Colm Toibin as Thomas Mann

He has just arrived in Paris, for three days, between Dublin and Los Angeles. His publisher put him up in the hotel next to the publishing house. At the end of the day, the weather is nice, we sit on the patio. At first glance, Colm Toibin seems a little sinister but as soon as he starts to speak (clear English), his face becomes good-natured. This Wizard (nickname of Thomas Mann which gives its title to his new novel) required four years of work, and Toibin willingly lends himself to the game of similarities. They are amazing.

“I was born the year Thomas Mann died”, that is to say in 1955. In a small town in the south-east of Ireland. Like his character, Colm is a second son in a family of five, made up of three boys and two girls. “I know that belonging to a large family in a place where everyone recognizes you when you walk down the street, my father was a teacher and engaged in politics. »

Like Thomas Mann, Colm Toibin loses his father as a teenager and his life is turned upside down. His mother, of a dreamy temperament, has to cope. He will pay homage to him in a magnificent novel: Nora Webster. “Like Thomas Mann, I began to wake up to politics as a young nationalist. My convictions, like his, have not stood the test of experience. For Mann, it is the First World War and the defeat of Germany. For me, it’s terrorism, the IRA bombs… I understood that hating England was absurd. »

Toibin teaches James Joyce at Columbia University in New York

At 17, Colm Toibin left home to enter Dublin University. The ultimate way to get accepted by the band of hippest students was to read The Magic Mountain. Although Toibin has since taught James Joyce at Columbia University in New York, he recognizes that in those years Thomas Mann was more fashionable. This life of literature and freedom fulfills him.

Unlike Mann, who will contain his homosexual attractions all his life at the cost of great frustration, Toibin does not experience any difficulty in accepting them: “I was born in a more favorable period. In our circle of students, it was not difficult to assume. We lived in a bubble without realizing the prevailing conservatism. »

At 20, the young man left for Barcelona (influenced by Tribute to Catalonia by George Orwell). While there, Franco dies and Toibin witnesses the emergence of Spanish democracy. Very excited, he will live there for three years, learning Spanish and Catalan. He still speaks these languages ​​today and has had a house built in the Spanish Pyrenees. Another point in common with the German Nobel: to build his houses. He owns another one in his home town. And yet, he lives half the year in New York and a few months in Los Angeles with his companion, publisher.

A late first novel

Where the comparisons end is on the beginnings in literature. Thomas Mann has no qualms about not working, having his mother support him to start his career as a writer. Rightly, no doubt, since success came to him from his first novel.

Colm Toibin first earned his living as an English teacher in Spain, then as a journalist in Dublin. He estimates that he published late, at thirty-five – his first novel, Henceforth our exile, appeared in 1990.

The two writers have in common a great depth in the construction of their characters, the deployment of plots over time, as well as“an ironic look at oneself and a taste for silence. These characteristics that are not found in America and which so baffled Mann when he went into exile there in the 1930s”. He says he is fascinated by the way Mann uses his own life to construct pure fiction. Her favorite novel is Doctor Faustuswritten in Los Angeles, as was The magician.

“I wanted to be a poet”

Of course, the family that Thomas and his wife Katia (parents of six children) are building remains foreign to the wishes of Colm Toibin, who observes with humor: “I don’t advise any novelist to give their main character six children, it’s really difficult to make all these disparate personalities exist. » He is doing remarkably well.

And yet, he admits: “I never dreamed of being a novelist. I wanted to be a poet. I was writing poetry, it was very bad. I tried my hand at the news, very bad. I only found my expression in the length. Basically, I was too nervous, I put too much pressure on my short texts. But this year, I realized my dream. I have just published my first collection of poems. » The collection is titled Vinegar Hill.

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” The magician ”

by Colm Toibin

Translated from English (Ireland) by Anna Gibson

Grasset, 608 pages, €26

Fictionalized biography is a difficult art because the balance is constantly threatened between the accumulation of truthful details which smack of excessive documentation and the taking of excessive freedom which irremediably distances the reader from the subject. This is why this novel on Thomas Mann could be taught in universities, so harmonious is the overlap between the real and the thrilling.

From the fall of the Mann house in Lübeck, when Thomas was still only a teenager, to his American exile in the 1930s, his fortunes and misfortunes with his six children, we follow him as closely as possible of his psychological construction, experiment with him the way reality turns into fiction in the head of a writer, and let’s revisit this XXe century that continues to influence our contemporary thinking. This fascinating portrait is that of a man who is ultimately alone, despite having spent his life, perpetually surrounded. What a masterful achievement!

Colm Toibin as Thomas Mann