I wanted to say something here about Colm Toibin’s latest novel, which I mentioned last time around.
At least on first reading, The Magician is my least favorite of all his novels. The Master, his early novel about the life of Henry James, is enlightening on its subject’s life and thought. It’s a great novel, which was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize. The Magician, on the other hand, strikes me—on first read, at least—as muddled and extremely difficult to follow.
The problem may be, in part, the difference between its subjects. Thomas Mann fathered five children with his wife, but harbored homosexual yearnings he rarely acted on but often wrote about, and not just in his diaries. I read Mann’s slim novella Death in Venice to try to make some sense of all this, and have no trouble recommending it. Henry James, on the other hand, was essentially asexual it seems to me, and not tormented about it; he saved his energy for his life’s work, and enjoyed deep friendships with the women in his life. To write about him was mostly to write about the creative process, the few deep friendships he had, and the loneliness of such a life.
Moreover, to write about Thomas Mann with all his political persuasions—which shifted dramatically over the course of a life that spanned two world wars—and how these views and so many others affected his writing all along, seems a tall order indeed. It’s hard to care very much about a man whose feelings about everything, even his family, seem to shift all the time; and writing a novel about someone who’s tough to like is a tall order.
If you’re interested, have a look at the linked articles from The New Yorker, which shed some light on some of this.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .