A Ghost in His Own Life: Colm Tóibín on the Great Thomas Mann
This Week on the Radio Open Source Podcast
Open Source is the world’s longest-running podcast. Christopher Lydon circles the big ideas in culture, the arts and politics with the smartest people in the world. It’s the kind of curious, critical, high-energy conversation we’re all missing nowadays.
Thomas Mann was one of those cultural giants the world doesn’t seem to make anymore—artists with authority, almost as big as their countries, at the level of Mark Twain, say, Voltaire, or Emerson. In his heyday a century ago, Thomas Mann was called “the life of the mind in Germany”: the darkly philosophical novelist of obsession and illness in The Magic Mountain, the tale-spinner of Death in Venice, about a master writer, like himself, who falls quite madly in love with the sheer beauty of a 14-year-old boy on the beach. But Thomas Mann had a secret: he had been that love-stricken man on the beach. He was a happy husband, the father of six, and all his long life scanning for love that was not allowed. The trick today is to reimagine a whole Thomas Mann, and the novelist Colm Tóibín has pulled it off.
The Irish and transnational novelist Colm Tóibín is inviting us into a rare feast for alert readers. The Magician is his new title: it’s a biography in the form of a novel about the 20th-century German master Thomas Mann, both statesman and artist. The rare part is that Colm Tóibín is also giving us a sort of anatomy lesson in the processes that make high art and artists: the family politics, the erotic engines seen and unseen, the historical memory in a country and culture that were coming apart. Toss in what Thomas Mann felt was the spiritual energy that reached him through art and music especially. The Magician is a marvel, and so is Colm Tóibín.
From the episode:
Colm Tóibín: He, in ways, was a ghost in his own life. He was silent in his study and he would come into the house and someone else would always be making the noise. And he had six noisy children. Thomas Mann was never someone out late at night. That never interested him. He lived a very sedate life. He was deeply domestic. He did not have close friends. He did not have a peer group. Once he married, he stayed home. So that the excitement in the book is all happening around him. He’s watching it. He’s resisting it. He’s nourished by it. But it’s not as though he himself is making the noise.
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