I downloaded Colm Toibin’s latest book, The Wizard, with great enthusiasm. As readers of this column know, I have a weakness for Irish novelists, and Toibin (“Brooklyn,” “Nora Webster,” “The Blackwater Lightship”) is an expert in depicting human relationships, especially inner lives and repressed or frustrated desires.
I was really preoccupied with the story when I realized that this novel is about the German Nobel Prize-winning novelist Thomas Mann, author of “Buddenbrooks”, “Death in Venice”, “The Magic Mountain” and “Doctor Faustus”. I was immediately intimidated, because I often felt insufficiently educated about the philosophers and artists who peruse so much of Mann’s erudite works to fully appreciate it.
But Toibin’s story is about Mann’s private and public life – his complete immersion in his work, his complicated relationship with Germany he loves and hates, his dimension as a father, his repressed homosexuality – So compelling that I never thought of giving it up.
The book is full of interesting A-list glimpses of Mann’s time: W. H. Auden (whom Mann’s lesbian daughter married for British citizenship) and his lover Christopher Isherwood; Gustav Mahler’s Nazi sympathizer’s widow, Alma; Albert Einstein, who passes on the wife of Man – Even the Roosevelts show up.
A fictional biography is a risky genre. How does one convey the inner life of the subject? Hilary Mantell’s “Wolf Hole” trilogy, the sensational historical epic of the rise and fall of Englishman Thomas Cromwell, is a role model. Michael Cunningham imagines Virginia Woolf contemplating her artistic process and fragile state of mind in The Hours, an innovative reworking of The Lady. Dalloway. ”
“The Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Tracy Chevalier is a fictional autobiography of a different kind. It focuses on Gret, a fictional maid who comes to sit down to take a Vermeer portrait of the same title. Chevalier uses the story of the famous painting to evoke the distinction of class in Delft at the time and to illustrate the transformative power of art.
Paula MacLean’s “Paris’ Wife” focuses on Ernest Hemingway’s love affair with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in Paris in the 1920s. I’m always fascinated reading about people surrounding larger-than-life characters, and MacLean delves into Richardson’s ambivalence about the role it has imposed on her as a supportive wife to the charismatic and unfaithful Hemingway.
One of my favorites of the genre is Julia Alvarez’s movie In the Time of the Butterflies, which is about the real-life Mirabal sisters, rebels against General Rafael Trujillo’s oppressive dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s. Trujillo himself plays a minor role in this novel, but Alvarez brings to life the political persecution of the era.
Back to Toibin. How did he manage to get to Ras Man convincingly? This is an achievement at the heart of every successful fictional biography: the writer’s ability to allow us to imagine that we can hear the inner thoughts of a subject, to humanize us and allow us to have an intimate relationship with them.
And every conscientious biographer should read Toibin closely all the works on his subject. An assignment for the London Review of Books immersed him in three Mann biographies that drew on the writer’s journals, which described his yearning for homosexuality. He visited Mann’s childhood home in Lübeck, Germany, the Los Angeles home he built in the 1940s, even the home in Brazil where his mother grew up.
But research, no matter how conscientious, does not automatically produce great art. At some point, magic takes over. Toibin’s brilliance is that he appears to be transforming into Man himself.
I have been so impressed by his story of Mann’s life that I tend to go back and read Mann’s books, particularly “The Magic Mountain” and “Doctor Faustus,” works I have avoided because of my shameful resistance to books that I consider heavy lifting.
Note that I said “tempt”. Perhaps I’ll take “Mr.” Toibin next, which is his book on Henry James. Who do you know? That might inspire me to skip James’s “Portrait of a Lady.”
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