries. They were in a safe in his study.”/13

Thomas was worried, imagining his diaries could fall to the hand of Goebbels, aware of what it could do to his reputation if used for propaganda purposes, from great German writer to a name that was a byword for scandal.” /14

The reason why Thomas Mann was so worried about his dairies’ fate is explained by Alex Ross in an extensive review of The Magician, published in The New Yorker Magazine on January 17, 2022. Ross noted that in all likelihood, Mann never engaged in anything resembling what contemporary sensibilities would classify as gay sex./15 But, Ross notes that Thomas Mann’s diaries are reliable in factual matters and do not shy away from embarrassing details; we hear about erections, masturbation, nocturnal emissions./16

The novel is rich with descriptions of trips, particularly of locations, including the towns, hotels, restaurants, and Mann’s own homes in Munich, Princeton, Pacific Palisades, and Zurich, the last before he died in 1955.

Tóibín succeeds in taking the readers through the twenty-century destruction, terror and brutalities by narrating in chronological order the arduous life of one of the greatest German writers. It exhibits the economic, personal and political changes Thomas Mann and his family have to cope with, notwithstanding the financial and political privileges his work and talent offered him.

Thomas Mann’s father was a wealthy and well-respected merchant and a senator in Lubeck, making his children live with a privileged status and situation. Tóibín describes how Thomas Mann planned the famous novel, , The Buddenbrooks to “remake Lübeck. He would enter his fathers spirit, and the spirits of his mother, his grandmother, his aunt. He would see all of them and chart the decline of their fortunes.”/17

The Magician is a biographical novel on the life of Thomas Mann and his significant works. A mixture of serious and systematic research of various sources creates a hybrid story that allows the reader to discover this great writer’s complex life. The annex of the sources used by the author makes the book an accessible guide to immerse the reader in the changing world from the end of the 19th Century to 1955, involving two deadly World Wars, the brutality and the horror that Hitler and his party imparted to the world. It includes the description of the challenges of immigration of distinguished refugees like Mann and Einstein in the U.S.


After reading The Magician I became aware of the complicated life of Thomas Mann and his family and the trauma and consequences of the rise of Nazism in Germany. He and his family lost their nationality in 1933. They could not return to their home in Munich. Thomas Mann’s life is full of tragic events narrated with great detail in The Magician. His two sisters commit suicide. In 1949 his son Klaus died near Cannes from a drug overdose. In 1939, the Germans torpedoed the boat where his daughter Monika traveled to the U.S. She was saved, but her husband drowned in front of her. Heinrich, his older brother, suddenly died from a brain hemorrhage, poor and alone in Los Angeles after failing to save from his first wife and daughter from the Nazis and losing his second wife a few years before his death.

The novel describes the unique role Mann played in the U.S., helping with speeches and radio broadcasts to support the allied forces fighting Germany, denouncing the horrors the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews, and Europe.

In the Spring of 1935, Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein were offered honorary doctorates from Harvard, giving his family the option to follow many intellectuals and scientists that found safe asylum in the U.S. The description made by Tóibín of the warm welcome they received at their arrival to New York anticipated the productive and prosperous future in the country that embraced them with open arms. “Alfred Knopf, his American publisher, made an enormous fuss when the ship docked, demanding, to the surprise of the other passengers, that journalists be allowed on board to do interviews with the great man and that Thomas and Katia be given special treatment by the authorities.”/17

Agnes Mayer, the wife of the powerful owner of The Washington Post, made Thomas Mann her protegé and advised him in U.S. politics. The Magician mentions a phone call Thomas Mann received when he was already settled in Princeton, probably as a device used by Tóibín to resume the role the Mayers played on the Mann’s family; “I am calling to say that we should meet in Washington, where I am now. I will not be at the dinner, which will be an intimate affair. I am calling because there are two things you need to know. One, Roosevelt will be in power for a very long time. Two, I will be very useful to you.”/18

The Mann family lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, first in Princeton, New Jersey and later in Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles. They built a house by the ocean designed by Julius Davidson, a prestigious modern architect who escaped from Europe to avoid persecution and the Holocaust. “The house in Pacific Palisades, Thomas often believed, was a mistake. Even before a visitor entered the building itself, it was evident that too much money had been lavished on the gardens.”/19

Paradoxically, the easy time in the U.S. living as a celebrity started to fade after the end of the war in 1945, when many of Thomas Mann’s countrymen and influent writers as Bertolt Brecht, left the comfortable life of Los Angeles to return to Germany. Some embraced socialism, and many sympathized with the Soviet Union, which by 1949 had becomed an enemy of the U.S. Caught in the middle, as a humanist, Thomas Mann started to be denounced in the United States by many as a supporter of Communism despite his assurances that he fully rejected the oppressive Communist ideology.”/20

Coinciding with the two hundredth anniversary of Goethe’s birth, Thomas Mann was asked to write articles and give conferences about the famous German writer with whom he was very familiarized, including his famous Lotte in Weimar: The Beloved Returns published in 1940 in the US. The ideas contained in these articles and lectures are summarized in The Magician as follow: “using Goethes example, that in public as much as private the world should recoil from single ways of seeing things, and begin to think in myriad ways. Goethes paradigm could be nourishing to a world threatened by a savage clash of ideologies. The writers mind was protean, his imagination was open to change.”/21

The conference’s ideas and accepting an invitation to go to Weimar, at the time under the Soviet sphere, to receive the East German National Goethe Prize were not welcome in Washington. The trip to the East plus a series of unpleasant events, including Mann’s children’s aggressive interviews by the FBI, made the family decide to leave the U.S. in 1952 and settle in Zurich. Tóibín describes how different the mood was receiving the Manns´s to the U.S. and seeing them go: “There was a time, he was aware, when this decision would have been front-page news in America, with reporters flocking to the house so that he could pontificate about his reasons. There might even have been appeals for him to stay, or articles outlining his contribution to the war effort. Once, he realized, he had possessed gravity. His prominence lasted a decade and then it wore off.”/22

The Magician ends relating several moments of the last years of Thomas Mann in Kilchberg, near Zurich, where he celebrated his eightieth birthday, and his last trip to Lübeck, his hometown, to receive the Freedom of the City award. The book closes with a story about the secret Buxtehude wanted to share with a young musician, a secret that promised to make him the greatest composer in the world. Mann, sitting in a cafe alone after the ceremony in Lübeck recalls this tale asking her mother: who got it and what is the secret?” Thomas remembers her voice, If I tell you, will you promise to go to bed?” /23


1. Colm Tóibín. The Master. Scribner; Reprint edition (May 3, 2005)

2. Colm Tóibín Mad, Bad, Dangerous The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce. Scribner; 1st Edition (October 30, 2018)

3. Klaus Mann. Turning Point. Serpents Tail/consortium; First UK edition. (January 1, 1987)

4. Ibid

6. Colm Tóibín. The Magician: A Novel. Scribner (September 7, 2021)

7. Ibid

8. Katia Mann. Unwritten Memories, edited by Elisabeth Plessen and Michael Mann. Alfred A. Knopf, 1975

9. Colm Tóibín, ibid

10. Colm Tóibín, ibid

11 Thomas Mann. Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man. Ungar; First Edition (January 1, 1983.

12. Colm Tóibín, ibid

13. Colm Tóibín, ibid

14. Colm Tóibín, ibid

15. Alex Ross. Thomas Mann’s Brush With Darkness. The New Yorker Magazine on January 17, 2022.

16. Ibid

17. Colm Tóibín, ibid

18. Colm Tóibín, ibid

19. Colm Tóibín, ibid

20. Herbert Lehnert & Eva Wessell. Thomas Mann. Critical Lives. University of Chicago Press, 2019.

21. Colm Tóibín, ibid

22. Colm Tóibín, ibid

23. Colm Tóibín, ibid

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