Book review

You don’t have to be a Thomas Mann fan to be gripped by the account of his life that author Colm Tóibín (“The Master,” “Brooklyn”) delivers in his new novel, “The Magician.”

The prose of the German Nobel laureate (“The Magic Mountain,” “Death in Venice”) can be dauntingly dense and loftily erudite, but Tóibín’s own writing is quite the opposite. Its unexpected turns are always lucid, even when playfully asking you to read between the lines.

In short, “The Magician,” which focuses on the daily savor of Mann’s turbulent private and public life over six decades, is bound to interest many readers, whether they’re Mann devotees or not.

Mann was born to a prominent mercantile family in Lübeck in 1875, just a few years after the various independent German states unified into a single nation. He lived until 1955, long enough to enough to see his country succumb to Nazism, invade its neighbors, attempt to wipe out Europe’s entire Jewish population and collapse in unconditional surrender to the enemies it had so needlessly made.

In “The Magician” (the title comes from the Mann family’s sardonic nickname for him), Tóibín portrays a figure whose notions of himself and his country completely unravel over the course of his lifetime. Mixing domestic dramas with global convulsions, the novel creates a profound sense of instability that would likely dismantle even the most stolid character.

Mann was more stolid than most. Formal in manner and guarded in his actions, he was ill-equipped to register the lunatic turn his country took under Adolf Hitler. An additional twist: Mann, despite fathering six children, was discreetly homosexual (as were, curiously, three of his offspring).

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Tóibín — whose fictional take on the life of Henry James, “The Master,” was a Booker Prize finalist in 2004 — is at home in Mann’s contradictions, capturing the entire Mann family’s odd humors, conflicts and ordeals. While his timeline is straightforward as he moves from Mann’s childhood to his final illness, the way the ground keeps shifting beneath his characters’ feet is not.

The sober young Thomas was initially seen as the child most likely to carry the family’s import-export business into the 20th century, but that didn’t pan out. Mann couldn’t keep his love of poetry and music a secret, and his father’s will, ordering the family firm to be sold rather than passed on to his sons, took the decision out of Thomas’ hands.

While older brother Heinrich was initially the recognized writer in the family (he wrote the novel that Josef von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel” was based on), 25-year-old Thomas overtook him with the success of his extraordinary family saga, “Buddenbrooks,” in 1901. A few years later Thomas married into a wealthy family of assimilated Jews. Between his literary success and his wife Katia’s ample resources, he never had to worry about money again.

At this point, if we didn’t know what was coming historically, we could ready ourselves for an upper-class sex farce in which our uptight hero is distracted by the beauty of his wife’s brothers, his eldest son, and a never-ending lineup of friendly hotel personnel. Katia takes it all in stride.

“Written into their set of tacit agreements,” Tóibín explains, “was a clause stating that just as Thomas would do nothing to put their domestic happiness in jeopardy, Katia would recognize the nature of his desires without any complaint.”

Despite this amiable status quo, family disaster and national catastrophe lie ahead. In the Mann family, the first of several suicides occurred. In Germany at large, World War I, a hyperinflation that made German currency worthless, the short-lived democracy of the Weimar Republic, and the rise of the Nazis unfolded over less than 20 years.

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Katia’s family’s ethnic background, initially a nonissue, became a concern. “How strange it is,” she comments in the novel, “that we are now Jewish. My parents never went near a synagogue.”

Mann, who had come to see himself as the voice and embodiment of a high-minded Germany, was shocked when the Nazis won 6.5 million votes in 1930, the year after he got the Nobel Prize. When Hitler took power in 1933, it caught the whole family off-guard.

His brother Heinrich and his two eldest children were well aware that, as vocally anti-Nazi leftists, they were targets. Thomas was slower to realize that his honors and attributes as a celebrated writer (“cosmopolitan, balanced, unpassionate”) would also draw the Nazis’ ire.

The culture that Mann had long represented “was the very one that they were most determined to destroy,” Tóibín writes. “The tone he used in his prose — ponderous, ceremonious, civilized — was the precise opposite of the tone they wielded.”  

That question of how a public intellectual reacts to the eruption of barbarism in a country he no longer recognizes is the central source of tension in Tóibín’s novel. Fleeing to the U.S. from Germany with his family, Mann ashamedly recognizes his own timidity. His humbling is complete when, on being encouraged “to write a novel set in the present,” he admits, “I can make no sense of the present.”

Several chapters in “The Magician” have a thrillerlike intensity. There’s wry humor, too — for instance, when anti-Communist fervor overtakes the U.S. after World War II and FBI agents have terrible trouble keeping track of which aberrant Mann is which.

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Tóibín also touches on how a half-dozen of Mann’s touchstone works evolved. But his biggest triumph is in getting to the heart of Mann’s dilemma: “He could imagine decency, but that was hardly a virtue in a time that had grown sinister. He could imagine humanism, but that made no difference in a time that exalted the will of the crowd. He could imagine a frail intelligence, but that meant little in a time that honored brute strength.”

Those words hit home in our own era when democracy seems so much under threat.

NEW FICTION

‘The Magician’

Colm Tóibín, Scribner, 500 pp., $28

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