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Selected as a Notable Book, a Critics' Top Book, and a Top 10 Book of Historical Fiction by The New York Times, and named a Best Book of the Year by NPR, The Washington Post, Vogue, and The Wall Street Journal

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.

Colm Tóibín’s magnificent new novel 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 a stunning marriage of research and imagination, Tóibín explores the heart and mind of a writer whose gift is unparalleled and whose life is driven by a need to belong and the anguish of illicit desire. The Magician is an intimate, astonishingly complex portrait of Mann, his magnificent and complex 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. As People magazine said about The Master, “It’s a delicate, mysterious process, this act of creation, fraught with psychological tension, and Tóibín captures it beautifully.”

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.

Introduction

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 colmtoibin.com.
Photograph by Reynaldo Rivera

Colm Tóibín is the author of ten novels, including The Magician, his most recent novel; 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. Three times shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

Praise for The Magician

Named a Best Book of 2021 by The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR.org, and Vogue

Named a Most Anticipated Book by The Millions, LitHub, and Time

“A fictional account of the life of Thomas Mann which is frighteningly relevant now as we see fascism make an impossible return. .. a vast, original, emotionally complex novel.”
—Peter Carey, author of A Long Way from Home

"Tóibín’s novels typically depict an unfinished battle between those who know what they feel and those who don’t, between those who have found a taut peace within themselves and those who remain unsettled. His prose relies on economical gestures and moments of listening, and is largely shorn of metaphor and explanation."
—D. T. Max, The New Yorker

“In The Magician, Toibin delves into the layers of the great German novelist’s unconscious, inviting us to understand his fraught, monumental, complicated and productive life. It’s a work of huge imaginative sympathy…quite thrilling…It takes a writer of Toibin’s caliber to understand how the seemingly inconsequential details of life can be transmogrified, turned into art…[the novel’s] expansive and subtle rhythms carry the reader forward and backward in time, tracing an epic story of exile and literary grandeur, unpacking a major author’s psyche in such a way that the life of the imagination becomes, finally, the real and only tale worth telling.”
—Jay Parini, The New York Times Book Review

“Mr. Tóibín wields a dramatically stripped-down prose style, one that emphasizes silence and stillness as much as dialogue and action. Its effect is cumulative, and its epiphanies, when they come, are all the more powerful after so much restraint… What Mr. Tóibín’s exquisitely sensitive novel gets right, in a way that biography rarely does, is its acknowledgment of unknowability. Mann was a towering public figure of a kind that seems inconceivable for a writer today…But he was also an infinitely elliptical, elusive, ironic person whose masks only disguised other masks, and he poured those complexities—sexual, emotional, intellectual—into his daily writing sessions in the various home libraries of all his provisional houses in all the stations of his exile… one of the most sublime endings I’ve come across in a novel in a long time.”
—Donna Rifkin, The Wall Street Journal

“An incisive and witty novel that shows what good company the Nobelist and his family might have been…  Tóibín seems determined to give the children their due, something their father never managed to do…Klaus, his sister Erika and their four siblings come vividly alive… Another riveting presence is Agnes Meyer, wife of Eugene Meyer, who published The Washington Post during the 1930s and ’40s…THE MAGICIAN is Mann-sized, but it canters along not only on the strength of Tóibín’s graceful prose, but also because the reader can hardly wait for the next bon mot from a family member or guest.”
—Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

“Mann’s was a cinematic life — his politics alone made him an exile twice over (in Los Angeles, fleeing the Nazis, then in Switzerland, fleeing McCarthy). But The Magician, Colm Tóibín’s new novel about Mann, resists the shallow gestures of Hollywood biopics, reaching for something mainstream film couldn’t get at, or wouldn’t bother with. How does an artist create, and can a true artist live as the rest of us do?”
—Rumaan Alam, Vulture

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

“Extensively researched and lyrically wrought…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, Best Books of Fall 2021

“Tóibín's Mann [is] more interesting than the mere facts of his admittedly larger-than-life story… events conspire to invest this life with much of the drama of the 20th century's most pressing social, cultural and political questions… the book gets its momentum and heft from the way these experiences intersect with the larger world, in particular, the way Tóibín has Mann making sense of them, in his life and in his art.”
—Ellen Atkins, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Powerful… The Magician masterfully weaves together Tóibín’s take on Mann’s personal and interior life with the creation of his major works… a remarkable dual portrait of Germany’s history in the 20th century and of a great, internationally famous writer… a stirring paean to literature and music… Tóibín does a particularly sensitive job depicting the Manns’ long, successful marriage… a magnificent achievement.”
—Heller McAlpin, The Christian Science Monitor 

“Gripping…. A retelling… of Mann’s turbulent life….[told with] a thriller-like intensity.”
—Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times

"The Magician recaptures a literary giant... Symphonic and moving… Maximalist in scope but intimate in feeling."
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"Having already fictionalized four years of Henry James’s life in 2004’s The Master, Tóibín, a careful, elegant writer, has turned his sights on Thomas Mann. Something like 60 years are covered in this book as teenage uncertainty makes way for literary superstardom, though the real action takes place between the world wars. Mann, by then a famous author, took a stance against National Socialism (after his children dragged it out of him), which resulted in devastating, foreseeable repercussions for himself, his family, and his writing."
Bloomberg

"It’s hard not to talk about Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, The Magician, in the loftiest of terms, as something staggering, or dazzling, or an achievement. Yet given the epic sweep of the book—which at once offers a haunting and heartrendingly intimate portrait of its protagonist, the German writer Thomas Mann, and a richly drawn sense of place as it travels through a politically turbulent early-20th-century Europe to America and back again—these accolades feel deserving... If you’re willing to give yourself over to the vast and stunningly realized world that Tóibín conjures around Mann, you’ll find yourself savoring every page."
—Liam Hess, Vogue

"The tenth novel from the Booker Prize-winning author of The Master and Brooklyn is an intimate portrait of one of the 20th century’s most intriguing literary figures: Thomas Mann. As he did with Henry James in 2004’s The Master, Tóibin blends the factual with the imagined—following Mann and his complex family through the first world war, the rise of Hitler, World War II, and exile—to conjure the rich inner life, and repressed sexuality, of a man 'whose gift is unparalleled and whose life is driven by a need to belong and the anguish of illicit desire.'"
—LitHub

"This vibrates with the strength of Mann’s visions and the sublimity of Tóibín’s mellifluous prose. Tóibín has surpassed himself."
—Publisher's Weekly, starred

"The personal and public history is compelling ... Tóibín succeeds in conveying his fascination with the Magician, as his children called him, who could make sexual secrets vanish beneath a rich surface life of family and uncommon art. [The Magician is] an intriguing view of a writer who well deserves another turn on the literary stage."
—Kirkus, starred review

"As with his triumphant fictional biography of Henry James, The Master (2004), Tóibín once again takes as his subject a literary titan, the Nobel laureate Thomas Mann ... Employing luxurious prose that quietly evokes the tortured soul behind these literary masterpieces, Tóibín has an unequalled gift for mapping the interior of genius. In Mann, Toibin finds the ideal muse, one whose interior is so rich and vast that only a similar genius could hope to capture it."
—Booklist, starred review

"As with everything Colm Toibin sets his masterful hand to, The Magician is a great imaginative achievementimmensely readable, erudite, worldly and knowing, and fully realized." 
Richard Ford

"This is not just a whole life in a novel, it’s a whole world – with all its wonders, tragedies and sacrifices. I loved every page of this beautiful and immersive journey into The Magician’s mind."
Katharina Volckmer author of The Appointment

Praise for The Master  

"The work of a first-rate novelist artful, moving and very beautiful." 
—The New York Times Book Review 

"A spectacular novel." 
—Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones 

"A gorgeous portrait of a complex and passionate man." 
—Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran 

"Tóibín takes us almost shockingly close to the mystery of art itself. A remarkable, utterly original book." 
—Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours 

"A marvel." 
—John Updike, The New Yorker 

"A deep, lovely, and enthralling book that engages with the disquiet and drama of a famous writing life." 
—Shirley Hazzard, author of The Great Fire 

Praise for Brooklyn

“Tóibín… [is] his generation’s most gifted writer of love’s complicated, contradictory power.” 
—Floyd Skoot, Los Angeles Times 

“A classical coming-of-age story, pure, unsensationalized, quietly profound… There are no antagonists in this novel, no psychodramas, no angst. There is only the sound of a young woman slowly and deliberately stepping into herself, learning to make and stand behind her choices, finding herself.” 
—Pam Houston, O, the Oprah Magazine  

“Reading Tóibín is like watching an artist paint one small stroke after another until suddenly the finished picture emerges to shattering effect…. Brooklyn stands comparison with Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.” 
The Literary Times Supplement  

“[A] triumph… One of those magically quiet novels that sneak up on readers and capture their emotions.” 
USA Today 

More books from this author: Colm Toibin