Irish writer Colm Tóibín, whose forthcoming novel The Magician (Scribner, Sept.) embraces the life of Thomas Mann, tells me that, though he had read all of Mann’s work by his early 20s, he never thought of him as a character. “In the 1990s, there were three big biographies of Mann, and I read all of them,” he says. “They each had theories about him and filled me with information, but then I became interested in how he could be seen, since I work in details, not theories.”
Tóibín’s editor, Scribner publisher Nan Graham, calls Tóibín “one of my favorite people” who might “burst out in song at a dinner.” She says he’s been writing this book for a long time, that he “inhabited” Mann, and that “no biography could compete.”
According to Tóibín, he was in L.A. in 2005 when “I knew I was going to write this book at some point and wanted to visit the house where Mann had lived in Pacific Palisades.” (In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Mann came to the United States from his native Germany.) The woman who lived in the house had bought it from Mann and his wife, Katia Mann, and didn’t let anybody in, so Tóibín felt fortunate to be an exception. “It was pretty much the same as when Mann lived there,” he says. “A magnificent house, and I was able to see his study. I thought about the weather in California, what it must have been like for someone from northern Germany, with weather similar to Ireland’s. I saw the house through his eyes.”
When Tóibín taught at Princeton, he went to the house Mann lived in there. He also saw Mann’s mother’s houses—one outside of Munich and one in Brazil that she left when she was nine. He imagined “leaving this house so close to the water and all the stars of the southern hemisphere for Germany.” These houses, Tóibín says, gave him more of an idea of what it was like to be Mann—a gay man with six children in a marriage with, “oddly enough, no evidence that it was not happy.”
Then in 2016, Tóibín went to Havana. He recalls one morning when “it was too hot outside on the balcony, the same song was playing over and over, and I thought, I should write this book.” The big issue, he says, is that he wanted people who hadn’t read Mann to be able to read the book.
Tóibín’s publishing relationships go back a long time. Of Graham, he says, “I knew her from Penguin when I published my first book in 1991,” referring to The South. She wasn’t his editor, but he remembers “seeing her in the corridor and thinking, ‘Who’s that?’ ” When he wrote The Blackwater Lightship, his fourth novel, he wanted Graham to see it. “I wanted her to publish it,” he tells me, “and I sent it to her. I was checking out of my hotel in New York for noon—this is before cell phones—and at five minutes to 12, the phone rings and she says she loved the book and was going to publish it!”
Scribner published Blackwater Lightship, which was shortlisted for the Booker, in 2000, and Graham has been Tóibín’s editor ever since. It was the first title of a multibook deal that Tóibín’s agent, Peter Straus, brokered, and that also includes collections of essays and stories. After The Magician, there’s another novel to come on the contract.
“Colm knows exactly what he’s doing,” Graham says. “He’s so in command, such authority. He delivers exquisitely controlled work, and he’s so prolific: he writes essays, poetry, criticism, biography.” Calling The Magician “a family story that happens to be about Thomas Mann,” she notes that, on top of everything else, it presents German history. “Mann saw WWI, the rise of Hitler, WWII. He had this extraordinary marriage with an amazing wife who was dedicated to his work. And he became famous so young; he won the Nobel in 1929 when he was 54 years old.”
Graham’s admiration for Tóibín is palpable. “I don’t know anyone as happy as Colm,” she says. “They don’t make them like him anymore.”
Tóibín’s relationship with Straus, managing director at RCW in London, goes back over 30 years as well. Straus was an editor at Picador when he reached out to Tóibín after The South was published. Tóibín recalls going to Straus’s office “and there were these books on his desk, and all of them went on to be bestsellers. And I told him what I wanted: ‘I want you to commission a novel from me, blind. Just trust me. Give me a contract, and when it’s finished, it’s yours.’ And he did it.”
That second novel was 1992’s The Heather Blazing, and Tóibín and Straus worked together until Straus became an agent in 2002. Tóibín was Straus’s first client.
Straus echoes Graham when he talks of Tóibín’s intense work ethic and diligence. When he sold that first book, Blackwater, to Graham, it was a multibook deal, Straus says, because Tóibín“wanted to carry on, not doting about.”
Straus notes that The Magician is connected with an earlier Tóibín novel, 2004’s The Master, about Henry James. Mann and James “are so complex, what’s on the surface and what’s underneath are different things,” he says. “The stories are sad, and then there’s this ebullient reaffirmation of life. Like Colm himself, there’s a duality, within him and these other great writers.”
Tóibín showed Straus chapters of The Magician as he was writing, and Straus says he found them very powerful. “What is said is as powerful as what is not said,” he adds. “Colm writes silences; he joins the heart and the mind. Reading the chapters, I was reminded of the silence of Mann. He’s there and he’s not there.”
Straus describes how the composite portrait of Mann comes together: “Colm is faithful to events. He’s so deft, not fanciful—and he has such empathy and understanding.”
While both Graham and Straus regard The Magician as remarkable, Tóibín says, “I’ll tell you one thing. I do not intend to write another book about a man with six children! They were all very different, and each had to be distinguished and paid attention to.”
The novel will be published in the U.K., simultaneously with the U.S. release, by Mary Mount at Viking, and to date rights have sold in 15 other territories. Straus mentions that it seems the Germans want to get a jump on the pub date: “One of my authors told me that in Germany, devotion to Mann is equivalent to devotion to the royal family in England.”