An Interview with Colm Tóibín - Believer Magazine

The Irish writer Colm Tóibín is one of the contemporary masters of silence, exile, and cunning. While outwardly a realist in the complicated tradition of Flaubert and middle-period James—novelists who thought very hard about the trace the author leaves in his or her fictions; who bent events around a central consciousness—Tóibín’s work is harder to grasp than it might seem.  

In all Colm Tóibín’s work there is a hush you hear, a kind of sighing of the disappearance of something that is so far gone there is no way of saying what it is. His characters, led by desires that they don’t understand, often have vulnerabilities and strengths that are virtually the same. I think of the loneliness of the eponymous protagonist of Nora Webster, but also her day-to-day fierceness; and in The Master, Henry James’s walled-off imagination, which makes him into a kind of specter visiting the world that he writes about with such intensity. 

I think especially of Tóibín’s new novel, The Magician, which might be his most impressive and certainly is his funniest. The Magician is stalked by a brooding, defensive, and maddening Thomas Mann, who strides gigantically across the world events of the first half of the twentieth century even as he remains a haute-bourgeois creature of the nineteenth. The novel documents Mann’s importance to the literary, intellectual, and political currents of his time, but also his alienation within them. As in Tóibín’s best work, Mann is revealed to the reader to the extent that he hides from himself, and this is carefully animated through the texture of the prose.

Which itself is the ultimate question and criterion, how the sentences sound—how they snake around, and what they are cut off forever from being able to say. In the somber incantations of his clauses, the gaps between periods, the gradual refinement of silence which constitutes the movement of his novels, one hears Tóibín’s characters reaching toward the source of their longing, which each time slips away. His style occupies the gap between something and nothing, noise and the refusal to speak, measuring the distance between them. This is to me his highest achievement, and The Magician is the summit of his art so far.  

—Alec Niedenthal

THE BELIEVER: So many strands of your past work connect in this book. I remember when I interviewed you before, in 2017, you mentioned that you were working on a novel that seemed like it was a contemporary story of a German guy with some kind of heavyweight intellectual father. I assume that whatever that was became The Magician. Which is just a way of asking—how did this novel come about? How did you settle on Mann?

COLM TÓIBÍN: I think it came about because of the London Review of Books, really. I read all or most of Mann’s work in my late teens and early twenties. But I knew nothing about him other than that he was the father of Klaus and the brother of Heinrich. At that time, I suppose, I believed that writers created their work out of a sense of confidence, rather than unease. When Thomas Mann’s diaries came out in English in the eighties. I was amazed by them, by the open references to young men in audiences that he would seek out with his gaze, and his dreaming constantly about young men, and the fact that Death in Venice came from something very personal. Then in 1996 three biographies came out in English at the same time. I reviewed all three for the LRB. Over the years I reviewed other books about the Manns for the LRB, including a book about Heinrich and his wife, and a book about Klaus and his sister. By the time The Master, my novel about Henry James, was published I knew I was going to do write a novel about the Manns. When I came to LA for the first time in 2005, I asked the LA Times—I was coming under their auspices—whether they could get me into Mann’s house in Pacific Palisades. They said that normally the woman who owned it didn’t let anyone in, but they called her and she agreed. Over the years any time anything came my way about the Manns, I would read it. And I went to see the houses, including the one where Julia Mann was born in Brazil, and the summer house in what is now Lithuania that Mann built in 1929, or his mother’s house in Polling in Bavaria where Mann had Adrian Leverkühn, his protagonist in Doctor Faustus, live. I went to those places over the years. But I postponed writing the book because I knew how much work it was going to take. The problem was that the Henry James novel treats only five years of his life. He’s in his fifties so he can remember a great deal. So the plan was to do the Mann book like that. To find a key period or a fallow period, and then to move backward and snake around the story; but it couldn’t be done in the end. The reason is that you can’t do the First World War as flashback. It’s too solid, too immediate. You can’t do the Munich Revolution like that. Every time I tried to find a way to fold the past into the contemporary—the five-year moment of the book—it couldn’t be done. In the end I had to use the system of structuring a biography—A, B, C, D—because you can’t give one of those episodes more weight than the other, or less, by putting it into flashback. 

In the meantime, as I was thinking about the book, I wrote a screenplay for Volker Schlöndorff, best known for being the director of The Tin Drum, which is called Return to Montauk. Out of work on that story I began to write a novel about a German whose father was a famous philosopher. Most of that novel is written. But I left it aside. There were areas about it I wasn’t sure, areas I wanted to refine—but I simply left it. I needed to go to the big book I’d been planning for years. I had four chapters done when I was diagnosed with cancer—there are eighteen chapters in all. The big worry was I wouldn’t be able to finish it. So as soon as I could work, I set about finishing it as quickly as possible. Normally I work in longhand, and then I type, but with the rest of The Magician I didn’t do that. I felt I might not have time. So I wrote straight into the machine, which I hadn’t done in twenty-five years.

BLVR: And you already had all the information.

CT: Yes, and I already had the structure of what was going to be needed and not. Some of these plans came to nothing, especially the section on Adorno and some of the writing about the work itself, and some stuff about Alma Mahler and Schoenberg. I eventually cut 50,000 words from the book. It was 205,000 words, but it’s now 155,000. Some of the impetus for writing the book was to describe Mann writing Doctor Faustus in a house in California during the war, in the darkest years for Germany in this extraordinarily beautiful house he built in California in 1942 with beautiful palm trees, and everything white, a beautiful glare in the house, beautiful windows, an open-plan California design, and Mann had a beautiful study with more shadowy space to the side. As he worked on Doctor Faustus, he was seeing Adorno very often and studying Schoenberg very closely. My initial plan was to describe that triangle, Schoenberg, Adorno, Thomas Mann, so when I came to all that, I gave it an enormous amount of detail, from Adorno showing Mann what Schoenberg had achieved, to Schoenberg reading Doctor Faustus and realizing that the dramatization of the invention of the twelve-tone system could not have been written by Thomas Mann. There was only one person in California that Schoenberg was aware of who could’ve written it, and that was Adorno. And it was true, Mann literally took pages from an unpublished book of Adorno’s and put them into Faustus as his own work. This wasn’t plagiarism so much as pastiche, parody, collage. Adorno didn’t seem to mind until later he claimed greater involvement in the book than he had. 

None of this worked in the end, because the family story, the story of the exile and the return and what happened to the family in the meantime became more resonant, had more density or more texture, than this other stuff. This other stuff weighed the end of the book down very badly. I had one editor who saw this, in a way, more immediately than I did. Once she started to mark things, it became clear that I needed to make much bigger cuts than she wanted. 

BLVR: Schoenberg is such a hilarious figure in the book. The part about him confronting that woman in the grocery store…

CT: That genuinely occurred.

BLVR: That’s one of the main details of Schoenberg in the book, this sketchy character who’s mostly the object of fascination for Mann. Mann is imagining what his particular kind of genius is like, imagining Schoenberg as a demonic genius, more than Schoenberg actually being a presence in his life. 

CT: In Germany, this idea is taken very seriously—the difference between being a poet and just a novelist. It’s a distinction that English sort of lacks.

BLVR: Reading this book got me to pick up Reflections of an Unpolitical Man. It’s a ludicrous book, almost unreadable, but fascinating. The way you describe it in The Magician is interesting: not to spoil things for the readers of this interview, but in the way you talk about Mann’s last novel Felix Krull, there’s a heavy sense of this conman he felt himself to be. You kind of get that sense reading the Reflections, in combination with your book—that he didn’t know much about German philosophy, or history. You kind of get that sense that this guy is trying very hard to do something which he’s not very good at.

CT: I think this is very important. That you can only write a novel about a public figure if there is a distinction to be made between the masks they wear and their inner selves, which is probably inauthentic too. So Mann was posing very much as a scholarly figure steeped in German culture. This was true to some extent for the musical culture, but for the philosophy, he just didn’t know enough—he was effectively just a novelist. Also, his relationship, as we see in Reflections, to democratic ideas, was really not fixed. It wasn’t until 1923 or 1924 that, under the influence of his wife, I think, and the events themselves, he became a serious democrat and then later a great antifascist figure. He was a man who changed his spots. By the time he arrived in America in the late 1930s he was considered this great German figure and this passionate democrat. Of course, he’s an impostor. Also, as a married man with six children and is married, he was a pillar of society. But that was not how it felt for him. His sexuality wasn’t just ambiguous, he really had a particular taste for young men. It followed him everywhere he went. It was there all the time in the diaries. There was a distance between who he said he was and who he really was in almost every way. It shows in that book, Reflections—the thinking is bad, he’s clearly not a philosopher, but the pose is always there that he is one. 

BLVR: What you were talking about, this distinction between music and poetry on the one hand in German culture, and the novelist on the other hand, is operative there. Mann talks about the imperialism of civilization, insisting that Western Europe is a novelistic culture, and Germany is a musical culture. That’s interesting to think about in relation to The Magician. His relation to music and to German culture is much more ambiguous than he lets on in Reflections

CT: He came to see the poetry and music of Germany as representing a sort of yearning, a sense of the spirit as incomplete and wanting something much more. Whereas he saw France and England as being complacent. If you look at the distance between Wagner and any French composer of the time, you’d get a sense of the German soul. Of course, words such as soul and spirit became very dangerous. Even as Mann was saying them, they were dangerous. They led to a certain paranoia that nourished Prussian militarism. Mann became like a lot of other people in Germany in 1914—he was fired up by patriotism. But Heinrich, his brother, was not. When I came to write this, I realized that this a complicated story, because it is the journey of someone who’s very uncertain. And who is not necessarily going to emerge from this novel as a good man, a heroic figure, someone who the reader could easily form an alliance with. The plan had to be to make Mann into a kind of ghost in his own life. The noise in the novel gets made by other people. Mann barely speaks in the book. He’s always coming into rooms watching. He’s always descending into silence. The idea was to reduce Mann’s presence in the book, to make him the least magical person. The Magician was a pretty ironic name for him, because he’s such a plodding figure, which emerges in the novels in some ways, and other times he strikes gold of course. Partly because of the ironies in him, the ambivalences in him. Those very things give him Felix Krull, Hans Castorp, Aschenbach, and Zeitblom and Leverkühn. 

In other words, sometimes he gets his energy from his flaws, which is what happens with any novelist. He never settled, Mann, on a single way of seeing a thing. He couldn’t. He didn’t have any solid ideology to work from. He was so easy to sway or move. That’s why he was a great novelist. Because that lack—the things that were missing in him—allowed his gift to flourish.

BLVR: I want to talk about Heinrich and Klaus, his brother and son, who were both also writers. The tension between them and Thomas is so evident, but it’s not evident to him. He’s sometimes not aware of how cruel he is to Klaus especially. How did you integrate that emotional ambivalence? 

CT: This notion of wanting to kill your brother—for Mann that urge is almost Oedipal. Early in the book, Heinrich looks at him as if to say: I know who you are. Later, when Heinrich dismisses his poetry, Thomas quietly sets about destroying Heinrich. He doesn’t know he’s doing it. Writing Buddenbrooks was an act of aggression. Stealing the family story and making it his. There were five Mann siblings in real life, but in the book, Mann reduced them to one child. He makes it himself. He gets rid of all the others. He writes a book that precludes Heinrich from writing that story himself. It went on like that. Right through to when Germany divided after the war, Thomas wanted to go into East Germany before Heinrich did, even though he had no reason to be there. That battle went on all their lives, and Thomas didn’t even know sometimes that he was struggling with his brother in this way. 

With Klaus there are other things at play. Thomas Mann saw Klaus’s lack of application as a lack of seriousness. A lack of dedication. He knew where that would lead—a young writer more interested in taking drugs, having boyfriends, traveling the world, than going into his study every day—that was not going to end well. And the fact that Klaus was so opinionated sometimes on the basis of so little irritated him. In Klaus’s novel Mephisto he used elements of his own father in the creation of the Faust figure. That must’ve been very disturbing for Thomas to read. He was often dismissive of his son. There was a battle going on, in fact, between Mann and his three sons, Klaus, Golo and Michael, the first two of whom committed suicide. And Golo didn’t start working as a proper historian until after his father’s death in 1955. Golo emerged then as a very strong figure, but up till 1955, he absolutely didn’t. And the fact that two of the sons–Klaus and Golo—were openly gay would have made Mann uneasy, jealous, and uncomfortable. In the middle of this I needed someone to emerge—no matter what you’re doing, you’re involved in a set of patterns in which something has to happen. If you merely have these dull misalliances, sets of oppositions full of envy and strangeness, you need something else. So Katia emerged as someone not involved in any of this, but who wasn’t merely motherly and wifely. If you make her just those things, you lose her. She had to emerge as a glittering intelligence in the book. You have to give her background an importance in the book—assimilated Jewish, Munich posh bohemia, father is a scientist, the family relationship to Wagner and to Mahler, her grandmother a prominent feminist, Katia one of the first women to study science in a German university. You have to have Katia come out of that world as a glittering example. You cannot pin her down on managing a household or making peace. Often how she moves in the book is unexpected—it’s meant to be—or meant to give her a central presence. While the others are at war, she is not just making peace, but also being herself in some way. There is also a battle between her and her eldest daughter Erika, but a different sort of battle from that between father and sons. 

The novel is the story of a marriage. Sometimes she takes her husband’s side, other times she is more intelligent than he is. She is usually calm but there’s a moment in Washington, D.C., where she loses it. I wanted to give her the ability to shout down a table, to speak in this extraordinary new tone. It’s the only time she does that. 

For me there’s a key moment also when a boy, sent by a Jewish organization, turns up. His organization want him to be as young in possible so in seventy years, he’ll know who knew about the Shoah and who didn’t know. And he asks Katia, did you grow up in the faith? And she becomes very serious about this and walks out of the room with him, Thomas Mann not following. Her Jewishness becomes much more important for her in these years. That was a little moment that I felt was key. Walking that boy out to the door, leaving Thomas Mann back inside.

BLVR: That moment in DC—I like how it acquires a life of its own, her speaking at the table like that. She becomes talked about, gossiped about.

CT: I came across this in a biography of Brecht. He blamed her, Katia, for having stronger views than her husband on the idea that all Germans were guilty, and for having more influence than her husband. I didn’t find this story anywhere else. I was interested that Brecht would blame her in that way. The State Department representative for Germany who’s there in the novel—he said that night when Katia Mann spoke out against Germany was legendary. 

BLVR: On a meta-level—you’ve done two of these books. You did the book about literary fathers, and I guess it seems you have a particular thing for literary biography, or doing something with the biographies of these writers. What draws you to writers’ lives? I mean, the way you find little passageways into someone’s life through reading, say, a biography of Brecht’s, and imagining a path in. The way you fill in gaps in the inner lives, the private or hidden lives, of these people, who exist as facts in so many biographies—what do you feel like you’re restoring to these people? What drives you to these projects?

CT: I don’t have a third subject. These two writers—James and Mann—were of particular importance for me. In my generation, people who went to university were reading books by James and Mann. These were parts of our lives. Doctor Faustus, The Magic Mountain; The Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl. As the 80s turned into the 90s, a school of thought arose about these writers which changed everything about them. In her book The Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick began to show that James’s homosexuality was the central impetus behind the writing of those novels. I was uneasy about this at first. In order to respond to it, I read Leon Edel’s biographies. And then I read everything coming out about James, and there was a lot, a lot of emphasis in the American academy about queering James. Scholars were looking again at the way James’s life could be read. And more of his correspondence was being published. And I became interested in this. 

The Master began almost as a set of accidents. I’d done a fifteen-minute talk for Irish radio about James, working without notes, just talking into the microphone, and it sounded like I was talking about a character in a novel. I sent the tape to my editor Peter Straus who said, “Why don’t you write this story as a novel?” I hadn’t thought of that. It was tentative business because before this I was about to write a book of essays about James. 

The Mann thing almost happened in the same way. When the diaries and the biographies came out, I realized how complex his life was—the politics wavering and uncertain, his relationship to, say, German philosophy so fragile; and all these fragilities and ambiguities and gaps were there also in his sexuality. I could work with that. It wasn’t as if I had some huge interest in literary biography. So, I don’t have a third book about a writer in my head. I don’t imagine I will write a third.

BLVR: In the background of my question is—why writers? I mean, it makes sense because you are a writer, but what is at stake for you in showing the contradictory inner-outer life that can’t necessarily be talked about in theory, or even in strict biography?

CT: There are several things. One is that before I wrote The Master I wrote a novel called The Blackwater Lightship in which six characters over six days in a small house on the east coast of Ireland, and I thought I can’t go on with this, this business of making tea and talking about the past in bad weather. The James story was such a relief after that. It was so literary and glamorous, transatlantic. I could go to Italy. It gave me a way out of the grim Irish weather. But more than anything, there’s a novel by JM Coetzee called The Master at Petersburg. The first thirty or forty pages are sensationally good. It’s about Dostoevsky going to identify his dead son in a morgue. There is an extraordinary atmosphere of coldness and hostility. In a way, it gave me permission. In the case of James we have so much information, letters, notebooks, in the case of Mann we have the letters, the diaries. But sometimes you need very little to start imagining scenes. From the smallest detail, the tiniest thing, you can have drama. I began to write The Magician after I had finished writing Nora Webster, which is based on the three years after my father’s death and told from my mother’s perspective. It was a very painful time and it was a painful book to write. When it was done, I thought, “Please don’t ask me to write another book like that.” Give me another country, another century, give me a larger canvas to paint on.

BLVR: You like to write about history from the side. Like the Fabrizio scene at Waterloo in Charterhouse of Parma, where the character never knows they’re in history, or the protagonist in The Heather Blazing. But this is the first novel of yours about a character who knows they’re a historically important figure and are living through historically significant events, to which they themselves are important. 

CT: It’s essential to me that Mann is in exile from 1933 to 1952. I could not, would not, write a novel set in Germany during the war. I would not write a novel set in a concentration camp. I wouldn’t think that was right. The fact that Mann is out of Germany from ’33, and is in this group of exiles in California—it’s important. He is like Fabrizio in The Charterhouse of Parma. Waterloo is out there in the distance but Mann is thinking about building a house in Los Angeles, or what to do with his novel or his children, while the most devastating and dark things are going on in his own country. I wouldn’t have been comfortable the other way around. Mann was out of Germany from 1933. That is essential to me. Otherwise, I couldn’t work.

BLVR: Even in World War I, he’s processing the events from a distance.

CT: He’s dealing with domestic life. He’s not actually experiencing mustard gas. This same distance from crucial events happens in my novel The Story of the Night, my book, which is set after the disappearances in Argentina. The novel doesn’t deal with the torture directly. It doesn’t deal with the generals directly. It is set in a sort of twilight time when the protagonist was trying to work out what he knew, what he saw and what he did during the crucial years of the Argentine dictatorship, but it’s not set in those years. 

I think the intervention of a novelist who wasn’t there, trying to wrest drama from something so unspeakable—it’s certainly something I couldn’t do. And if I could do it, I would think it was wrong.

These murderous things are so direct that it’s difficult to find any emotional ambiguity. Which is the only thing I know anything about. So applying emotional ambiguity to something as direct and serious would be a way of falsifying what actually happened by using a method that is not appropriate to the event. 

BLVR: You’re also in a lineage of writers who are able to look at history from the side.

CT: Yes, and this comes up in Mann. In Buddenbrooks the unification of Germany is dealt with in a single sentence. Mann himself is playing with history as a sideshow in Buddenbrooks

BLVR: And in Faustus, the Third Reich is happening parenthetically. All of the energies of the Third Reich are concentrated on Leverkühn. In spite of or because of that, the way you write about Mann’s relationship with antisemitism and Katia—I’ve been thinking about that scene with Alma Mahler all week, where it gradually becomes clear that she harbors a deep texture of antisemitic feeling, and that eventually crescendos into this long beautiful paragraph where you describe their journey out of Europe—how terrible Alma was, and how Heinrich’s wife, who seems to be this shambling loud rough annoying presence, was actually a good person, and in fact Alma was this strident antisemitic prima donna. 

But the fact is that you made antisemitism emotionally ambiguous in the only way it could be done, I think: at first, you don’t realize it’s antisemitism. First you think of Alma the way Mann does, as the widow of this great genius. Slowly it’s revealed that she has these sentiments that maybe only Katia would notice. It’s really skillfully done. How did you handle something that is unambiguous, like racial and ethnic hatred, using your method?

CT: I think the first thing is you have to be very careful. If it’s not there at all, you’re missing the point. If you overdo it, you’re post hoc, you’re after the event. I’m trying to deal first with a kind of casual antisemitism. So when Mann goes first into Katia’s house it isn’t antisemitism as much as him just asking his friend, “Are these people Jewish?” His friend doesn’t know, but the reader does. I’ve given enough information that they really have to know. Katia’s family don’t make sense in any other way. Then there’s Mann’s odd dislike for his brother-in-law and his father-in-law. It’s this odd feeling of: he just doesn’t like these Pringsheims. This goes away because he goes away, and he becomes more confident. You don’t want to make too much of this but nonetheless it’s there, a sort of shadowy antisemitism. 

There’s a moment when Thomas Mann’s brother-in-law says to Katia when the First World War is starting, “It’ll be good for your father. A lot of people don’t think he’ll support Germany because he’s Jewish.” Katia is surprised by the remark. But nonetheless it’s been said. In a way you just need to keep that going. Sometimes disappearing, sometimes rising again. 

And Alma Mahler. It was unbelievable that Alma married Mahler and Franz Werfel who were both Jewish. She said anything that came into her head, she was like a bird chirping; some of the chirps were antisemitic ones. 

By the 1920s, Mann realizes what antisemitism is beginning to mean all around him, so we don’t see it in him again. It is in the book as undercurrent, disappearing and arising again, there enough that you can see. It’s not merely Hitler and his henchmen. It comes in all these different ways. It was essential to capture Mann’s first dinner in the Pringsheim house when he brings his mother there to have dinner. And the reader, seeing it through the Manns’ eyes, realizes that the Pringsheims can be seen as rich Jewish people. It was a clash between Lübeck where the Manns came from and something that was just beyond them. The way Katia’s father spoke, for example. But nothing is simple here. The Pringsheims were close to the Wagners and loved Wagner’s music, as Thomas Mann did.

BLVR: There’s a sense of them overperforming German culture. More German than the Germans, or trying to be. When you talk about appearance and disappearance as a way of trying to balance these unambiguous things—making them fit your structure and method—it’s fascinating how toward the end of the novel, you stop thinking about Mann’s sexuality. His desires. He’s an old man, thinking more about the past, about home and Germany. You’re lulled into forgetting it as a reader. But then in the last few pages there’s a scene, a memory, that’s called back very directly and that speaks to his sexuality. He had one of his instances of being fascinated by a man. I found that so striking. And also how unexpected it was. How you had lulled me into forgetting that aspect of his life.

CT: In old age, he was still wandering in hotel lobbies. You realize he must have been doing this all along, looking around at all the service available to him, all the trains and hotels and all the different waiters coming. It’s also that Erika and Katia are fully engaged with this in the end. He’s the magician. They’re serving him. This lunch that he gets at the end when he has the sole attention of this Bavarian waiter whom he fancies—it’s this great conspiracy to make the magician happy. The comic part of it is this waiter wasn’t a willowy young man. He’s an overweight Bavarian waiter. This fleshy Bavarian was really what Mann wanted now. That scene is very important, that this erotic charge doesn’t go away, it’s always there. It’s this fundamental thing. 

BLVR: It’s fascinating. He does grow more confident, but he doesn’t really change. He remains private throughout the novel and that doesn’t change.

CT: I don’t think any real transformation occurs in him, even though his politics change. It was crucial to me that no big transformation would happen. I would hate that. No, Mann doesn’t change. Except of course in small ways. His own fastidiousness, which has been there all along, has grown and that becomes important when he goes to back to Munich after the war and sits at a dinner where the Bavarians are all eating too much. Mann has to sit there. You see his fastidiousness. He has nothing in common with these people to start with, even in how he would eat his food. Those things in him become more important as the world in him becomes more vulgar, or more brutal, more modern. 

BLVR: His ideas change at least on the surface. He comes to this idea of humanity, and democracy. He talks very passionately about his loathing for the Nazis. But his relationship with himself and his mask, it doesn’t change. You’re showing us the way it resists change. Which is different from how you normally think of characters in novels.

CT: I think that’s really important that characters in novels are not made to behave like characters in folk tales or fairy stories or bits of the Bible. Otherwise you’re trying to create an arc where there’s really only a dotted line. 

BLVR: I also should say that this is the most historically ambitious of your novels to date.

CT: It was a great challenge figuring out, say, the rise of Hitler. How do you do this in a novel? I felt that it had to be done in ways that would tell us something about the characters in the novel. How they see him becomes the drama. Thus, at one point, we see the rise of Hitler through the eyes of Golo Mann. Or we have an argument between Mann and Klaus and Heinrich, and you see Mann’s arrogance. Each time I bring in something that is happening publicly, I have to integrate it into the world of the characters. Like with the Munich Revolution, I have to see it from the perspective of the Mann’s domestic life, concentrate on the living room where the Manns are, on who’s coming to visit, on what they’re saying, and not trying to do the public events as set-scene drama. 

There are times, however, when you do have to write a paragraph about what’s happening publicly. I cut a great number of them out, but some of them were absolutely needed. There are a few paragraphs I really sweated over. I wanted to cut them but a context would be lost. So there were a lot of problems to solve: how do you describe the beginning of the Cold War? Or—there’s a big Fabrizio moment where Mann goes to the White House to see Roosevelt, but Roosevelt is busy so he meets Eleanor instead. I thought, I’m not going to do this big ‘Mann meets the president’ scene. So the way to do it was—the president is busy this morning. But then Mann asks Eleanor if there’s a way to get Mimi, Heinrich’s Jewish first wife, out of Europe, Mimi who’s there in the book all the time as an undercurrent, because she’s the one who gets left behind with her daughter. She spends the war in Terezin, barely survives.

BLVR: When you hear about Mimi, she’s almost a stand-in for this disaster that to Mann is in a way just an idea. For Mann, the destruction of his home is literal, and something that’s very real to him, but the Shoah is something that’s theoretical for him. 

I wanted to ask briefly about the presence of Isherwood and Auden in the book, who are hilarious.

CT: Mann couldn’t appreciate Auden’s tone. Mann didn’t deal with irony in poetry. Whatever Auden was doing poetically didn’t make sense to him. Isherwood didn’t make sense to him whatsoever in these early meetings in the late 1930s. It was like the two Englishmen had permanent grin son their faces, like they were mocking him. A thought occurred to me as I wrote. If you’re in exile or seeking asylum, you don’t get to be rude to people, you have to be nice to everybody. So, Mann picks on Isherwood and decides to be rude to him. He hasn’t been able to be rude since 1933. He’s constantly been ingratiating himself to people since 1933. It just occurred to me in a second and I thought I had to put it in. Also, I used to teach at Princeton, and someone told me one day about the swimming pool—that the male students did swim naked in the pool until women began to be admitted. So, I thought if that’s true, Thomas Mann would be very interested in that. I have him dreaming about naked Princeton students. Also, trying to deal as a foreigner with your papers on an American campus is very, very difficult. So, I had no trouble with that stuff. We have all been there.

BLVR: There’s so much comic energy in many of the American scenes. It shows you how German they are, and how maladapted Mann was to the present, to other people really. 

CT: Once they came to America, his own unease in the world become more intense and obvious. Mann really was different from the other Germans in the exile community, partly because of his money but also because of his fame. He also wasn’t ever a left-wing figure. But just because he lived comfortably did mean that he felt comfortable. 

BLVR: The last thing I wanted to ask about is: the way that he looks at other people’s homosexuality, Auden and Isherwood, and then at his own sons, who are able to embrace their sexuality in a way that he’s not. He grows in a few of these cases to disdain these people. The way he’s thinking about Klaus—one thinks, is this just him being ashamed because he was attracted to his son? That must’ve been a difficult balancing act as well, being able to show his resentment of these people without making him into that much of an asshole.

CT: The asshole question is there all the time, and you have to be very careful with it in order to give him enough interiority and suffering to alleviate the idea that he really is mean spirited in so many ways. There’s a moment with Ernst Bertram, the scholar whom he sees during the First World War, where he realizes that Bertram has a boyfriend, and the idea repulses him—sleeping with another man, their hairy legs entwining at night, it gives him the creeps. 

It was important to make clear that Mann was not a homosexual yearning for homosexual freedom. He was locked into a sort of nineteenth century image of the queer. He was ashamed of himself, and it isn’t as though he hoped for change. He doesn’t know what to do about the other gay people in the book, except to keep them at arm’s length or be rude to them or demean them. He’s certainly not heroic in that sense, or in any sense. The trick was to see if I could rescue him, if I could give him enough guilt or shame, and more importantly, a rich inner life—and certain elements of loyalty. And his childhood: I think it’s important that his mother left him behind in Lübeck after his father’s death when she went to Munich. That was very important, not to have that in flashback but to have that in real time. Because I think the reader is always on his side to some extent after that. 

BLVR: It’s interesting the way you use flashback in the novel. Whenever he flashes back, it’s usually about home.

CT: Yes, Lübeck was the first loss. It was the heaviest almost, in the sense that if that world could’ve been held together, he would have been a very different writer.

BLVR: And he only remembers things he’s lost. That’s where flashback occurs. 

It’s so interesting the way you talk about his sexuality—that it’s not as if there are these gay characters and he simply wishes he could be one.

CT: That struck me as too easy. In 1927, when on holidays, he met a boy aged about seventeen called Klaus Heuser. I tried to give Heuser as much agency as I could. He is smart and confident and his parents let him do what he likes. He has a charm that everyone notices. He has read Death in Venice. It is clear that his relationship to Mann is leading somewhere, especially after he gets himself invited to stay with the Manns in Munich. It culminates in a kiss. Just that. A kiss that Mann remembers. 
Towards the end of his life, he read Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and wondered if he should not have written a book like that, a book that was fully open about homosexual desire. Gore was fascinated by the idea of Mann reading his book. I did think of writing a scene late in the book when Gore and Mann would meet in California, but I decided not to write it. Sometimes the novel needed to move in a very direct line.

More Reads

Geophagy at Red Earth Hole

Ross Simonini

A Poem by Dan Chelotti

Dan Chelotti

Jorge Castillo and Nancy Alfaya in Conversation

Lille Allen