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book review

German writer Thomas Mann autographs his book Doctor Faustus on May 11, 1951.AFP/Getty Images

As long as we keep telling them to write what they know, writers are going to write about other writers. (Actually they’d probably do it anyway.) Being an insider doesn’t guarantee success, of course, so its notable that fall 2021 saw the publication of three very good novels about real-life writers that run the gamut, style-wise, from sober to experimental.

The Magician, Colm Toibin (McClelland & Stewart)

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Colm Toibin’s 2004 novel about Henry James was titled The Master. His new one, about the German novelist Thomas Mann, is called The Magician, but in some ways the sobriquets feel reversed. Though Mann’s children lightheartedly refer to him in the novel as the Magician – a reference to his ghost-banishing ability at bedtime and, for us, a nod to The Magic Mountain, his 1924 novel about tubercular patients in a sanatorium in the Swiss alps – he comes across less as a conjuror than a disciplined craftsman; a dreamy youth who, in his later years, disguised constant inner uncertainty by outwardly projecting the mien of Germany’s Greatest Novelist.

That stolid conventionality finds a complement in Toibin’s approach. Where The Master opened a narrow window onto a single chapter of its subject’s life, The Magician, which starts when Thomas is 16, shortly before the death of his father, is detail-driven and unerringly chronological, each chapter place-and-date-stamped as on a passport, right up to five years short of his death in 1955. Indeed, if not for Toibin’s periodic gentle intrusions into Mann’s mindset, it would be easy to take The Magician for a straightforward biography. Toibin, as ever, isn’t flashy, but rather, like the best waiters, silently attentive. Fish fork? Right there next to your elbow. And I took the liberty of topping up your glass.

What emerges is a portrait of a man deeply uncomfortable with the responsibilities his role as a public figure conferred on him. After his views on “the specialness of the German soul” become a source of embarrassment at the end of the First World War, for instance, he makes a calculated decision, during Hitler’s rise to power, to “become ironic and speculative about his own heritage.” Thomas lacks the political instincts of his brother Heinrich and his two eldest children, Klaus and Erika, fearless anti-fascists and flouters of gender norms. This, while Thomas pens a mistimed book called Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man and keeps his own homosexuality, save a few opportunistic fumblings here and there, firmly tamped down.

A major focus is the way the novels, including Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice, arose both from Mann’s personal experiences and from that less tangible thing; a source: “outside of himself beyond his control. It was like something in magic.” For my money though, the book’s real magician is Agnes Meyer, wife of Washington Post owner Eugene, who at one point takes Mann under her wing. “I will be very useful to you,” she declares. And indeed, with a snap of her fingers, she secures, among other things, the Manns’ life-saving emigration to the United States on the eve of the Second World War – a reminder of money and power’s eternal sway, whether in the Old World or New.

Tenderness, Alison MacLeod (Penguin)

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Born just 10 years after Thomas Mann, D H Lawrence was a contemporary, but not for long: he died in 1930, at age 44, of tuberculosis (Mann lived to 80). No fancy Swiss Alpine cures for him. In fact, for a significant portion of Alison MacLeod’s big, ambitious novel, we find him and his German wife Frieda living in a converted cattle shed, less known for their salubrious effects.

The novel’s prime focus is the background to the trans-Atlantic obscenity trials connected with Lawrence’s final novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (whose working title was Tenderness). This involves the introduction of some surprising dramatis personae, chief among them a young Jackie Kennedy, who shows up at the New York trial of Lady Chatterley’s U.S. publisher with a copy of Lawrence’s blasphemous novel tucked under her arm. A presidential election is looming, so what, exactly, is she doing there? Turns out the FBI would like to know, too.

In Lawrence’s novel, Constance Chatterley is emotionally neglected by her handsome, wheelchair-bound war-hero husband, whom she eventually leaves for the family gamekeeper. The implication is thus that Jackie Kennedy, stultified by the demands of her role as a senator’s wife and potential First Lady (she’s billed in the novel as “the Subversive”) has found in Constance a kindred spirit (in reality, of course, John F Kennedy was both a chronic-pain sufferer and an adulterer who never let the one get in the way of the other). That narrative, which features a rather on-the-nose portrayal of a closeted J Edgar Hoover (“He liked white toast – the whiter, the better – with softened butter and black coffee in a flowered tea-cup”), never quite stops feeling like a hard-sell, and to me was the novel’s weak point.

But it’s worth staying with Tenderness, because better things are soon to come. From the trial we move backwards in time, to the early days of the First World War, site of the aforementioned cattle shed, where poetess and benefactor Alice Meynell has gotten whiff of D H Lawrence’s dire economic circumstances and invited him for an indefinite stay at her family compound in Sussex. Here, MacLeod (a Canadian who moved to the U.K. in the 1980s) is entirely in her element evoking the sights, atmosphere and milieu of the Colony, as it’s known. This includes entertaining visits from Bloomsbury-adjacent luminaries such as E M Forster, Katherine Mansfield and Lady Ottoline Morrell.

Here, too, we get the scope of Lawrence’s myriad contradictions. He’s petty, jealous and prone to nasty outbursts against fellow writers, but also earnest, idealistic, patient with children, and absurdly devoted to Frieda despite her incessant philandering. And then there’s the matter of him biting the hand that is literally feeding him through his portrayal of the Meynells in England, My England, a “poison-dart of a story,” the family took, reasonably enough, as an outrageous betrayal. On this and other matters MacLeod remains appropriately empathic and agnostic; people, after all, are complicated. (“Good artist, lousy houseguest” is a theme pursued in Rachel Cusk’s recent Second Place, inspired by Lawrence’s stay at a New Mexico retreat.)

Over time, art trumps the hurt feelings, and even the so-called smut. Back in Jackie world, we find the FBI agent who tailed her to the Chatterley trial in a Cape Cod motel, engrossed by the novel. Across the pond, meanwhile, a descendant of the Meynells who, unaware of the slights old D H once perpetrated upon her brood, is studying Lawrence at Cambridge. There, in the library’s dirty books room, she enjoys a nuit d’amour with a handsome young librarian who’s given her access not to his etchings, but to an original, apparently aphrodisiacal copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Undersong, Kathleen Winter (Knopf)

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You’ve heard, possibly, of bad art friends, but what about bad art brothers? William Wordsworth would seem to qualify. While his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, is today recognized as a genius-level diarist and prose writer, back in the day she served as his long-time silent collaborator, writing, for instance, an entire guide to the Lake District that was published under his name. And the most memorable line in Daffodils? The one about “that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude”? She wrote that too. When William began losing his sight and hearing in his later years, Dorothy was happy to be his eyes and ears. In Kathleen Winter’s novel Undersong, though, we get a William so reliant on his sister’s observations about nature that he is effectively impotent, creatively speaking, without them.

We learn this through the novel’s narrator, the Wordsworth’s (actual) handyman James Dixon, who’s hired by William ostensibly to help his sister out with day-to-day practicalities. (In the spirit of Dorothy’s image as a gal with nature on speed dial, we also hear from a sycamore tree on the Wordsworth property, and James himself often chats with bees). Not in the job posting: keeping Dorothy zonked on laudanum and panning her diaries for gold. It’s a little odd, but James does as he’s told, and in so doing finds himself bowled over by the sheer brilliance of her writing and bewitched by Dorothy herself (not in the amorous sense).

William, on the other hand, treats this golden-egg-laying goose like a battery hen; less his muse than his larder. Not that she seems to mind, or even notice. What Dorothy regrets is the absence of her brother’s company, the way they and pal Sam Coleridge had frolicked about picking flowers, and each other’s brains, in days of yore. Still, Dorothy more than anyone knows how to embrace the bliss of solitude. This is a woman who once hiked England’s highest mountain by accident.

A key part of Undersong’s commitment to its subject is its gorgeous, era-evoking prose. Bolder still, in the novel’s final pages Winter imagines – or maybe “channels” is better – the contents of Dorothy’s ultrasecret “red diary,” which includes her true feelings about Will, Sam and their ilk. Spoiler: turns out she’s on to them: “They loved my thoughts, it is true, but did not hear me utter them. Rather, they imagined that my ideas had flown to them from the same invisible wind that flows to all men, & that my ideas counted among their discoveries.”

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