The author Colm Tóibín is interviewed by William Atkins, on his latest novel The Magician, which has won this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize.
Atkins, who served as a judge for award, spoke to Tóibín about Thomas Mann, magic and the appreciation of suffering.
One of the achievements of this beautiful novel is the deftness with which it imagines itself into the life of a well-known figure, Thomas Mann. I became curious to know, as I reread it, whether the line to be trodden between factual truth and invention revealed itself to you naturally, in the course of the writing, or whether it was more like a tightrope to be walked, step by step.
My responsibility, I think, was to create illusion, the illusion that you are seeing the world from the perspective of Thomas Mann, that everything is being perceived from his point of view. That was the main task, to hold that point of view. I followed his trajectory – as outlined by his biographers – as closely as I could. I tried various systems, including a lot of flashbacks, but then it seemed to me essential that the readers (and Mann) would not know what was coming next, that each event would not seem part of a pattern, but almost a surprise.
Your acknowledgements mention more than forty books about Mann and his times. I’m wondering about the process, the mechanics, by which that mass of data and interpretation was distilled into your narrative.
I began to research the novel in 2005, so I had fifteen years to absorb all this material. All that time, as I was reading, or visiting houses where Mann had lived, I was trying to work out a structure for the book. Once I had that, then I could go back to a particular book or chapter of a book just to re-create the atmosphere. I realised that a lot of the energy in the book would come from the dialogue. It could not read like a translation. I decided to make it like dialogue from a writer like Hemingway, short lines, with a lot of interruption. For that, there is no source.
The novel is partly about Mann’s efforts to navigate his political responsibilities as an artist, as the horrors of Nazism intensify. Can great literature serve political principles? Should it even try to?
Mann was in some ways conservative, and in other ways quite innocent. He was not a political thinker. But he lived in a time when no one could live a private life. Part of the drama of the novel is watching him shift and change from being a monarchist in 1914 and filled with military zeal to becoming a democrat and an implacable enemy of fascism. It was not a simple journey.
Nabokov saw his exile as a spur to creativity. What formal effect, if any, did Mann’s exile have on his novels?
I think loss nourished his work. First, he left Lübeck, where he was born, and that loss gave him Buddenbrooks. Later, The Magic Mountain came from a kind of loss, a loss brought into play by the First World War. And then Doctor Faustus came from losing Germany.
When his family called him the ‘Magician’ it was in a spirit of affection and irony; but do you think he himself would have seen any room for ‘magic’ in the production of literature?
There is a seance scene in The Magic Mountain, and Doctor Faustus depends on a belief in magic. But magic, for most novelists, including Mann, is an alien concept. You have to deal with reality and all its details. The title of the book is partly ironic.
The Magician ends with a deeply moving affirmation of the value of beauty in art. Mann said Germany had ‘created beauty out of suffering’ in its literature. Do you think he would have seen suffering as essential to his own work?
I think he saw the German spirit as one in which suffering or an appreciation of suffering was essential.
Your novel The Master takes another novelist, Henry James, as its subject. Is the biographical novel a form you expect to revisit? Can you describe its appeal as a writer?
The Master came after a novel called The Blackwater Lightship in which six characters spend seven days in a small house on the Irish coast. When that book was finished, I was desperate to get away from Irish subjects. The Master gave me a chance to do that. The Magician came after novels like Brooklyn and Nora Webster that are filled with Irish detail. Once more, it was a relief to get away from that material.
The Rathbones Folio Prize is unique in that most of the 80 books the judges read were selected by a large group of professional writers, the Folio Academy. Perhaps you can say a little about the meaning of prizes for a writer, and the significance of winning this one in particular?
I work tentatively. While I read the book over and over before it goes to press, I have no exact sense of what it will mean for a reader. So, a prize is a way of finding out that what you are doing has mattered to some reader. It is a public thing. I really appreciate it. It makes me want to get back to work.
Image © Chris Boland