Book Club

Colm Toibin

Monday, September 12, 2022
7 – 8:30 p.m.


It’s the turn of the twentieth century in Lübeck, a small city in Germany, and young Thomas Mann grows up with a conservative German father and a Brazilian mother who challenges the propriety of the people around her. In this deeply researched and spectacularly imagined novel, Tóibín sets the scene for the life of the novelist Thomas Mann, as he marries a young woman from one of the richest, most cultured Jewish families in Munich and fathers six children. Mann struggles with his sexuality, becomes a prolific novelist and then is immersed in the complex and devastating politics of the two world wars.

He is the most successful novelist of his time, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, a public man whose private life remains secret. In 1933, he flees Germany for Switzerland, France and, ultimately, America, while his brother and several of his children are leaders of the anti-Nazi movement. The Magician is an intimate portrait of Mann, his magnificent wife, Katia, and the times in which they lived—the First World War, the rise of Hitler, World War II, the Cold War and exile. This is a man and a family fiercely engaged by the world, profoundly flawed and unforgettable.

(From the publisher.)

Reading Group Discussion Questions

1. From an early age, Thomas is very much in the public eye of Lübeck. How do you think this affects his emotional development?

2. On page 23, Thomas reflects “No matter where he went, he would never be important again.” What do you make of that amount of self-awareness from one so young?

3. On page 72, Thomas meets Klaus and Katia for the first time. How is their relationship as siblings different from the relationships that Thomas has with his? And what draws him to them?

4. Almost immediately after his sudden intimacy with Herr Huhnemann (pg. 75), Thomas decides to propose to Katia. Why do you think he made this decision?

5. On page 107, Mann reflects that he “realized that after his sister’s death he had busied himself with writing. Sometimes he even managed to believe that her suicide had not even happened.” What do you make of this detachment from grieving? How is it similar to (or different from) the way Thomas handled the death of his father?

6. On page 177, Katharina Schweighardt, the landlady who cares for Julia Mann, says, “No one who has been used to money can live with that. That is how the world is.” How do you see this reflected in other members of the Mann family?

7. Tóibín describes a profound union between Katia and Thomas. They have an unspoken agreement about his sexuality and how it plays out in their marriage. Why do you think Katia accepts this this arrangement? How do you read her wants and desires as a character?

8. On pages 209–10, Thomas reflects that “His two eldest children, he understood, could not be damaged as he could be. Their standing in the world depended on their open dismissal of easy sexual categories. Any effort to undermine their reputation would be banished by their own careless laughter and that of their friends. But no one would be amused if sections of his diary were to be published.” Discuss why Thomas is afraid. What do you make of Thomas’s sexualization of younger boys (including his own son)?

9. Throughout the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power, Thomas struggles with his place in the public eye. What are his reasons for not immediately denouncing Hitler, and do you think they are selfish? Misguided? Why or why not?

10. On page 276, Thomas says in reference to his writing, “I can make no sense of the present. It is all confusion. I know nothing about the future.” How do you think this applies to his approach to life in general, and specifically to his writing up to this point in the novel?

11. The chapter on page 445 opens with the statement: “The war was over; Thomas had not experienced it. He did not know what its aftermath meant.” As Thomas experiences Germany after the war, how does this play out?

12. After Thomas refuses to attend Klaus’s funeral, he receives a letter from Michael, which admonishes him for not being more present to his own children, while always seeking his success as a writer first. What impact do you think this letter has on Thomas?

13. At the end of The Magician, reflect on what you think Thomas’s main motivations in life are. Could he have been successful in pursuing these without women like Katia and Erika?

14. Once you’ve finished The Magician, do some group research on the historical Thomas Mann. What aspects of the novel seem to be direct corollaries to his life, and which things may be of the author’s imagination?

(Questions issued by publisher.)

Additional Book Club Resources

Other Works by Colm Toibin
The South,1990
The Heather Blazing,1992
The Story of the Night,1996
The Blackwater Lightship,1999
The Master, 2004
Brooklyn, 2009
The Testament of Mary, 2012
Nora Webster, 2014
House of Names, 2017
The Magician, 2021

Short Story Collections
Mothers and Sons, 2006
The Empty Family, 2010

If You Liked The Magician, may we recommend …

Death in Venice, Thomas Mann
The Dust That Falls from Dreams, Louis de Bernieres
The Untouchable, John Banville
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Burr: A Novel, Gore Vidal
The Hours, Michael Cunningham
The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr.
Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks
Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart
Circling the Sun, Paula McLain
At Swim Two Boys, Jamie O’Neill