Skip to Main Content

The Magician

A Novel



Buy from Other Retailers

About The Book

A New York Times Notable Book, Critic’s Top Pick, and Top Ten Book of Historical Fiction

Named a Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post, NPR, Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg Businessweek

From one of today’s most brilliant and beloved novelists, a dazzling, epic family saga set across a half-century spanning World War I, the rise of Hitler, World War II, and the Cold War that is “a feat of literary sorcery in its own right” (Oprah Daily).

The Magician opens in a provincial German city at the turn of the twentieth century, where the boy, Thomas Mann, grows up with a conservative father, bound by propriety, and a Brazilian mother, alluring and unpredictable. Young Mann hides his artistic aspirations from his father and his homosexual desires from everyone. He is infatuated with one of the richest, most cultured Jewish families in Munich, and marries the daughter Katia. They have six children. On a holiday in Italy, he longs for a boy he sees on a beach and writes the story Death in Venice. He is the most successful novelist of his time, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, a public man whose private life remains secret. He is expected to lead the condemnation of Hitler, whom he underestimates. His oldest daughter and son, leaders of Bohemianism and of the anti-Nazi movement, share lovers. He flees Germany for Switzerland, France and, ultimately, America, living first in Princeton and then in Los Angeles.

In this “exquisitely sensitive” (The Wall Street Journal) novel, Tóibín has crafted “a complex but empathetic portrayal of a writer in a lifelong battle against his innermost desires, his family, and the tumultuous times they endure” (Time), and “you’ll find yourself savoring every page” (Vogue).


Chapter 1: Lübeck, 1891 Chapter 1 Lübeck, 1891
His mother waited upstairs while the servants took coats and scarves and hats from the guests. Until everyone had been ushered into the drawing room, Julia Mann remained in her bedroom. Thomas and his older brother Heinrich and their sisters Lula and Carla watched from the first landing. Soon, they knew, their mother would appear. Heinrich had to warn Carla to be quiet or they would be told to go to bed and they would miss the moment. Their baby brother Viktor was sleeping in an upper room.

With her hair pinned back severely and tied in a colored bow, Julia stepped out from her bedroom. Her dress was white, and her black shoes, ordered specially from Majorca, were simple like a dancer’s shoes.

She joined the company with an air of reluctance, giving the impression that she had, just now, been alone with herself in a place more interesting than festive Lübeck.

On coming into the drawing room, having glanced around her, Julia would find among the guests one person, usually a man, someone unlikely such as Herr Kellinghusen, who was neither young nor old, or Franz Cadovius, his squint inherited from his mother, or Judge August Leverkühn, with his thin lips and clipped mustache, and this man would become the focus of her attention.

Her allure came from the atmosphere of foreignness and fragility that she exuded with such charm.

Yet there was kindness in her flashing eyes as she asked her guest about work and family and plans for the summer, and, speaking of the summer, she would wish to know about the relative comfort of various hotels in Travemünde, and then she would ask about grand hotels in places as distant as Trouville or Collioure or some resort on the Adriatic.

And soon she would pose an unsettling question. She would ask what her interlocutor thought about some normal and respectable woman within their group of associates. The suggestion was that this woman’s private life was a matter of some controversy and speculation among the burghers of the town. Young Frau Stavenhitter, or Frau Mackenthun, or old Fraulein Distelmann. Or someone even more obscure and retiring. And when her bewildered guest would point out that he had nothing other than good to say of the woman, in fact had nothing beyond the very ordinary to transmit, Thomas’s mother would express the view that the object of their discussion was, in her considered opinion, a marvelous person, simply delicious, and Lübeck was lucky to have such a woman among its citizens. She would say this as if it were a revelation, something that must stay quite confidential for the moment, something, indeed, that even her husband, the senator, had not yet been told.

The following day, news would spread about their mother’s deportment and whom she had singled out for comment, until Heinrich and Thomas would hear about it from their school friends, as if it were a very modern play, fresh from Hamburg, that had been performed.

In the evenings, if the senator were at a meeting, or in the time when Thomas and Heinrich, having done their violin practice and eaten their supper, were in their nightclothes, their mother would tell them about the country of her birth, Brazil, a place so vast, she said, that no one knew how many people were there or what they were like or what languages they spoke, a country many, many times the size of Germany, where there was no winter, and never any frost or real cold, and where one river, the Amazon, was more than ten times longer than the Rhine and ten times as wide, with many smaller rivers flowing into it that reached back deep into the forest, with trees higher than trees anywhere else in the world, with people whom no one had ever seen or would see, since they knew the forest as no one else did, and they could hide if an intruder or an outsider came.

“Tell us about the stars,” Heinrich would say.

“Our house in Paraty was on the water,” Julia would reply. “It was almost part of the water, like a boat. And when night came and we could see the stars, they were bright and low in the sky. Here in the north the stars are high and distant. In Brazil, they are visible like the sun during the day. They are small suns themselves, glittering and close to us, especially those of us who lived near water. My mother said you could sometimes read a book in the upstairs rooms at night because the light from the stars against the water was so clear. And you could not sleep unless you fastened the shutters to keep the brightness out. When I was a girl, the same age as your sisters, I really believed that all the world was like that. The shock on my first night in Lübeck was that I could not see the stars. They were covered over by clouds.”

“Tell us about the ship.”

“You must go to sleep.”

“Tell us the story of all the sugar.”

“Tommy, you know the story of the sugar.”

“But just a small part again?”

“Well, all the marzipan that is made in Lübeck uses sugar that comes from Brazil. Just as Lübeck is famous for marzipan, Brazil is famous for sugar. So when the good people of Lübeck and their children eat their marzipan on Christmas Eve, little do they know that they are eating a part of Brazil. They are eating sugar that came across the sea just for them.”

“Why don’t we make our own sugar?”

“You must ask your father that.”

Years later, Thomas wondered if his father’s decision to marry Julia da Silva-Bruhns, whose mother was reputed to have had in her veins blood from South American Indians, rather than a stolid daughter of one of the local shipping magnates or old trading and banking families, was not the beginning of the decline of the Manns, evidence that a hunger for the richly strange had entered the spirit of the family, which had, up to then, possessed an appetite only for what was upright and certain to yield a steady return.

In Lübeck, Julia was remembered as a small girl arriving with her sister and her three brothers after their mother had died. They were taken care of by an uncle, and they did not, when they appeared first in the city, have a word of German. They were watched suspiciously by figures such as old Frau Overbeck, known for her staunch adherence to the practices of the Reformed Church.

“I saw those children blessing themselves one day as they passed the Marienkirche,” she said. “It may be necessary to trade with Brazil, but I know no precedent for a Lübeck burgher marrying a Brazilian, none at all.”

Julia, only seventeen at the time of her marriage, gave birth to five children who carried themselves with all the dignity required of the children of the senator, but with an added pride and self-consciousness, and something close to display, which Lübeck had not seen before and which Frau Overbeck and her circle hoped would not become fashionable.

Due to this decision to marry unusually, the senator, eleven years older than his wife, was viewed with a certain awe, as though he had invested in Italian paintings or rare majolica, acquired to satisfy a taste that, up to then, the senator and his antecedents had kept in check.

Before leaving for church on Sunday, the Mann children had to be carefully examined by their father while their mother delayed them by remaining upstairs in her dressing room, trying on hats or changing her shoes. Heinrich and Thomas had to show a good example by maintaining an expression of gravity, while Lula and Carla tried to stand still.

By the time Viktor was born, Julia was less attentive to the strictures that her husband laid down. She liked the girls to have colorful bows and stockings, and she did not object to the boys having longer hair and greater latitude in their comportment.

Julia dressed elegantly for church, often wearing only one color—a gray, for example, or a dark blue, with matching stockings and shoes and the only sign of relief a red or yellow band on her hat. Her husband was known for the precision of the cuts made by his tailor in Hamburg and for his impeccable appearance. The senator changed his shirt every day, sometimes twice a day, and had an extensive wardrobe. His mustache was trimmed in the French manner. In his fastidiousness, he represented the family firm in all its solidity, a century of civic excellence, but in the luxury of his wardrobe he offered his own view that being a Mann in Lübeck meant more than money or trade, it suggested not only sobriety but a considered sense of style.

To his horror, on the short journey between the Manns’ house on Beckergrube and the Marienkirche, Julia often greeted people, gleefully and freely calling out their names, something that had never been done before on a Sunday in the history of Lübeck, further convincing Frau Overbeck and her spinster daughter that Frau Mann was, in her heart at least, still a Catholic.

“She is showy and silly, and that is the mark of a Catholic,” Frau Overbeck said. “And that band on her hat is pure frivolity.”

In the Marienkirche itself as the wider family assembled, it was noted how pale Julia was, and how oddly alluring her pallor was against her heavy chestnut hair and mysterious eyes, which rested on the preacher in an expression of half-veiled mockery, a mockery that was alien to the seriousness with which her husband’s family and their friends treated religious observance.

Thomas realized that his father disliked hearing about his wife’s childhood in Brazil, especially if the girls were present. His father, however, loved when Thomas asked him to talk about old Lübeck and to explain how the family firm had grown from modest beginnings in Rostock. His father appeared to derive satisfaction when Thomas, calling at his office on his way home from school, sat and listened about ships and warehouses and banking partners and insurance schemes, and then later remembered what he had been told.

Even distant cousins came to believe that while Heinrich was dreamy and rebellious like his mother and was to be found reading books, young Thomas, alert and grave in his demeanor, was the one who would take the family firm into the next century.

As the girls grew older, all the children would gather in their mother’s dressing room if their father had left for his club or for some meeting, and Julia would resume her stories about Brazil, telling of the whiteness of the clothes the people wore there, the amount of washing that was done so that everyone looked special and beautiful, the men as well as the women, the black people as well as the white.

“It was not like Lübeck,” she said. “No one saw any need to be solemn. There were no Frau Overbecks pursing their lips. No families like the Esskuchens in perpetual mourning. In Paraty, if you saw three people, then one was talking and the other two were laughing. And they were all in white.”

“Were they laughing at a joke?” Heinrich asked.

“Just laughing. That is what they did.”

“But laughing at what?”

“Darling, I don’t know. But that is what they did. Sometimes at night I can hear that laughter still. It comes in on the wind.”

“Can we go to Brazil?” Lula asked.

“I don’t think your father wants you to go to Brazil,” Julia said.

“But when we are older?” Heinrich asked.

“We can never tell what will happen when we are older,” she said. “Perhaps you will be able to go anywhere then. Anywhere!”

“I would like to stay in Lübeck,” Thomas said.

“Your father will be happy to hear that,” Julia replied.

Thomas lived in a world of his dreams more than his brother Heinrich did, or his mother, or his sisters. Even his discussions with his father about warehouses were further aspects of a fantasy world that often included himself as a Greek god, or as a figure in a story from a nursery rhyme, or the woman in the oil painting that his father had placed on the stairwell, the expression on her face ardent, anxious, expectant. He was not sure sometimes that he was not, in reality, older than Heinrich and stronger, or that he did not go out each day with his father as an equal to the office, or that he was not Matilde, his mother’s maid in charge of the dressing room, who took care that his mother’s shoes were kept in pairs and that her bottles of perfume were never empty and that her secret things remained in the correct drawers away from his prying eyes.

When he heard them say that he was the one who would shine in the world of business, when he impressed visitors by knowing about consignments due to arrive, and the names of ships and faraway ports, he almost shuddered at the thought that if these people knew who he really was, they would take a different view of him. If they could actually see into his mind and know how much at night and even in the day he allowed himself to become the woman in the painting on the stairwell with all her fervid desires, or someone who moved across the landscape with a sword or with a song, then they would shake their heads in wonder at how cleverly he had fooled them, how cunningly he had won his father’s approval, what an imposter and confidence man he was, and how little he could be trusted.

Heinrich, of course, knew who he was, and was aware enough of his younger brother’s dream life to realize not only that it exceeded his own in scope and scale, but that, as he warned him, the more Thomas extended his ability to dissimulate, the greater the danger of being found out. Heinrich, unlike his brother, made himself clear to the household. His fascination, as he grew into his teens, with Heine and Goethe, with Bourget and Maupassant, was as transparent as his indifference to ships and warehouses. He saw these latter things as dull, and no amount of admonishment could prevent him from emphasizing to his father that he wanted nothing whatsoever to do with the family business.

“I saw you over lunch doing an imitation of a little businessman,” he said to Thomas. “Everyone was fooled except me. When are you going to let them know that you are only pretending?”

“I am not pretending.”

“You don’t mean a word of it.”

Heinrich had developed a way of disassociating himself so completely from the family’s main concerns that his father learned to leave him alone, concentrating instead on correcting small failures in the manners or bearing of his second son and his two daughters. Julia tried to interest Heinrich in music, but he did not want to go on playing the piano or the violin.

Heinrich would, Thomas thought, have become totally detached from the family had it not been for his intense devotion to his sister Carla. There were ten years between the two, so that Heinrich’s response to his sister was more fatherly than brotherly. From the time she was a baby, Heinrich carried Carla about the house. And then, as she got older, he taught her card games and played a gentle version of hide-and-seek in which only they were involved.

His affection for Carla allowed others to admire the softness in him, the consideration. Even though he had friends and manly activities to attend to, Heinrich would react to Carla’s demands with tenderness. If Lula became jealous of the attention paid to her sister, Heinrich would include her too, but she often grew bored as her sister and her older brother appeared to have a private way of communicating with and amusing each other.

“Heinrich is very kind,” a cousin said. “If only he were practical as well, then the family’s future would be secure.”

“There is always Tommy,” Aunt Elisabeth said, turning to Thomas. “Tommy is going to take the firm into the twentieth century. Is that not your plan?”

Thomas would smile as best he could, having noted the faint irony in her tone.

Even though it was believed that his recalcitrance came from her side of the family, Heinrich, as he grew older, began to be bored by his mother’s stories, nor did he seem to have inherited her fragility of spirit, her engagement with the rare, the exquisite. Strangely, for all his talk about poems and art and travel, Heinrich, in his air of frankness and determination, was, despite himself, becoming a pure, genuine Mann. Indeed, when he was seen walking through Lübeck, his aunt Elisabeth loved to remark how much he resembled his grandfather Johann Siegmund Mann, how he had the heavy gait that she associated with old Lübeck, and also the ponderous tone of his father’s line. It was such a pity that he lacked any enthusiasm for trade.

It was clear to Thomas that the business would, in time, be left to him to manage rather than to his older brother, that the house that had been his grandparents’ would eventually be his domain. He could fill it with books, he thought. He saw how he would reconfigure the upstairs rooms and move the offices to some other building. He would order books from Hamburg, as his father ordered his clothes, and from farther afield, perhaps even from France if he could learn to read French, or from London when his English was more fluent. He would live in Lübeck as no one had ever done, with a business that he would have consolidated, enough for it to be merely a way to fund his other concerns. He would like a French wife, he thought. She would add luster to their lives.

He imagined his mother coming to visit the house on Mengstrasse, when he and his wife would have decorated it, and admiring what they had done, the new piano they had bought, the paintings from Paris, the French furniture.

As Heinrich grew taller, he came to let Thomas know more emphatically that his younger brother’s efforts to behave like a Mann were still a pose, a pose whose falsity was increasingly apparent when Thomas began to read more poetry, when he could no longer keep his enthusiasm for culture a secret, and when he would fitfully allow his mother to accompany him on the Bechstein in the drawing room as he played the violin.

Time passed and Thomas’s efforts to pretend that he was interested in ships and trade gradually crumbled. While Heinrich had grown defiantly unequivocal in his ambitions, Thomas was nervous and evasive, but still he could not disguise how he had changed.

“Why don’t you stop by your father’s office anymore?” his mother asked. “He has mentioned it several times.”

“I will go there tomorrow,” Thomas said.

On the way home from school, however, he thought of the ease he would feel in his own house, finding a place away from everyone, reading his book or just dreaming. He decided that he would go to his father’s office later in the week.

Thomas had a memory of a day in that house in Lübeck with his mother at the piano and himself at the violin, when Heinrich appeared in the doorway without warning and stood watching them. As Thomas continued playing, he was alert to Heinrich’s presence. They had shared a room for some years, but did not do so anymore.

Heinrich, four years older than he, fairer in complexion, had become a handsome man. That was what Thomas noticed.

Heinrich, who was eighteen then, clearly saw that he was being studied by his younger brother. For one or two seconds, he must also have spotted that the gaze included an element of uneasy desire. The music, Thomas remembered, was slow and undemanding to play, one of Schubert’s early pieces for piano and violin, or perhaps even a transcription of a song. His mother’s attention was on the sheet music so that she did not take in the way in which her two sons looked at each other. Thomas was not sure that she even knew Heinrich was there. Slowly, as he blushed in embarrassment at what his brother had seen in him, Thomas looked away.

When his brother had gone, Thomas desperately tried to play the violin in time with his mother as though nothing had occurred. Finally, however, they had to stop; he was making too many mistakes for them to carry on.

Nothing like this ever happened again. Heinrich had needed to let him know that he saw into his spirit. That was all. But the memory remained: the room, the light from the long window, his mother at the piano, his own solitude as he stood close to her trying to play, and the music, the soft sounds they made. And then the sudden eye contact. And the return to normality, or something that might have resembled normality were an outsider to have come into the room.

Heinrich was happy to leave school and take up employment in a bookshop in Dresden. In his absence Thomas grew even dreamier. He simply could not apply himself to study or to listen much to teachers. In the background, like some thundering noise, was the ominous idea that he would turn out, once the time came for him to behave like a grown-up, to be no use to anyone.

Instead, he would embody decline. Decline would be in the very sound of the notes he played when he practiced the violin, in the very words when he read a book.

He knew that he was being observed, not just in the family circle, but at school, at church. He loved listening to his mother playing the piano and following her when she went to her boudoir. But he also liked being pointed out on the street, respected as an upright son of the senator. He had soaked up his father’s self-importance, but he also had elements of his mother’s artistic nature, her whimsicality.

Some in Lübeck took the view that the brothers were, in fact, not merely examples of a decline in their own household but presentiments of a new weakness in the world itself, especially in a northern Germany that had once been proud of its manliness.

Much then depended on their younger brother, Viktor, born when Heinrich was nineteen and Thomas almost fifteen.

“Since the first two boys have grown so attached to poetry,” Aunt Elisabeth said, “we can only hope that this new one prefers ledgers and account books.”

In the summer, once the family arrived at Travemünde for their four weeks’ holiday by the sea, all thought of school and teachers, grammar and ratios and the dreaded gymnastics was banished.

In the beachside hotel, a Swiss-style lodge, Thomas, who was fifteen, woke in a tidy little room with old-fashioned furniture to the sound of the gardener raking the gravel under the bright white sky of a summer morning on the Baltic.

With his mother and Ida Buchwald, her female companion, he had breakfast on the balcony of the dining room or under the tall chestnut tree outside. Beyond them was the short grass, giving way to the taller shore vegetation and then the sandy beach.

His father seemed to take pleasure in the hotel’s minor shortcomings. He believed the tablecloths to be too hastily laundered and the tissue-paper napkins to be vulgar; the strange bread and the metal eggcups were not to be tolerated. And then, having listened to him complain, Julia would calmly shrug.

“Everything will be perfect when we go home.”

When Lula asked her mother why their father seldom came to the beach with them, she smiled.

“He enjoys being in the hotel, and he doesn’t want to come to the beach. So why should we make him?”

Thomas and his siblings would go with his mother and Ida to the beach and curl up on the chairs put in place by the hotel staff. The hum of conversation between the two women would stop only when anyone new appeared and they would both sit up to see who it was. And then, curiosity satisfied, they would start up again in a kind of languid whisper. And soon, at their urging, in his bathing suit, Thomas would approach the waves, edging himself in, afraid first of the cold, jumping as each gentle wave came, and then letting the water embrace him.

In the interminable late afternoons, there were hours by the bandstand, or times when Ida read to him under the trees behind the hotel before they would go to sit at the end of the rampart in the twilight and wave a handkerchief at the ships going by. And then it would be time for supper, and later he would often go to his mother’s room to watch her prepare for her descent to the dining room on the hotel’s glassed-in veranda to have dinner with her husband, surrounded by families not only from Hamburg but from England and even Russia, as he himself got ready for sleep.

On the days when it rained, when the west wind blew the sea back, he would spend time at the upright piano in the lobby. It had been battered by all the waltz music played on it, and he could not get the same rich tones and undertones that the grand piano at home yielded, but it had a funny, muted, gurgling tone of its own that he knew he would miss once the holiday was over.

His father, that last summer, returned to Lübeck after a few days, under the pretext that he had urgent work to do. But when he appeared again, he did not join them for breakfast and, no matter how fine the day was, remained reading in the drawing room with a rug around him as though he were an invalid. Since he did not accompany them on any of their outings, they carried on as if he were still away.

It was only when Thomas went looking for his mother one evening, finally finding her in his father’s room, that he was forced to notice his father, who was lying in bed staring at the ceiling with his mouth open.

“Poor dear,” his mother said, “work has tired him out so much. This holiday will do him good.”

The next day, his mother and Ida followed their normal routine, without any mention that they had left the senator in bed in his room. When Thomas asked his mother if his father was sick, she reminded him that the senator had had a minor bladder operation some months earlier.

“He is still recovering,” his mother said. “Soon he will be running into the water.”

What was strange, Thomas thought, was how little he could remember of his father ever swimming or lying on the beach during earlier summer holidays. Instead, he recalled him reading the newspaper in a deck chair on the veranda, his supply of Russian cigarettes on the table beside him, or waiting outside his mother’s room as Julia drifted dreamily inside in the time before dinner.

One day as they walked back from the beach, his mother asked him to visit his father in his room, perhaps even read to him should his father ask. When Thomas demurred, letting her know that he wanted to hear the band play, she insisted, saying that his father was expecting him.

In the room, his father was sitting up in bed, with a crisp white sheet around his neck, while the hotel barber shaved him. He nodded to Thomas and indicated that he should sit on the chair nearest the window. Thomas found a book that was open with its pages facing downwards and began to flick through it. It was the sort of book that Heinrich might read, he thought. He hoped his father did not want him to read from this.

He became absorbed in the slow, intricate way the barber was shaving his father, following broad sweeps of the open razor with tiny movements. When the barber had done one half of the face, he stood back to examine his work and then set about cutting away tiny hairs near the nose and on the upper lips with a small scissors. His father stared straight ahead.

Then the barber got to work again, taking off the rest of the lather. When he had finished, he produced a bottle of cologne and, as his father winced, he applied it liberally and then clapped his hands in satisfaction.

“This will put the barbers of Lübeck to shame,” he said, taking off the white sheet and folding it. “And people will flock to Travemünde for the best shave.”

Thomas’s father lay on the bed. His striped pajamas were perfectly ironed. Thomas saw that his father’s toenails were cut with care, except for the little toe on the left foot where the nail seemed to have curled around the toe. He wished he had scissors so that he could try to cut it properly. And then he realized what an absurd idea this was. His father would hardly let him cut his toenails.

He was still holding the book. If he did not put it aside quickly, his father might see it and call on him to read from it, or he might ask him something about it.

His father soon closed his eyes and appeared to be asleep, but presently he opened them again and gazed blankly at the wall opposite. Thomas wondered if this would be an opportune moment to ask his father about ships, which ones were due in port and which were due to depart. And maybe, if his father became loquacious, inquire about fluctuations in the price of grain. Or mention Prussia so that his father could complain about the unpleasant manners and uncouth eating habits of Prussian officials, even men who claimed to come from good families.

He glanced at his father again and saw that he was fast asleep. Within a short time, he was snoring. Thomas thought that he might now put the book on the bedside table. He stood up and went closer to the bed. The shaving had made his father’s face look pale as well as smooth.

He wasn’t sure how long he was expected to stay. He wished someone from the hotel would come with fresh water or fresh towels, but he supposed all of that was already in place. He did not expect his mother to come. He knew that she had sent him to the room so that she could relax in the hotel gardens or go back to the beach with Ida and his sisters or with Viktor and the maid. If he set foot outside this room, he believed, his mother would surely hear about it.

He walked around, touching the newly laundered sheets, but, worried that he might disturb his father, he stepped away.

When his father let out a cry, the sound was so strange that he believed for an instant that someone else was in the room. But then his father began to shout out words and it was a familiar voice that Thomas heard, even though the words made no sense. His father was sitting up in bed, holding his stomach. After some effort, he managed to stand out on the floor only to fall back weakly onto the bed.

Thomas’s first response was to move away from him in fright, but as his father lay back moaning with his eyes closed, his hands still holding his stomach, Thomas approached him and asked if he should go and look for his mother.

“Nothing,” his father said.

“What? Should I not get my mother?”

“Nothing,” his father repeated. He opened his eyes and looked at Thomas, his expression a kind of grimace.

“You know nothing,” his father said.

Thomas darted from the room. On the stairs, having found that he had descended one floor too many, he ran up to the lobby and found the concierge, who called the manager. As he was explaining to both what had happened, his mother and Ida appeared.

He followed all of them to the room, only to find that his father was peacefully asleep on the bed.

His mother sighed and quietly apologized for the fuss. Thomas knew that it would be futile to try to explain to her what he had witnessed.

His father continued to weaken when they returned to Lübeck, but he lived until October.

He heard his aunt Elisabeth complain that as the senator lay on his deathbed he interrupted the sacred words of the clergyman with a brisk “Amen.”

“He was never good at listening,” she said, “but I would have thought that he would listen to the clergyman.”

In the last days of their father’s life, Heinrich seemed to know how to be with his mother, but Thomas could not think what to say to her. When she hugged him, she pulled him too close; he believed that he offended her by his strenuous efforts to release himself.

When he heard Aunt Elisabeth whispering to a cousin about his father’s will, he moved nonchalantly away and then sneaked in close, enough to hear her say that Julia could not be given too much responsibility.

“And the boys!” she said. “Those two boys! The family is over now. I suppose people will laugh at me in the street, the very people who would always bow.”

As she continued, the cousin noticed Thomas listening and nudged her.

“Thomas, go and make sure your sisters are properly dressed,” Aunt Elisabeth said. “I saw Carla wearing the most unsuitable shoes.”

At the funeral, Julia Mann smiled wanly at those who offered her sympathy but did not encourage them to say anything more to her. She retreated into her own world, keeping her daughters close, allowing her sons to represent the family, should that be necessary, by speaking to those who came to console them.

“Can you keep these people away from me?” she asked. “If they ask if there is anything they can do, could you implore them not to look at me in that sorrowful way?”

Thomas had never seen her as so elaborately foreign and mysterious.

A day after the funeral, with her five children in the drawing room, Julia observed that her sister-in-law Elisabeth, with the help of Heinrich, was moving the sofa and one of the armchairs.

“Elisabeth, don’t touch the furniture,” she said. “Heinrich, put the sofa back where it was.”

“Julia, I think the sofa needs to be against the wall. There are too many tables around it where it is. You always have too much furniture. My mother always said—”

“Don’t touch the furniture!” Julia interrupted.

Elisabeth moved proudly towards the fireplace and stood there dramatically, like a woman in a play who has been wounded.

When Thomas observed Heinrich getting ready to accompany his mother to the court where the will was to be read, he wondered why he had not been included. His mother was so preoccupied, however, that he decided not to complain.

“I have always hated being on display here. How barbaric that they will read the will in public! All Lübeck will know our business. And, Heinrich, if you could keep your aunt Elisabeth from trying to link my arm as we leave the court, that would be very kind of you. And if they wish to burn me in the public square after the reading, tell them I will be free at three o’clock.”

Thomas wondered who would run the business now. He imagined that his father would have named some prominent men to oversee one or two of the clerks who would look after things until the family decided what to do. At the funeral, he had felt that he was being watched and pointed out as the second son upon whose shoulders a weight of responsibility would now land. He went into his mother’s room and looked at himself in the full-length mirror. If he stood sternly, he could easily see himself arriving at his office in the morning, giving instructions to his subordinates. But when he heard the voice of one of his sisters calling him from downstairs, he stepped away from the mirror and felt instantly diminished.

He listened from the top of the stairs when Heinrich and his mother came back.

“He remade that will, to let the world know what he thought of us,” Julia said. “And there they all were, the good people of Lübeck. Since they can’t burn witches anymore, they take the widows out and humiliate them.”

Thomas came down to the hall; he saw that Heinrich was pale. When he caught his brother’s eye, he realized that something bad and unexpected had happened.

“Take Tommy into the drawing room and close the door,” Julia said, “and tell him what has befallen us. I would play the piano now except that our neighbors would gossip about me. I will go to my room instead. I don’t want the details of this will ever mentioned again in my presence. If your aunt Elisabeth has the nerve to call, tell her I am suddenly stricken with grief.”

Having shut the door behind them, Heinrich and Thomas started to read the copy of the will that Heinrich had taken from the court.

It was dated, Thomas saw, three months earlier. It began by assigning a guardian to direct the future of the Mann children. Below that, the senator made clear his low opinion of them all.

“As far as possible,” he had written, “one should oppose my eldest son’s literary inclinations. In my opinion, he lacks the requisite education and knowledge. The basis for his inclination is fantasy and lack of discipline and his inattention to other people, possibly resulting from thoughtlessness.”

Heinrich read it out twice, laughing loudly.

“And listen to this,” he went on. “This is about you: ‘My second son has a good disposition and will adjust to a practical occupation. I can expect that he will be a support for his mother.’ So it will be you and your mother. And you will adjust! And who ever thought you had a good disposition? That is another of your disguises.”

Heinrich read to him his father’s warning against Lula’s passionate nature and his suggestion that Carla would be, next to Thomas, a calming element within the family. Of the baby Viktor, the senator wrote: “Often children who are born late develop particularly well. The child has good eyes.”

“It gets worse. Listen to this!”

He read aloud in an imitation of a pompous voice.

“?‘Towards all the children, my wife should be firm, and keep them all dependent on her. If she should become dubious, she should read King Lear.’?”

“I knew my father was petty-minded,” Heinrich said, “but I did not know that he was vindictive.”

In a stern and official voice, Heinrich then told his brother the provisions of their father’s will. The senator had left instructions that the family firm was to be sold forthwith, and the houses also. Julia was to inherit everything, but two of the most officious men in the public life of Lübeck, men whom she had always viewed as unworthy of her full attention, were designated to make financial decisions for her. Two guardians were also appointed to supervise the upbringing of the children. And the will stipulated that Julia was to report to the thin-lipped Judge August Leverkühn four times a year on how the children were progressing.

When Elisabeth came to visit the next time, she was not invited to sit down.

“Did you know about my husband’s will?” Julia asked her.

“I was not consulted,” Elisabeth replied.

“That was not the question. Did you know about it?”

“Julia, not in front of the children!”

“There is something I have always wanted to say,” Julia said, “and I can say it now that I am free. And I will say it in front of the children. I have never liked you. And it’s a pity your mother is no longer alive, because I would say the same to her.”

Heinrich made to stop her but Julia brushed him aside.

“The senator made that will to humiliate me.”

“You could hardly have run the business yourself,” Elisabeth said.

“I could have decided. My sons and I could have decided.”

For the citizens of Lübeck, for those whom Julia had teased or spoken of lightly at parties in her husband’s house, men such as Herr Kellinghusen or Herr Cadovius, women such as young Frau Stavenhitter or Frau Mackenthun, or for women who watched her carefully and deplored what they saw, such as Frau Overbeck and her daughter, Julia’s decision, made public soon after the reading of the will, to move to Munich with her three youngest children and set up home there, leaving Thomas behind to complete his final year at school while boarding in the house of Dr. Timpe, and encouraging Heinrich to travel to improve his chances in the literary world, could not have been more perverse.

If the widow of Senator Mann had decided to move to Lüneburg or Hamburg, the good people of Lübeck might have seen this as a mere aspect of her unreliability, but in those years, Thomas knew, for these Hanseatic burghers, Munich represented the south, and they disliked the south and did not trust it. The city was Catholic; it was bohemian. It had no solid virtues. None of them had ever been there for longer than was necessary.

Lübeck’s attention was on his mother, especially when Aunt Elisabeth told people in confidence how rude Julia had been to her and how she had sullied the memory of her mother.

For a while, in their world, the talk was of nothing except the lack of placidity displayed by the senator’s widow and her unwise plans. It struck no one, not even Heinrich, how wounded Thomas was that the family firm had not been left to him, even if it were to be supervised by others until he came of age.

Thomas lived with the shock of the knowledge that he was destined to have taken away from him what he had believed, in some of his dreams, would be his. He knew that running the family business was merely one of the many ways he had imagined his future, but he felt anger at his father for the presumption in his decision. He disliked the idea that his father had seen through his illusions without realizing how real they often appeared to him. He wished he had had the opportunity to give his father evidence enough to have left a more generous will.

Instead, his father had cut the family adrift. Since the senator could not live, he had set about vitiating the lives of others. Thomas felt a persistent and gnawing sorrow that all the effort of the Manns in Lübeck would come to nothing now. The time of his family was over.

No matter where they went in the world, the Manns of Lübeck would never be known as they had been known when the senator was alive. This did not seem to bother Heinrich or his sisters, or indeed his mother; they had other, more practical concerns. He knew that his aunt Elisabeth felt that the status of the family had been fatally undermined, but he could hardly discuss this with her. Instead, he was alone with these thoughts. The family would now be uprooted from Lübeck. No matter where he went, he would never be important again.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Magician includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


It’s the turn of the twentieth century in Lübeck, a small city in Germany, and young Thomas Mann grows up with a conservative German father and a Brazilian mother who challenges the propriety of the people around her. In this deeply researched and spectacularly imagined novel, Tóibín sets the scene for the life of the novelist Thomas Mann, as he marries a young woman from one of the richest, most cultured Jewish families in Munich and fathers six children. Mann struggles with his sexuality, becomes a prolific novelist and then is immersed in the complex and devastating politics of the two world wars.

He is the most successful novelist of his time, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, a public man whose private life remains secret. In 1933, he flees Germany for Switzerland, France and, ultimately, America, while his brother and several of his children are leaders of the anti-Nazi movement. The Magician is an intimate portrait of Mann, his magnificent wife, Katia, and the times in which they lived—the First World War, the rise of Hitler, World War II, the Cold War and exile. This is a man and a family fiercely engaged by the world, profoundly flawed and unforgettable.

Discussion Questions

1. From an early age, Thomas is very much in the public eye of Lübeck. How do you think this affects his emotional development?

2. On page 23, Thomas reflects “No matter where he went, he would never be important again.” What do you make of that amount of self-awareness from one so young?

3. On page 72, Thomas meets Klaus and Katia for the first time. How is their relationship as siblings different from the relationships that Thomas has with his? And what draws him to them?

4. Almost immediately after his sudden intimacy with Herr Huhnemann (pg. 75), Thomas decides to propose to Katia. Why do you think he made this decision?

5. On page 107, Mann reflects that he “realized that after his sister’s death he had busied himself with writing. Sometimes he even managed to believe that her suicide had not even happened.” What do you make of this detachment from grieving? How is it similar to (or different from) the way Thomas handled the death of his father?

6. On page 177, Katharina Schweighardt, the landlady who cares for Julia Mann, says, “No one who has been used to money can live with that. That is how the world is.” How do you see this reflected in other members of the Mann family?

7. Tóibín describes a profound union between Katia and Thomas. They have an unspoken agreement about his sexuality and how it plays out in their marriage. Why do you think Katia accepts this this arrangement? How do you read her wants and desires as a character?

8. On pages 209–10, Thomas reflects that “His two eldest children, he understood, could not be damaged as he could be. Their standing in the world depended on their open dismissal of easy sexual categories. Any effort to undermine their reputation would be banished by their own careless laughter and that of their friends. But no one would be amused if sections of his diary were to be published.” Discuss why Thomas is afraid. What do you make of Thomas’s sexualization of younger boys (including his own son)?

9. Throughout the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power, Thomas struggles with his place in the public eye. What are his reasons for not immediately denouncing Hitler, and do you think they are selfish? Misguided? Why or why not?

10. On page 276, Thomas says in reference to his writing, “I can make no sense of the present. It is all confusion. I know nothing about the future.” How do you think this applies to his approach to life in general, and specifically to his writing up to this point in the novel?

11. The chapter on page 445 opens with the statement: “The war was over; Thomas had not experienced it. He did not know what its aftermath meant.” As Thomas experiences Germany after the war, how does this play out?

12. After Thomas refuses to attend Klaus’s funeral, he receives a letter from Michael, which admonishes him for not being more present to his own children, while always seeking his success as a writer first. What impact do you think this letter has on Thomas?

13. At the end of The Magician, reflect on what you think Thomas’s main motivations in life are. Could he have been successful in pursuing these without women like Katia and Erika?

14. Once you’ve finished The Magician, do some group research on the historical Thomas Mann. What aspects of the novel seem to be direct corollaries to his life, and which things may be of the author’s imagination?

Enhance Your Book Club

Supplemental reading:

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann (Tóibín recommends the translations by John E. Woods or John Edwards.)

Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature by Anthony Heilbut

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

Supplemental viewing:

Jojo Rabbit

Katja Mann: A Life with Thomas Mann (via Amazon)

Death in Venice

For a full list of additional resources, please visit

About The Author

Photograph by Reynaldo Rivera

Colm Tóibín is the author of eleven novels, including Long Island, an Oprah’s Book Club Pick; The Magician, winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize; The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; The Testament of Mary; and Nora Webster; as well as two story collections and several books of criticism. He is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and has been named as the Laureate for Irish Fiction for 2022–2024 by the Arts Council of Ireland. Three times shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (September 20, 2022)
  • Length: 512 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476785097

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

Praise for The Magician

“Marvelously executed and absorbing…”
—Joy Williams, Book Post

"Maximalist in scope but intimate in feeling...”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“A work of huge imaginative sympathy…quite thrilling… an epic story of exile and literary grandeur.”
—Jay Parini, The New York Times Book Review

“An incisive and witty novel that shows what good company the Nobelist and his family might have been… vividly alive…”
—Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

“Powerful… The Magician masterfully weaves together Tóibín’s take on Mann’s personal and interior life… a stirring paean to literature and music… a magnificent achievement.”
—Heller McAlpin, The Christian Science Monitor

"Staggering… dazzling… You’ll find yourself savoring every page."

“A complex but empathetic portrayal of a writer in a lifelong battle against his innermost desires, his family and the tumultuous times they endure.”

“An ode to a 20th-century genius and a feat of literary sorcery in its own right.”
O Magazine

“An intimate portrait of Thomas Mann… In The Magician, Tóibín presents a rare view into the making of serious art and, in the process, shows he is a powerful magician himself.”
Chicago Review of Books

“Compelling… This is an enormously ambitious book, one in which the intimate and the momentous are exquisitely balanced…Tóibín has fashioned an epic.”
The Guardian

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: Colm Toibin