Last Wednesday, April 20, Columbia’s Deutsches Haus hosted a reading and discussion about The Magician: A Novel with author Colm Tóibín and a panel of professors and writers.

The Columbia Deutsches Haus, a beautiful brownstone on 116th, situated halfway between campus and Morningside Park, hosted an in-person event celebrating author and professor Colm Tóibín’s recent work. The event, which took place on Wednesday, April 20, was sponsored by The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities, the Office of the Divisional Deans in the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences, the Department of Germanic Languages, and the Department of English and Comparative Literature.

Columbia Deutsches Haus has high ceilings and stained-glass windows, mirrored walls and bright wooden floors. By 6:15 pm, 60 or so individuals had gathered and settled into their seats. I was surrounded by fellow undergraduates, graduate students, and familiar professors from the German, Comparative Literature, and English Departments. Deutsches Haus frequenters, interested neighbors, and Tóibín fans of all ages were also in attendance.

The evening began with an introduction by Sarah Cole, Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Dean of Humanities. Rather than host a straightforward book talk for Tóibín’s newest novel, Cole knew she wanted to pull together a panel that would feature scholars, theorists, and translators to celebrate The Magician in its many distinct contexts. She first introduced Colm Tóibín, award-winning novelist, scholar, and the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities, whose current seminar on Joyce’s Ulysses has a near-mythical status among English majors. Tóibín, who began as a journalist, has published plays, short stories, no less than ten novels, and now, his first book of poetry.

Cole continued her introductions down the long table at the front of the room: Susan Bernofsky, a prize-winning translator of German literature and the director of Literary Translation at Columbia School of the Arts is working on a new translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain; Mark Anderson, professor of German, has written several books on Kafka, edits for contemporary Austrian writers, and often offers courses on Thomas Mann, modern German-Jewish culture, music and the opera, and German exile during the Nazi period; Amy Hungerford, the evening’s moderator, is the Ruth Fulton Benedict Professor of English and Comparative Literature and currently serves as Executive Vice President of Arts and Sciences and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; and Hugo Hamilton is an Irish-German journalist and writer whose fiction and memoir have received widespread acclaim.

After welcoming remarks, the evening consisted of a reading by Colm Tóibín, a panel discussion, and an audience Q&A to be followed by wine and refreshments.

Colm Tóibín’s most recent novel, The Magician, is a fictional biography of the great German writer Thomas Mann, who is best-known for works such as The Magic Mountain, Death in Venice, and Buddenbrooks, the latter of which won him the Novel Prize after its publication when Mann was just 26 years old. The first passage Tóibín read aloud takes place at the party where Mann first meets his future wife, Katia Pringsheim, a remarkable woman from a prominent Jewish family in Munich. I was surprised by the bright humor of the prose and the charm and wit with which Toibin read his work aloud. The second of the selected passages takes place after Thomas Mann has been exiled from Germany and has moved to France, Switzerland, and Princeton University before eventually settling down in Southern California. When Tóibín closed the book, applause erupted, echoing through the room.

On The Challenges Of Chronology

One of the biggest challenges Tóibín faced while working on The Magician was deciding whether to write an account of Mann’s life chronologically or to take advantage of flashbacks. Unlike some of his other novels, he found Mann’s life didn’t lend itself well to moving backward and forward in time. Thomas Mann grew up and came of age at the end of the 19th Century. He lived through World War One, the rise of Hitler and Nazism, then World War Two.

Tóibín explained that Mann was preparing for a different life than the one he experienced, that each major historic event happened suddenly, surprisingly, as if the week before, it would never have occurred. Ultimately, Tóibín decided that the only way to convey the truly startling impact of history on Mann’s life would be to take readers straightforwardly through its course, from beginning to end.

On The Differences Between Fiction And Nonfiction

Tóibín declared, “There are things in this book that just aren’t facts.” While writing, he’d often insert bits and pieces of fictional detail into the story to see “how they’d sit,” with the intent to take them out “in the morning.” But most of the time, he admitted, smiling conspiratorially, they stayed.

Mark Anderson asked about what makes this book a novel rather than a biography. Mann was a public writer, and there are tens of thousands of pages of public record: diaries, family members’ memoirs, articles, and accounts. Anderson wanted to know whether Tóibín ever felt restrained by the public record. Was there a time this book could have been considered biography?

The facts are only structure that creates an illusion, Tóibín said. For example, we know the year Mann went to California. We know the name of the architect who built his house. These are facts, but Tóibín’s aim is to make the whole story of Mann’s life visible to readers, and intimacy is the most important aspect of doing so.

He explained, “Fiction is the business of creating an illusion.” Readers are pulled into Mann’s mind, thoughts, and desires. “We’re in him, we become him.”

This, Tóibín says, is far from what a biographer should be doing.

On What’s Left In And What’s Left Out

While working on a translation of Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Susan Bernofsky has been fascinated by the moments of history Mann chooses to leave in and thing he chooses to leave out. In Tóibín’s The Magician, the event of Mann receiving the Nobel Prize becomes a short transition.

According to Tóibín, writers have a responsibility to their readers to sit down to write and say, “Let’s not be tedious today.” Frankly, he told the audience, there’s no drama in some parts of this story. He says that it’s important to keep the narrative tension from ever being broken.

Tóibín leaned forward toward the audience and shared that there are 50,000 words missing from this book. “Really! They’re at home, I can assure you!” Tóibín was interested in Mann as a domestic figure; his relationships with his family, his sexuality, and his politics felt most important.

On Biography As Story

Hugo Hamilton felt especially close to Tóibín’s novel; his German mother lived through the historic events Tóibín describes in his book, and she held Thomas Mann as a great writer even while he was banned in Germany. Hamilton found it amazing to observe how the plot of German history happens alongside the plot of the Mann’s lives. All biography, he commented, seems to become a retelling, a story. He was also curious about other historic figures in Mann’s life.

Tóibín found some of the writing of the book to be especially easy, because, he professed, Mann didn’t really have any friends. He met other prominent artists, thinkers, and writers, like other German exiles in California, but he lived apart from them. It became a great insecurity and a large part of the novel’s narrative, that Mann was never quite sure where he stood or who liked him. The book became a story about early loss: of the city of Mann’s childhood and his family’s firm. His fear and his closeted homosexuality. In the story of Mann’s biography, he becomes an uncertain figure nourished by loss.

On Houses And Human Structures In Writing

Amy Hungerford mentioned that she was fascinated by all the descriptions of human structures and intimate, intricate houses throughout the book.

Tóibín was invited to see the house in Bavaria where Mann’s German composer stayed. He visited Lübeck, where Mann grew up and where much of Buddenbrooks takes place. He visited the Manns’ Palisades house, which an 80-year-old woman bought directly from the Mann family; there was an entire wing with a separate staircase for Mann’s privacy.

Tóibín explained that he receives so much energy from seeing houses, and through them, he’s able to build so much emotion into the book.

On Building Empathy

Mark Anderson noted that Thomas Mann doesn’t necessarily come off well as a historic figure. For instance, he was surrounded by people who committed suicide: two sisters and two children. In his family members’ memoirs, they describe him as cold and buried in his work. “In your book,” Anderson said, “he becomes human.” He wanted to know whether this humanization was intentional on Tóibín’s part or whether it came about naturally through the research and writing process.

At the beginning of The Magician, when Thomas Mann is very young, readers learn that his father dies, and soon after, his mother leaves Mann in the city to finish his studies alone. Once readers are given those moments from Mann’s perspective, a certain amount of empathy is established, and readers can follow him into adulthood.

On The Courage To Speak Out

Hugo Hamilton admired some of Mann’s more political speeches and the way he chose to speak out at a time when so many German figures and intellects remained silent. Tóibín agreed, commenting that Mann’s impact on German society at that time is clear through the effect of The Magic Mountain on German readers. Mann spoke directly to the German people and his large following. He also left his diaries in his will to be published.

On (Not) Killing Your Darlings

Susan Bernofsky commented on how Tóibín must have really admired Thomas Mann to take on this project, and she asked how his admiration might have changed and evolved as he researched and wrote the novel.

Tóibín described how certain, stoic, and secure Mann seems in his writing. But when he read Mann’s diaries and his children’s memoirs, he realized that “all the ingredients that made him” were odd and extremely hard to pin down. So Tóibín had to learn how to keep from attempting to pin down his novel’s subject, and instead just give his readers image after image of his life.

Mann’s instability, insecurity, and areas of weakness interested Tóibín. In fact, he found himself growing increasingly tender toward him. You shouldn’t always have to kill your darlings, Tóibín decided.

On Scope

An audience member asked what inspired Tóibín to cover over fifty years with this novel, while some of his others spanned much shorter periods of time.

For his fictional biography of Henry James, The Master, Tóibín chose to focus on the five years before James published his most important work. James was alone during this period, which allowed memories to come and go: flashbacks.

Mann’s story, on the other hand, is so dictated by war that Tóibín felt he couldn’t find just one period to focus on. If he did so, he’d miss the “intrinsic melancholy” of the story, and he’d miss just how these events changed Mann over time.

On “The Writerly Spirit of Thomas Mann”

An audience member noticed that Tóibín’s style bears the marks of Thomas Mann, especially at the beginning of The Magician. They wanted to know whether this was intentional. “Or did the spirit of Thomas Mann creep in?”

It wasn’t intentional, Tóibín said, and the sentences shorten as the book goes on because Mann’s children grow up, and much of the book becomes made of dialogue. Tóibín looked to emulate Hemingway’s brisk, snappy dialogue as the Manns moved into the 1920s.

On Fabricated Dinner-Table Discussion

One attendee asked a question about the ratio of fact and fiction in a scene where poet and novelist Auden and Isherwood attend a dinner party at Mann’s home in Princeton.

Tóibín described how, after six years of exile, Thomas Mann wouldn’t have had the chance to be rude to anybody, so at this party, he finally decides to pick on Isherwood. (Tóibín made this up.)

(And, he admitted, smiling, all the Virginia Woolf talk is made up, too.)

On Structure And Time In Mann’s Writing

Susan Bernofsky described how Thomas Mann stretches time in his writing. Some chapters span years, while others span moments. She asked Tóibín, “Is Thomas Mann as a writer of time important to you?”

Tóibín was fascinated by the slow time of Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which allowed him to normalize habits over time. The fact that Death in Venice, on the other hand, takes place over just a few days shows Mann’s considerable range. He asked Bernofsky whether she’d been having any trouble translating the long treatises in The Magic Mountain. Right now, Bernofsky is on page 423 and translating long passages of excerpts from physiological textbooks. “Time is very long right now!”

On The One Thing He Would Have Done Differently

In retrospect, Tóibín wishes he would have written an imagined collection of Mann’s wife’s letters to him. Her letters have been lost over time, and if we had them, Tóibín emphasizes that we’d have been able to see how literate, tolerant, wise, funny, and important she was.

On The Subject Of Colm Tóibín’s Next Fictional Biography

Amy Hungerford brought the evening to a close by refusing to ask the question she’s certain Tóibín will encounter at every stop on his book tour: “Who will you inhabit next?” Instead, she encouraged attendees to offer the author their own suggestions over wine and refreshments.

Photo of Tóibín’s The Magician via Bwog Staff