A relatively young Thomas Mann, sporting a delicious moustache. Perhaps he decided the moustache looked a bit ... well, gay. I mean to say, this could be Proust's Baron de Charlus.
What is it?
A novel by Irish writer Colm Tóibín, first published in 2021.
Ah, Colm Tóibín! We know him, and we like him!
Yeah. His books aren’t always hugely gay, though. He kind of rises above that sometimes!!
So does he rise above it here? And what does that mean, anyway?!
I just mean that he isn’t a writer who always writes about sexuality, sex, gender, queerness, and so on. It’s always present in his work, but sometimes it’s under the surface.
Is it under the surface here? What’s this book about?
The book is actually a pretty straightforward fictional biography of the great German writer Thomas Mann, from his adolescence in Lübeck through his early years in Munich and then his decades in California before his final return to Europe.
Ah, so a great gay writer writing about another great gay writer. It must be good.
It’s hugely enjoyable, a real page-turner. Thomas Mann had a very eventful life. It makes for an enjoyable read. But about the gay thing . . . Thomas Mann was like Colm Tóibín in the whole “rising above gay themes” point I mentioned earlier, but Mann is much more extreme in this. His work almost never takes on homosexual themes directly. And from this novel, one gets the impression that Mann’s homosexuality was largely a matter of admiring men from afar, with the very occasional physical encounter. So this is most decidedly not a typical gay novel in that there’s almost no sex.
Okay . . . I don’t really know what to say next . . . So what is there if there’s no sex?
Well, as I said, Mann had a colourful life: wealthy family, early literary fame, two world wars, marriage (despite his homosexuality) to a very smart and loyal lady, six highly accomplished and intelligent kids, numerous suicides in the family. So the book does not lack incident! The thing that’s striking is that Mann seems to rise above (that phrase again!) everything. He kind of floats in a literary and intellectual stratosphere that is separated from the nasty goings-on of the mere humans below. The title of the book comes from a nickname the Mann children gave their dad, and he does seem to be a Magician in his ability to maintain a charmed life despite the chaos all around him. And here’s where I think there is a queer theme at work: as someone who hid his sexuality from almost everyone for his entire life, Mann was a master of disguises—a characteristic of queer folk. He was always playing a role, that of the rather dry literary man. His sexual fantasies were only given expression very rarely, most notably in Death in Venice.
So is this book a must-read for an LGBTQ audience?
I would say no, not a must-read. It’s definitely a fine novel by a highly accomplished literary writer. It’s primary interest, I think, is in its portrait of the soul of a writer, something Tóibín is eminently qualified to write about. But the queer interest of the novel is limited, I’d say, if you’re approaching it from that angle. Much more interesting from that perspective is Tóibín's novel about Henry James, The Master.
Still, if you’re a fan of gay history, you will love this. Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden both show up in the novel (in fact the gay Auden married Mann’s daughter Erika, who was a lesbian, to help her escape Nazi Germany—one of those “you couldn’t make this up” events that happen sometimes). And there are lots of other little nods to gay literary history.
One. I highly recommend this novel as a great read for anyone interested in Thomas Mann or writers more generally. But don’t expect a predominantly gay novel, because it isn’t. Tóibín does weave Mann’s sexuality throughout the book, but he doesn’t dwell on it.
He rises above it?
Oh god. Yes, I guess that seems to be the phrase of the day. And yes, he does. As did Mann.