Writers & Company

A secret life in dangerous times: novelist Colm Tóibín imagines the great German writer Thomas Mann

The Irish novelist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about writing the novel The Magician, a fictionalized story about the enigmatic Nobel Prize-winning author.
The Irish author Colm Tóibín, left, with CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel. (Mary Stinson)

In his famous novella Death in Venice, Thomas Mann created a portrait of a respectable aging writer obsessed with a beautiful teenage boy. Few admirers of the story guessed that its events really happened, and that Mann was writing about his own sexual attraction to young men.

(McClelland & Stewart)

In his lifetime, Mann was Germany's most celebrated and influential novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize and a father of six. The author of Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus had a big, very public life, becoming an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime when in exile. But he also had a secret life, as revealed in his diaries 20 years after his death, and hinted at in works like Death in Venice.

Drawing on these materials, Irish novelist Colm Tóibín evokes not only the intimate life of the writer, but also of his exceptional family, in his latest book, The Magician. Tóibín is the prize-winning author of novels including The Master, about Henry James; Brooklyn, made into a popular movie starring Saorise Ronan; and Nora Webster; as well as a number of story and essay collections.

Colm Tóibín spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Pasadena, California.

Drawn to Mann's work

"I responded, I suppose, most emotionally to books like Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice. And then later on, I found the plot and the whole magic in Doctor Faustus intriguing and fascinating and difficult. But the trendy book, the book that my fellow students were reading, was The Magic Mountain, because that was a book that seemed to stretch what the novel could do. And people were very interested in that at the time — these big blockbuster books like Ulysses and The Magic Mountain which, of course, is a very social novel in some ways because it's set in a sanatorium in Davos in Switzerland.

Thomas Mann is the German Nobel Prize-winning author of Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. (Carl Van Vechten/Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress)

"So it's all the interaction between the patients, but also that then changes to becoming a great debate about all sorts of matters to do with politics and philosophy. So it's a blockbuster, it's a book that changes a great deal and I put a great deal of thought into it."

Complex character

"The real Thomas Mann is very hard to pin down, which is what I'm interested in. It's not as though he was a simple figure — that his sexuality was simple or his politics were simple, or his relationship to his family — those things were very complex and ambiguous and nuanced in him. Often I feel that he was a ghost in his own life, except when he was in his study. He went into his study every morning and he spent four hours there, and that was when something real emerged. That was when he was solid. But the rest of the time, he's this wavering figure.

Often I feel that he was a ghost in his own life.

"His brother Heinrich, who's also a writer, is a serious left-wing figure; Thomas Mann never is that. His family, and especially when his children grew up but also his wife, they made a lot of noise. They were very interesting. So when he came out of his study, he found that they were making all the noise. He was watching them and he was a sort of ghost in his own living room. And so for me, that's all very interesting because you're dealing with shadows, you're dealing with things that need to be explained in slow time and that you cannot draw conclusions from. You cannot analyze directly. You have to do everything by implication." 

Wearing masks

"Every writer has a sort of secret life. In other words, you do live a strange dream life or masked life as a writer where sometimes no one can guess that, in that very moment, you have just seen something that will come in your next book. 

So their lives and their erotic dreams were secret dreams, and this gives them another layer of masking which goes on through their lives.

"In the case of Thomas Mann and Henry James, there's another mask involved, which is sexual, which is that they were not known to be gay men or homosexual men.

"So their lives and their erotic dreams were secret dreams, and this gives them another layer of masking which goes on through their lives. I suppose the point about that, maybe, is that there are times when that can be nourishing. That idea of having so much secrecy, so much possibility of concealment and then possibilities of revelation, that can actually come as energy rather than coming as a sort of lid on experience; it can also come as a sort of bubbling over of something that can't be contained."

Inner life

"Oh, I think the way Mann drew on his own life in Death in Venice is brazen, and I think his putting Mahler in is another way of adding a mask because he needed masks. This is really the first time that he's doing this where he's actually confronting his own sexual desires. And it's an interesting thing about homosexuality and secrecy that often when somebody comes out, as it were, even now, they come out big time, they want the world to know — it's big and colourful information.


"And so he came to Venice in 1911 and he wrote Death in Venice — making it, I think, absolutely clear that this was autobiographical. The problem was, the world just didn't take him up on it. It wasn't as though people instantly said, 'Oh, this is Thomas Mann writing about his own desires.' People learned to misread the book and wanted to misread it. So his effort to reveal put him further into a state of concealment because people thought he was interested in decay and beauty, and that the cholera really mattered.

"There were people who really believe that Death in Venice was sort of symbolic — and that the beautiful boy that Aschenbach, the protagonist, watches on the beach in Venice, was just a symbol of beauty. But actually, we learned that this was actually something that Thomas Mann had himself done. He'd written the book very soon after he had been on that same beach, watching a beautiful young boy on the beach." 

Political legacy

"Buddenbrooks is a really great book. Death in Venice is an essential text, and I promise you that if you spend time with The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus over a season and pay real attention that they will yield a huge amount. So, yeah, he is a great figure, but he is also one of those figures — I think James Baldwin is another example — whose politics often become more interesting for certain scholars and readers.

He is a great figure, but he is also one of those figures — I think James Baldwin is another example — whose politics often become more interesting for certain scholars and readers.

"Baldwin's essays, for example, become more important than his novels. So, too, Thomas Mann's actual life as a political activist and how much that changed and how influential he became, has, for some people, taken precedence over his life as an actual novelist."

Colm Tóibín's comments have been edited and condensed.

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