The German writer Thomas Mann (1875-1955) defied his bourgeois upbringing in late 19th-century Lübeck, and the expectation that he would enter respectable clerkdom, to instead publish, at 25, his multigenerational roman à clef, Buddenbrooks. It was the start of a career marked by prestige (a Nobel prize in 1929), sexual intrigue (fuelled by his portrait of gay desire, Death in Venice, not to mention a novella hinting at incest in his wife’s family), and the contortions of life as a public intellectual at a time of global tumult (he was alternately courted and persecuted by the US, as American fears turned from Hitler to Stalin).
Over 18 date-stamped, place-tagged chapters, from Lübeck in 1891 to Los Angeles in 1950, Colm Tóibín’s new novel dramatises the life of Mann by focusing on the author’s hidden yearnings as a married father of six, as well as the more pressing problem of how to position himself amid the dawning horrors of Nazi Germany.
A section set in Munich in 1922 tells us that Mann, or Thomas, walked past anti-communist demonstrations “a few times... He did not pay attention”, a line that all but winks at the reader. When someone suggests to Thomas, years later, that he ought to write a novel about Hitler’s rise, from his own perspective as someone who was living in Munich at the time, he excuses himself by observing that, back then, he was busy watching his children grow up – although the early part of the book more than once shows him enthusiastically reporting a child’s latest milestone to his wife, only for her to tell him it’s old news.
The Magician’s wider angled approach doesn’t match the intimacy Tóibín generated in The Master
Such moments are a sign of how subtly Tóibín develops his central theme of what can escape the eye of seclusion-seeking writers lauded for their observational gifts. Overall, though, the impression left by his somewhat confounding enterprise is rather more blunt. An early paragraph dealing with Thomas’s sexuality begins: “There was a boy in his class with whom he had a different sort of intimacy.” Despite the unpromising start, the ensuing scene is well done, rich in longing and awkward jeopardy. But as the novel proceeds, and Mann becomes a celebrity among other writers and artists (not least his own children), you sense its panorama unfolding with increasing strain: “In his mind, he went through where each member of the family was...”
Tóibín’s deceptively plain close-third narration in Brooklyn and Nora Webster allowed those novels to speak through his characters as well as over them, a technique that generated much pathos. Here, it tends to get in the way of the insight a non-fictional register might afford, while at the same time shutting down the possibility that the reader’s imagination might fill in a blank or two. Take this line: “He disliked the idea that his father had seen through his illusions without realising how real they often appeared to him.” In a biography, that would be hypothesis; in a novel, it’s definitive, and in a novel about a real-life figure, it feels presumptuous. It doesn’t help that a writer’s job, even in a lifetime as epochal as Mann’s, evades dramatisation almost by definition – a state of affairs only highlighted by our occasional peek under the bonnet: “Thomas had never arrived in Venice by sea before. In the instant that he caught sight of the city in silhouette, he knew that this time he would write about it.”
Of course, Tóibín managed to pull off the trick once before, but it’s hard not to feel that The Master, his novel about Henry James, worked because it focused on a particular moment of crisis (the failure of James’s 1895 play Guy Domville). While it obviously makes sense to show Mann against a backdrop of worldwide upheaval, The Magician’s wider angled approach doesn’t match the intimacy Tóibín generated in The Master. When we read what Thomas was up to “as 1914 wore on”, or that “for Thomas, the change from complacency to shock was a swift one” when he saw Hitler’s support surge in 1930, it adds to a reading experience that feels uncomfortably, even pointlessly, stranded in a stylistic no man’s land between biography and fiction.
• The Magician by Colm Tóibín is published by Viking (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply