The Magician is on my list as one of 2021’s most impressive and involved reads. Containing observations on life as much as literature, it’s a family saga of a different dimension, almost biographically thorough, and — of course — a beautifully written story of the German essayist, author and Nobel Prize in Literature laureate.
I think I read most of the novels when I was in my late teens or early 20s, and that had a big effect on me, especially Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, Dr Faustus and Death in Venice,” says Colm of the background to his 10th novel.
“And then a whole new look at Thomas Mann’s career began when his diaries came out in 1975, 20 years after his death.
“In English, three big biographies were published in 1996 and I reviewed those which means it was a lot of work reading all three. I wrote other pieces then later on about other books that appeared about him and his family.
“When I went to Los Angeles for the first time in 2005, the one thing I wanted to see was the house he built in 1942 [Pacific Palisades]. I knew why I was going into that house, so I must have been thinking about the book since then.
“I haven’t been writing it since then, but I’ve been adding to it and reading around it and thinking about it. I remember one day, about five years ago, I realised, ‘I better write this book’, there’s no point going on about it and adding to it, just sit down and stop prevaricating and procrastinating and just do it.”
The Magician begins with Mann’s childhood in Lubeck, Northern Germany, as the reader follows him and his family’s move to America to escape the Nazis, painting a detailed portrait of an author dedicated to his routine — and owner of hidden longings and desires.
Mann is one of the best-known exponents of Exiliteratur, German literature written in exile by those opposing the Hitler regime.
“I found that I couldn’t pin him down, that he remained sort of mysterious, that everything you say about him, the opposite could also be true,” says Colm of Mann, whose diaries reveal his struggles with his sexuality, which found reflection in his works.
“You know, it’s not just about his sexuality, he was a married man with six children, but his diaries show that his erotic dreams were really about young men.
“Also politically, he really did change from being a monarchist and a sort of Prussian militarist in the First World War to becoming a serious Democrat and an implacable enemy of Hitler in the 1920s and into the 1930s and 1940s. He’s never easy to pin down emotionally. He tended to be buttoned up and distance.
“I was interested in exploring the spaces in between, rather than the certainties.
“I was interested in exploring the uncertainties and the instabilities, which I think for a novel, you can work much better with a complex character, rather than one that is simpler.”
Fiction can be a useful tool to show the range of layered feelings or intentions.
“I think a novel can deal with hiding truth better than any other thing can because you can show what someone is feeling, then you can show what they’re saying and you can show the distance between those things,” says Colm.
“I’m not interested in that as a sort of hypocrisy, but as something that can be very rich, that distance between the withholding and the saying. And so, with him I think it was particularly rich where you could see it all the time.”
The Magician captures Mann’s sedate life, of daily walks and mornings full of writing.
“He was domestic, and his routine was so important but within him, there was a sort of, not exactly a wildness, but a realisation that that wasn’t really who he was,” says Colm.
“I suppose the man you saw on the platform, the figure who was in a suit, who was scholarly, who was reserved, who was buttoned up, was not the figure which I think was a much more uncertain, a much more shivering figure, below that surface, behind that mask.”
The novel is as much a portrait of Mann’s marriage to Katia, a union that wasn’t simple. Katia is full of quiet strength as she manages her husband and their six children.
“In certain ways she’s much smarter than he is,” says Colm. “She sees things coming much better, she’s got more sympathy for people. I think she’s an intelligent person, and also intelligent enough to see his sexuality as a complex thing from very early on in their marriage.
“Every time she comes into a room in the novel, she says something interesting. My job was to keep it like that, that was never a moment that, ‘Oh, Katia’s coming in, what’s she going to say now?’ It isn’t that what she’s going to say is eccentric, like Erika the daughter, or another character. She tends to be very sensible in a very plainspoken sort of way.
“And so that was an important thing for me to get that to get that marriage. I didn’t want to make a cliché that she was sad: she was a brilliant student, one of the first German women to study science at university. But I had to be careful not to make that too easy to read as, in her marriage, she must have been really frustrated.”
The Booker Prize nominated novelist is surprised by the reaction to a piece he wrote for The Guardian earlier this month, in which he considered whether the Brexit fallout would lead to an united Ireland.
“Because I don’t write many of those pieces, and I’m not on Twitter. It’s a generational thing; it’s sort of new to me, the fact that there’s so many people at their computers and have opinions,” he says.
“And it’s very good that they have a right to express them and be offended by the piece which I thought, in my innocence, was a pretty mainstream middle of the road version of what’s happening.
“I think a united Ireland has really come on the agenda and there’s a lot at stake, and everyone’s going to have an opinion about it. So I put mine on The Guardian and a lot of people put theirs on the internet to complain.
“I think there are situations where people are really, really fired up. And obviously one of them is now this question of what we’re going to do with the constitutional arrangements on the islands.”
Colm says that things need to be thought through.
“I would really like to see some very gradual movement, for example, if anyone has thought about having an all-Ireland Arts Council for example, that would have its headquarters in Armagh, just as a start, just to see what that would be like. And to do the same with perhaps, other areas, perhaps to have an all-Ireland soccer team, just to see what they would be like.
“But to do it as a one stop moment on the first of January some year, I think it would be very difficult. I think too a referendum is always a crude mechanism. And I think 51:49 vote in favour of a united Ireland, I think, would be really dangerous. And I don’t think that’s an extreme view, it seems to me it’s evidence based.
“I wrote the piece in good faith, also just watching Dublin politicians. People like Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, jumping on a united Ireland bandwagon because everyone is so worried about the Sinn Fein vote.
“I think (a) it’s not going to stop the Sinn Fein vote and (b) the way they’re speaking doesn’t seem right, it seems made up, it seems something they’re trying out.”
Colm is in conversation with novelist Damon Galgut tonight as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival. It’ll be available on demand thereafter until November 7. See belfastinternationalartsfestival.com for more. The Magician, Viking, £18.99, is available now.