Being away from home changes people. Colm Tóibín knows this well. The Irish author, who spent the “long days” of confinement in California and divides his time between Dublin and teaching in New York, says he no longer knows where he lives.
The thing with “coming and going,” he said, “is sometimes I just come back to Dublin and feel a little weird… You don’t settle down.”
The 66-year-old is a writer concerned with home: the process of knowing a place, leaving and returning to find it has changed. In her sixth novel, 2009’s Brooklyn, set in the 1950s, its protagonist returns to Enniscorthy – Tóibín’s hometown in County Wexford – after a death in the family. Having been absent, Eilis Lacey is no longer who she was when she left; so the house can’t be the same either. Tóibín’s 2010 collection The empty family also explored ideas of exile and return, the complexities of home and the past.
His latest novel, The magician, is an imaginary of the life of the great German writer Thomas Mann. His life was “locked in history” – he was born after the unification of Germany in the 1870s and died a decade after the end of World War II.
Towards the end of the novel, Mann returns to Lübeck, his hometown, after decades of living in Munich and wartime exile in the United States. “I wanted this streak not to be too sweet,” Tóibín says. “I thought it would be wrong after everything that had happened.
“After years it’s very difficult to come home because people think you are different. You might dress or speak differently, or have a different attitude. Being away changes people; going back is never easy – and often impossible.
In The magician, Tóibín takes care to delimit where the world of archival documents ends and where his imagination begins. He “sticks to what happened as much as possible,” but the dialogue and, of course, Mann’s thoughts are romanticized.
The form allows Tóibín to avoid the rigid outlines of the biography and instead focus on “building frame after frame… so that you have an emotional response and a commitment to his life”.
The similarities between his latest book and The master, her 2004 novel about Henry James, quickly became apparent. Both imagine the inner life of reserved and cheerful literary personalities, whose transatlantic worlds cement the aura of ambiguity that surrounds them. Tóibín also feels a certain affinity with the authors, blaming him for being “gay and originally from a provincial location”, adding: “I was brought up in a society where homosexuality was not mentioned. “.
Like James, the ambivalence in which Mann has shrouded himself makes the author an intriguing subject for Tóibín. “They have dominated the world of the novel during their lifetime and, as gay men, they have lived extraordinary, ambiguous, hidden and masked lives,” he says. “I’m interested in the kind of energy they got from it, but also how it damaged them.
“James himself as a man didn’t have the polish, finish or sense of authority of his novels. He was a much more ambiguous, shivering figure. And also, Thomas Mann.
While The master is largely “occurs in [James’s] to manage”, The magician unfolds “much more in the world”: try as he can, Mann cannot escape the grim turmoil of the Nazi regime’s encroachment.
As Mann wrote fervent nationalist essays against Germany’s “enemies” during World War I, he felt a “real revulsion” towards the Nazis. Despite this, he hesitated to openly denounce Hitler for many years – but during his exile, Americans saw him as a figure of German resistance.
“He was not the hero and the brave man everyone thought,” Tóibín says. “You can see how uncomfortable he was, how lacking in courage. Those were years when a lot of people could get in and out of roles. “
Whether political or personal, these disguises – and “the whole idea of inventing oneself in the twentieth century” – are a godsend for novelists, he adds. “You can show how uncertain and fragile it is.”
Tóibín builds his portrait of Mann from these textures: gray space and unspoken words.
What I’m reading now …
Buddenbrook by Thomas Mann
“I read it over and over for a class I gave at 92nd Street Y in New York.”
What I read next …
Little things like these by Claire Keegan
“It’s a short novel coming out next week. I think it’s kind of a masterpiece.
The magician is published by Viking, at £ 18.99