“When it comes to homosexuality, Mann’s life remains a submerged continent”

Irish writer Colm Toibin in New York in 2014. BRYAN BEDDER/GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP

Colm Toibin was born in Ireland in 1955. He is the author of an important work composed of novels and essays. After working as a journalist and residing in the Spanish-speaking world, he lives between Ireland and the United States, where he teaches at Columbia University (New York). He publicly asserts himself as gay, and has devoted a book to Henry James, The master (Robert Laffont, 2005). He signs today The magiciana biographical novel about Thomas Mann and his family.

Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers “The Magician”: Colm Toibin illuminates the masks of Thomas Mann

Why did you devote a novel to Thomas Mann rather than to an English-speaking writer, a fellow Irishman like Joyce, for example?

The reason is simple. What you read before 23 marks you for a lifetime, and it was at this age that I read Doctor Faustus, The Magic Mountain, The Buddenbrooks. Moreover, in the Anglo-Saxon world, when I was 18, if you wanted to be one of the up-to-date people, you had to have seen Godard’s films and read The Magic Mountain – not Ulysses. It was incredibly popular at that time. When I went to university in 1972, I came from a very nationalistic family and background, and I had a dislike for England. After I left college, three or four years later, it all suddenly seemed stupid to me. Ireland was no longer that special place I had to fight for. This change was experienced by many Irishmen of my generation, who moved from nationalism to pluralism, and the evolution of Thomas Mann from 1914 to 1920, his transformation from Pan-German militarist to democrat also interested me for this.

The latent homosexuality that inhabits Mann’s work and existence is a central theme of The Magician. However, with regard to certain encounters, you push the description as far as active sexuality, without this having ever been attested. Why ?

My job is not to decide what actually happens, but to imagine what Mann is thinking when he looks out his window. In Munich, he first lived alone, without family, before building it. The chances that he had no erotic encounters are close to zero. Admittedly, he must get married and has no desire to live the life of a wandering homosexual through the world. But no gay life is simple. He spent his life in hotels and had no shortage of opportunities. How far did he push them? It’s not documented, but it’s not a novelist’s dream or nightmare either!

Mann’s work and life have been invested by queer studies, which intersect feminist, gay, postcolonial, etc. approaches. Does your fiction go in this direction?

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The article is in French

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