Mann published his first novel, “Buddenbrooks,” when he was 26. He married Katia Pringsheim, the formidable daughter of a formidable family in Munich. Katia may be the most memorable character in “The Magician.”
Toibin is a writer of pinging dialogue, a novelistic Tom Stoppard, and he gives Katia many of the best lines. About a self-important archduchess, she comments: “I would like to see her in the water. Water has a way of splashing on the mighty in a way that does them no favors.”
Heinrich replies, “That is how empires end, a mad old bat being treated obsequiously in a provincial hotel.”
Mann had a monk-like devotion to work. He could be a remote father. A book about his relationships with his children might be titled “Mann’s Inhumanity to Manns.” At other moments he could be generous and attentive.
His family knew about his sexual inclinations. “Written into their set of tacit agreements was a clause stating that just as Thomas would do nothing to put their domestic happiness in jeopardy,” Toibin writes, “Katia would recognize the nature of his desires without any complaint, note with tolerance and good humor the figures on whom his eyes most readily rested, and make clear her willingness, when appropriate, to appreciate him in all of his different guises.”
Toibin, who is himself gay, has always extended historical sympathy to sexual outsiders. As he’s written elsewhere, “There are no 19th-century ballads about being gay.” The pained sublimation of homosexuality in Mann’s work, especially in “The Magic Mountain,” set in a tuberculosis sanitarium, could make it resemble an illness.
Toibin’s fiction is animated by the ever-alert attention he pays to sexual subcurrents. In this novel, Albert Einstein makes a pass of sorts at Katia — “E equals old goat,” Mann says — and Alma Mahler makes one at Mann. I was reminded of Edward St. Aubyn’s comment, “That was the wonderful thing about historical novels, one met so many famous people. It was like reading a very old copy of Hello! magazine.”