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How Colm Tóibín Burrowed Inside Thomas Mann’s Head

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How Colm Tóibín Burrowed Inside Thomas Mann’s Head

After “The South,” more Tóibín novels arrived in rapid succession. He told me that he has never experienced writer’s block. Initial novels focused on his Irish heritage and on the interplay of secrets and lies. In 1996, he published “The Story of the Night,” about a young man pinned down by his secret homosexuality and by the societal corruption of Argentina in the years of the junta. It was Tóibín’s first novel with a gay character. Three years later, he published “The Blackwater Lightship,” which centers on a young Irishman dying of aids. The Booker Prize shortlist selected it. Soon afterward, Tóibín returned to Dublin after making appearances in London and New York, where he’d been doing “some piece of self-promoting.” At his town house, the refrigerator was bare, so he went out to buy groceries. He suddenly noticed cars flashing lights and honking their bells. “Eventually, a car stops and a young man gets out,” Tóibín recalled. “He goes like this at me”—he raised his arms in the air, as if he were an exultant fan at a soccer game—“ ‘Yah! Yah!’ ” His countrymen were saluting the Booker acknowledgment. His mother later sent him a lengthy letter containing all the names of Enniscorthy people who had congratulated him.

Tóibín first read Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” when he was in his late teens. He was immediately struck by the plot’s parallels with his own life: a father dies and leaves behind a widow with an artistic child. He was later struck by another parallel. Mann was forced to give up his old life as a watcher in foreign countries. “Losing a whole place, for a writer, is hugely traumatic but really rich,” Tóibín said. “The rooms you’ll never walk into again is something I think I know I am interested in.” He revisited “Buddenbrooks,” and happily made his way through “Death in Venice,” “The Magic Mountain,” and “Doctor Faustus.” In 1995, a published excerpt of “The Story of the Night,” the Argentina novel, effectively outed him, changing what journal editors approached him to write about. “I became their sort of pet queer,” He told me. He didn’t mind—he was sick of reviewing books on Ireland. So when the London Review of Books asked him to write about a trio of new biographies of Mann that made use of Mann’s journals, which had appeared earlier in Germany, he said yes. Tóibín was gripped. “It isn’t as if we’d known this all along,” He told me. “We hadn’t. I really started to think about it.” He saw for the first time that “Mann had been withholding so much, and concealing so much.” He now understood Mann’s body of work to be “a game between what was revealed and what was concealed.” “Death in Venice” revealed; the Biblical tetralogy “Joseph and His Brothers” concealed. Tóibín said, “It’s a very gay-closet thing to do, this current that someone can see and someone else can’t see.” This was a conflict, reminiscent of the secrets of Ireland, that he could dramatize.

But a related idea—examining the contrails of Henry James’s repressed sexuality—came together more quickly, and Tóibín published that novel in 2004. He thought of turning right away to “The Magician.” Instead, he decided to write again about something closer to his roots. “I felt I’d done enough posh people,” He shared his story with me. “It was almost a class issue.” And so he started “Brooklyn,” which required him to push beyond his traditional Irish knowledge and do research on the immigrant experience in America. His transplanted characters love the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Tóibín knew nothing about baseball. One day, Francisco Goldman took him to Montero, an old longshoreman’s bar in Brooklyn, to watch a televised playoff game. The Yankees’ starting pitcher was Andy Pettitte, and there were many closeups of him on the mound. “Oh, my God,” Tóibín kept calling out to Goldman, in a loud voice. “He’s so beautiful! Do you know anyone who knows him?” By the fifth inning, Goldman had ushered Tóibín out.

As the years passed, Tóibín continued to think about Mann. When he received a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for “The Master,” in 2005, he asked the newspaper to arrange for him to visit the house that Mann had built in Pacific Palisades after fleeing Europe, in 1942. Mann called the house Seven Palms. It was privately owned at that time. Now, it is a residence for scholars and is owned by Germany’s government. Tóibín felt Mann’s steely presence in the house, particularly noticing the back stairs that allowed the novelist to enter and leave his study without bumping into his wife and children. Toibin noticed the bright sun and palm trees. Mann grew up in a dull northern German town, but his mother was Brazilian. “It struck me how close it would have been to a dream he might have had of his mother,” Tóibín remembers.

A decade ago, he was a Princeton professor. Mann and his wife moved to Princeton after arriving in America. He got to see the house they lived in. While touring Europe for “Brooklyn,” he visited Lübeck. Four years later, he was at an arts festival in Paraty, Brazil, to read again from “Brooklyn,” and he took a side trip to see the house where Mann’s mother grew up. Though Tóibín was not yet writing the novel, he was, he told me, “always adding to it in my head.”

In 2017, he was enduring a rare rough patch with his writing: he had just put aside his novel about the German academic in New York. He went on vacation with El Kholti in Havana and woke up, as he recalls it, with “a bad rum hangover.” As the signature tune from “Buena Vista Social Club” wafted ceaselessly up to his hotel room, he asked himself, “Why am I such a disaster?” In a moment of “absolute clarity,” he thought of “The Magician,” and told himself, “The reason you’re postponing it is you’re afraid of it.” He decided to begin writing it at once.

A novelistic portrait of Mann would involve some technical hurdles for Tóibín. He would need to be able to remember six children. He knew very little about Germany and could not read German. He was quite sure that Mann desired men, but he wasn’t sure what else he was sure of. “Mann was hard to understand,” He told me. “The personality was fluid, and there was no pinning him down.” Mann led a life far more public than any other character he has written about. He was first a German nationalist, then an enemy of Hitler’s and a friend of Roosevelt’s, and finally a target of the F.B.I. “You’re dealing with epic material,” He stated. “And these are subjects that I’d rather not deal with.” But his greatest fear, he remembers, was that writing the book was so important to him that he was “afraid of it being over.”

The writing came quickly, and by June, 2018, he had completed four chapters. He was diagnosed with cancer.

The disease had originated in one of Tóibín’s testicles, but his doctors soon found that it had spread to his lungs and his liver. He was unable to read or write for the first time since he started chemotherapy. Only after he had started taking steroids was he able to concentrate enough to write. He wrote two poems over the course of his six-month treatment.

His oncologists informed him that the cancer was now in remission at the end 2018 He began his regular semester at Columbia in January 2019. He spoke out about his illness to few people in New York. It was a relief, he said, to have “no one asking me how I was.” Tóibín told me that he generally maintains a low profile at Columbia, noting that young gay students are not particularly drawn to his classes: “Whatever aura I have, it’s not as a gay guru—I’m not Edmund White. ‘My mother’s reading your book’—I get that a lot.”

Tóibín told me that he never works on his novels in New York—he wasn’t sure why—but he flew to L.A. at every opportunity and fervently resumed his efforts on “The Magician.” He composed on a computer for the first time, to speed the process. “I don’t think I said to myself, ‘Look, I might only have six months,’ but I felt like I had a window.” (The cancer is not back.

“There’s no room for an elephant up here.”Cartoon by Sam Gross

Parts of the book presented a familiar challenge to Tóibín. Like James, Mann was—to quote a passage from “The Magician”—a “bourgeois, cosmopolitan, balanced, unpassionate” artist. But, because Mann was more comfortable with his attraction to men than James was—at least privately—Tóibín could be bolder in connecting his erotic life and his literary life. In one sequence in “The Magician,” Mann is working on “Buddenbrooks” in Italy, and starts daydreaming about handsome young men he has spied on the street; he recognizes, with satisfaction, that “the flushed vitality he felt was making its way into the very scene he was composing.” Even Mann’s wife and children—some of whom were queer themselves—accept his sexuality as an engine of his creativity. Tóibín conjures a touching scene from late in Mann’s life, when he is struggling to write fiction: at a Swiss hotel, his wife sets up a solo luncheon for Mann, so that his imagination can be enlivened by the presence of a waiter whom she knows he finds attractive.

In Tóibín’s portrait, Mann is less oppressed by his desire for men than by his rancorous children—who frequently criticize him for being too timid in denouncing fascism—and by political upheavals that he cannot control. Mann was so obsessed with maintaining his German books in print that he resisted any attempt to antagonize Nazi Germany. This, despite the fact that his family was under threat. Tóibín told me that he made sure not to judge Mann by contemporary standards, adding, “If you start judging him, he comes out very badly.”

The biggest strategic question was how deeply Tóibín would saturate himself in the dense intellectual world of Mann, whose novels are suffused with the ideas of such thinkers as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Irony, parody, and philosophical discourse had become especially important to Mann’s work by the time he moved to Los Angeles. His 1947 novel, “Doctor Faustus,” swirls around abstract questions about the nature of music, and many of the ideas championed by the demoniac fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn resemble those of Arnold Schoenberg, the Austrian modernist known for his bracingly atonal scores. Mann’s portrait of Leverkühn was shaped by exchanges that Mann had with the theorist Theodor Adorno about Schoenberg’s compositional methods.

Tóibín knew that he could nimbly capture Mann’s erotic yearnings and his conflicts with his children; but could he make repartee about abstract ideas come alive on the page? El Kholti’s writers at Semiotext(e) might excel at this, but he didn’t. Tóibín studied up, and, in extensive passages, he gamely tried to capture the back-and-forth between Adorno and Mann. But when he sent the manuscript to his editors—Mary Mount, in London, and Nan Graham, in New York—they told him that this material stopped the novel in its tracks. He reluctantly agreed to reread the pages. “They look like me showing off,” He said it now. He could see inside Mann’s talent, but this didn’t mean that they shared the same gifts as writers. “My book is about the intimate life of a man and family,” He laughed. “The reader has a right to say, Get on with a story. And it’s often a very good thing to say to yourself, too.”

“They call this the Sunny Southeast,” Tóibín said, with a laugh. We were at the beach, under a hazy sky, outside the Irish town of Blackwater—a short drive from where Tóibín grew up. He summered here as a child and built a vacation home nearby after “The Master” won a hundred-thousand-euro prize, the International impac Dublin Literary Award. The house is cluttered but neat—Tóibín has someone come to clean—and it is full of well-chosen furniture and art, a far cry from his bohemian days in Dublin. (“Colm has good rugs,” Beatrice Monti told me.) It was also the longest day of year. The Irish Sea had a metallic hue. The waves were tiny but insistent, like uncoöperative children.

Tóibín walked along the beach in a linen jacket and long pants, looking like a figure from the nineteen-fifties, which was in keeping with the town’s ambience. On the drive down from Dublin, we’d passed a restaurant advertising ballroom dancing. Tóibín stopped drinking after the cancer treatment, but as he strolled along it was still easy to imagine a flask in his jacket pocket.

He pointed to a road sign that called it Ballyconnigar. It has been called Cush by locals since its inception. He explained, “The name comes from cois”—“beside,” in Irish, as in “beside the sea.” Tóibín likes to walk when he talks, but when he arrives at an observation that particularly interests him he stops, and then you have to walk back to him to hear it. At one point on our walk, he spoke admiringly about “The Queen’s Throat,” a book by the queer theorist Wayne Koestenbaum. Tóibín then shared his annoyance with the voguish use of “queer” to describe any kind of deviation from social norms: “It’s become a very broad term, and I find it useless most of the time.”

Gesturing at the chilly surf, he noted that such beaches had been recurring literary territory for him. In eight of his novels, he said, “someone takes a swim in cold water and hesitates before they go in.” (Mann goes for a dip in the Baltic.) Tóibín then admitted that he hadn’t been aware of this pattern until recently, when Bernard Schwartz, the director of the Unterberg Poetry Center, at the 92nd Street Y, noted it to him.

We went up a steep hill and continued along paths that he’d known since childhood. The paths were lined with heather fields and exuded the scent of freshly cut grass. He named wild fuchsia, gorse and other plants. In “The Heather Blazing,” a cousin of the protagonist lives in a house half of which has fallen off a cliff and onto the beach below. We passed the remains of the house that had inspired Tóibín. He was happy to see his literary symbol once again. “You can see how they made the walls out of mud, dirt, whatever they had,” He laughed. We then walked by a house with a crumbling white stucco wall: during his boyhood, this was his family’s summer house. He explained that one of his previous owners allowed him to view the bedroom where he used to sleep. We continued on dirt roads. Occasionally, a car passed, the driver’s eyes craning to see who we were. Most of the people here were local, and still knew Tóibín or his family.

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