Creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, they’re all together ooky. Meet the Mann family, comprising patriarch Thomas, wife Katia, and their six children. Most of those children were talented enough to earn Wikipedia pages. Klaus and Erika, the eldest, were homosexual; the former intentionally overdosed on sleeping pills, the latter married W.H. Auden, also in the photo, for the sake of exodus from Nazified Germany (Christopher Isherwood, Auden’s lover and a formidable novelist in his own right, married none of the Mann children).
Their complications form the basis of The Magician, Colm Tóibín’s novel about Thomas. Bred to be the scion of a dying class, his Mann is forbidding and marmoreal, a father in name only and more of a partner than a husband. Also, to quote Suede’s Brett Anderson, a bisexual without homosexual experience. Tóibín, who has written novels about Henry James and the Virgin Mary, writes prose that looks workaday on first glance but has accretive power, like port warming first the stomach followed by the blood. To range across seven decades of German history from the Kaiser to a couple world wars risks courting what remains of the Herman Wouk market, but the Irish novelist concentrates on the dialectical frictions in Mann that produced Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, and the Joseph tetralogy, his masterpiece. The family’s California exile, during which the Roosevelt administration benefited from the PR of encouraging a European novelist and fierce anti-Nazist, gets tested by Klaus and Erika’s necessarily strident propaganda war against Hitler; the old man, content to write beneath the mellow sunlight of the Pacific Palisades, reckons with the consequences of possessing an imagination as numinous as his empathy balks at its limits. Mann, like many writers, wrestles with what is possible:
Thomas wished he had been able to do this as a writer, find a tone or a context that was beyond himself, that was rooted in what shone and glittered and could be seen, but that hovered above the world or act, entering into a place where spirit and substance could merge and drift apart and merge again.
Some passages in The Magician read as if Tóibín jotted down observations concerning Brexit and the rise of a certain orange-haired fat-assed failed casino owner. On the Nazis:
They managed to be both the government and opposition. They thrived on the idea of enemies, including enemies within. They did not fear bad publicity — rather, they actually waned the worst of their actions to become widely known, all the better to make everyone, even those loyal to them, afraid.
Turning to One for the Gods is like walking out of a well-rugged library into a rooftop gay bar. No one much writes about Gordon Merrick these days. I learned about his existence from Alexander Chee’s lovely E.M. Forster appreciation in last month’s TNR. He wrote a series of novels on Peter and Charlie, ridiculously white men who met in college and have stayed faithful — until they hit Greece. The usual Lawrentian excitations around so-called foreigners ensues. Merrick does a couple things well, the best of which is staying away from binaries: the sexually conservative one discovers his adventurousness such that differences blur as they are apt to do with many couples we know.
Finally, Jeffersoon Cowie’s account of the death of liberalism in the 1970s complements Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland too fucking well.
Gordon Merrick – One for the Gods
Jay Wright – The Presentable Act of Reading Absence
Joy Williams – The Quick and the Dead
Joy Williams – Escapes
Colm Tóibín – The Magician
Janet Malcolm – Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers
Ingeborg Bachmann – Malina
Clinton Heylin – Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios
Jefferson Cowie – Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class
Robert Walser – The Tanners
Adam Winkler – We the Corporations