The Magician by Colm Tóibín

The Magician is probably a book I would never have chosen to read if it hadn’t appeared on first the longlist then the shortlist for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. I’ve read and enjoyed other books by Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn, about a young Irish immigrant in 1950s New York and House of Names, a retelling of the Oresteia. This one, though, a fictional biography of the author Thomas Mann, sounded less appealing to me, particularly as I’ve read very little of Mann’s work (only Death in Venice and Other Stories) and wasn’t sure if I was really interested in reading about his life. There was only one way to find out…

The Magician begins with Thomas Mann’s childhood in the German city of Lübeck towards the end of the 19th century, then takes us through his entire adult life as he marries, has children, becomes a successful author and leaves Germany for first Switzerland and then the US, where the family will live for several years. The childhood chapters help us to see what shapes Thomas into the man he will later become. His father dies in 1891, leaving Thomas and his siblings with their mother, a Brazilian woman who doesn’t quite conform to the expectations of their quiet, staid community in Lübeck, so they move to Munich where Thomas meets and marries Katia Pringsheim, the daughter of a Jewish mathematician.

A lot of time is devoted to Mann’s relationship with Katia and the six children they have together, but also to his sexual desires for young men, something Katia must have been aware of but seems to have ignored. Some of Mann’s repressed feelings for these men find their way into his writing, such as in Death in Venice where the middle-aged von Aschenbach becomes infatuated with the beautiful young Tadzio. Katia herself also inspires her husband’s work; her stay in a Swiss sanatorium after becoming ill in 1911 forms the basis of The Magic Mountain, a book I haven’t read. No knowledge of Mann’s work is required, but when I came across references like that, I did feel that if I’d been more familiar with his books it would have added something extra to the experience of reading The Magician.

The novel also explores Mann’s relationship with his older brother, Heinrich, another writer, and later in the book, the focus switches more and more to Thomas and Katia’s children, giving us a glimpse of what Thomas was like as a father – but only a glimpse, because Thomas remains a remote and distant figure throughout the novel. I felt that he never fully came to life and although I did learn a lot about him, there was no warmth and I wasn’t able to connect with him on an emotional level. I think a non-fiction book on Mann would probably have worked better for me.

However, as well as telling the story of Thomas Mann’s life, Tóibín also tells the story of the first half of the 20th century; not much time is spent on World War I, but I did find it interesting to see World War II unfold from the perspective of the Manns, a family who leave Germany for their own safety and become part of the German émigré community in Los Angeles. Although it takes Thomas a while to come to terms with what is happening in his home country, once he does he becomes a public critic of the Nazi regime. He also worries about the future of his own books and the loss of the freedom to write material that everybody is able to read:

He contemplated the idea that someday in the near future his books would be withdrawn in Germany, and it frightened him. He thought back to Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, the books for which he was most famous, and realized that they would have been paler books, less confident, less intense, had he known when he was writing them that no German would be permitted to read them.

The Magician is a book that I admired, but not one that I loved. I’ll continue to read other books by Tóibín, but I think I prefer the way he writes about fictional characters rather than real ones.

This is book 40/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome

I ought, of course, to sit down in front of this diary at eleven o’clock at night, and write down all that has occurred to me during the day. But at eleven o’clock at night, I am in the middle of a long railway journey, or have just got up, or am just going to bed for a couple of hours. We go to bed at odd moments, when we happen to come across a bed, and have a few minutes to spare. We have been to bed this afternoon, and are now having another breakfast; and I am not quite sure whether it is yesterday or to-morrow, or what day it is.

Jerome K. Jerome’s hilarious Three Men in a Boat is one of my favourite novels from the late Victorian period. I have since tried several of his other books – Three Men on the Bummel, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and now this one, Diary of a Pilgrimage – hoping to find another one as good, and although I’ve found them slightly disappointing in comparison, they are still amusing and entertaining. His books also tend to be much shorter than the average Victorian classic and are perfect if you need something light and uplifting between longer, more challenging reads.

Diary of a Pilgrimage, first published in 1891, is very similar to the Three Men books in structure and style. Our narrator, J, is off on his travels again, this time on a ‘pilgrimage’ to Germany to see the famous Passion Play at Oberammergau, a performance which has been regularly taking place there since the 17th century. Accompanied by his friend, known only as B, J travels first from London to Dover, then across the English Channel to Ostend and on to their destination by train. Along the way they stay in several hotels, visit some places of interest including Cologne Cathedral and, of course, find themselves in plenty of ridiculous and embarrassing situations.

Only a short section of the book is devoted to the Passion Play itself because, as J tells us, it has already been written about many times before. He spends much more time describing the places they pass through on the journey, the funny things that happen to them and the people they meet – such as the very boring man who never stops talking:

After the dog story, we thought we were going to have a little quiet. But we were mistaken; for, with the same breath with which he finished the dog rigmarole, our talkative companion added:

“But I can tell you a funnier thing than that -”

We all felt we could believe that assertion. If he had boasted that he could tell a duller, more uninteresting story, we should have doubted him; but the possibility of his being able to relate something funnier, we could readily grasp.

But it was not a bit funnier, after all. It was only longer and more involved. It was the history of a man who grew his own celery; and then, later on, it turned out that his wife was the niece, by the mother’s side, of a man who had made an ottoman out of an old packing-case.

A lot of J’s anecdotes involve his struggles to make himself understood in various foreign languages (he finds it particularly difficult to order an omelette) and the cultural differences he notices between Germany and England. The train journey also poses lots of problems, such as buying the right tickets, finding that other passengers have taken the best seats, and trying to interpret confusing timetables:

“Drat this 1.45! It doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Munich depart 1.45, and that’s all. It must go somewhere!”

Apparently, however, it does not. It seems to be a train that starts out from Munich at 1.45 and goes off on the loose. Possibly, it is a young, romantic train, fond of mystery. It won’t say where it’s going to. It probably does not even know itself. It goes off in search of adventure.

“I shall start off,” it says to itself, “at 1.45 punctually, and just go on anyhow, without thinking about it, and see where I get to.”

Diary of a Pilgrimage is not what I would describe as a ‘must-read classic’ but it’s a bit of light-hearted fun, which I think we all need now and then!

Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada

The war had destroyed everything, and all that was left to him were the ruins and the ugly, incinerated detritus of former memories.

For this year’s German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, I decided to read a book by one of my favourite German authors, Hans Fallada. Nightmare in Berlin was one of his final novels, written just before his death in 1947, and although I don’t think it’s as good as some of his others – particularly Alone in Berlin and Little Man, What Now? – I did find it an interesting and powerful read. This 2016 translation by Allan Blunden is the first time the book has been made available in English.

Nightmare in Berlin begins in the spring of 1945, just as the war ends and the Red Army march into Berlin. Dr Doll, who had been a successful author before the war, and his much younger wife Alma, live in a small rural town and, unlike most of their neighbours, choose to welcome the Soviet troops into their home. Doll is rewarded by being appointed mayor of the town, but soon finds that he is being viewed with suspicion and resentment by his fellow Germans. Eventually, they decide that it’s time to move back to Berlin, having fled from the city to the countryside during the war. When they arrive in Berlin, however, they discover that someone else has moved into their apartment and that it’s going to be much harder than they’d expected to pick up the threads of their old life.

As Doll sets out to look for help in finding somewhere to live and in getting medical treatment for his wife’s injured leg, he is struck by the greed and selfishness of many of the people he encounters, who think nothing of cheating other Germans to get what they want. Disillusioned and depressed, Doll is overcome with shame and apathy, beginning to despair for Germany’s future.

In this time of the country’s collapse and defeat, no feelings last for long; the hatred passed away, leaving only emptiness, deadness, and indifference behind, and people seemed remote, out of reach.

Although this is obviously quite a bleak novel, it does have its more uplifting moments: there are times when Doll is shown some kindness and compassion, restoring his faith in human nature at least temporarily. The relationship between Doll and Alma is portrayed as a warm and loving one, so that no matter what is going on around them, they know they can always rely on each other. However, the Dolls are also both reliant on drugs, taking morphine and sleeping pills to escape from reality and get through the day, and the middle section of the novel follows their experiences in the hospitals and sanatoriums where they are being treated for their addictions. This part of the book was of much less interest to me (I wanted to see more of post-war Berlin, rather than the inside of a hospital) and I felt that it seemed to come out of nowhere – drugs were never mentioned until the Dolls left their rural town to return to Berlin and yet they had apparently both been addicts for a long time.

Nightmare in Berlin seems to be a very autobiographical novel. Hans Fallada (born Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen) struggled with morphine addiction himself, as did his younger second wife, Ursula Losch. Like Dr Doll, he was appointed mayor of a small country town shortly after the Soviet invasion and then spent the remainder of his life going in and out of hospital. I think the book might have worked better as non-fiction rather than a novel, but maybe Fallada found it easier to write about his own experiences by disguising them as fiction. Still, this is a fascinating novel and worth reading for the insights it offers into the mood of the German people in the aftermath of the war.

This is book 24/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada

This month Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life are hosting their annual German Literature Month. I thought this would be a good opportunity to read a German novel which has been on my TBR for years: Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada. So far my experiences with Fallada’s work have been mixed: I was disappointed with A Small Circus, but loved Little Man, What Now? and Alone in Berlin. I had been putting off reading this book because of the length (800 pages), but now that I’ve finally read it, I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it much more than A Small Circus, although not as much as the other two.

Wolf Among Wolves is set in Germany in 1923. With the country’s economy still suffering in the aftermath of the recent world war, hyperinflation means that prices are spiralling out of control and the currency is rapidly becoming worthless. As the novel opens we are told that there are currently 414,000 German marks to the dollar; within months this figure has increased into the billions, causing misery and desperation for the German people.

“So many people are running away from their jobs,” went on Studmann. “To work, to do anything at all, has suddenly become idiotic. As long as people received a fixed tangible value at the end of the week or the month, even the most boring office job had some reason. But the fall of the mark has opened their eyes. Why do we live? they suddenly ask. Why are we doing anything? Anything at all? They don’t see why they should work merely to be paid in a few worthless scraps of paper.”

Wolfgang Pagel, our hero (if you can call him that), has never been good at managing money. He is a gambler and at the beginning of the novel we see him lose at roulette, meaning he has to postpone his wedding to his girlfriend, Petra Ledig. When Petra finds herself in trouble with the police after he takes her clothes to be pawned, leaving her on the streets with only an old coat to wear, she decides that this time she’s had enough. Wolf needs to change, and until he does she will refuse to see him or speak to him. And so they separate, Petra remaining in Berlin while Wolf heads out into the countryside to work on a friend’s farm.

I have only mentioned two of the novel’s characters so far, but there are many, many more and they all have fully developed storylines of their own. There’s Joachim von Prackwitz, still referred to by his military title of Rittmeister, who is leasing the country estate of Neulohe from his father-in-law and struggling to cope with his return to civilian life. There’s the Rittmeister’s teenage daughter Violet, whose lover is planning a putsch – a coup – against the Weimar government. There’s the estate bailiff, known as Black Meier, who loses his job and spends the rest of the novel thinking of ways to cause trouble for everyone at Neulohe. And there’s Etzel von Studmann, a hotel reception manager, who agrees to come and work for the Rittmeister following an embarrassing incident with a guest. These, and others, become Wolfgang Pagel’s new companions as he tries to build a new life for himself away from the temptations of the city, only to find that even the idyllic countryside is not free from corruption.

Fallada moves from character to character as he paints a portrait of life in the Weimar Republic and explores the impact of the First World War and the struggling economy on the fortunes of ordinary people. Over the course of the 800 pages we get to know them all very well; however, some are more interesting and more appealing than others, which makes this quite an uneven read. I was sorry that, after the opening chapters, we see very little of Petra – her relationship with Wolf and the question of whether they will be reunited was my favourite of the novel’s many storylines. Of the characters living at Neulohe, von Studmann was the only one I had any sympathy for; I found the others a selfish and unpleasant bunch. To be fair, though, I should have been prepared for that: Fallada warns us at the beginning of the book that his story “deals with sinful, weak, sensual, erring unstable men, the children of an age disjointed, mad and sick. All in all, it is a book for those who are, in every sense, adult.”

Wolf Among Wolves was first published in German in 1937 under the title Wolf unter Wölfen. I read an English translation from 1938 by Philip Owens, ‘with additional translations by Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs’. I found both the translation and the novel itself very readable. It’s probably not the best place to start with Fallada – Alone in Berlin (also published as Every Man Dies Alone) and Little Man, What Now? are my recommendations – but it’s definitely worth reading for the insights into 1920s Germany.

Mata Hari by Michelle Moran

So far my feelings about Michelle Moran’s novels have been very mixed. Cleopatra’s Daughter was interesting, but felt too light and insubstantial, The Second Empress was much better, but I had one or two problems again with Rebel Queen. I had hoped Mata Hari (also published as Mata Hari’s Last Dance) would be another good one, but unfortunately it turned out to be my least favourite of the four that I’ve read.

Before I read this book, all I knew about Mata Hari was that she was an exotic dancer who was accused of spying during the First World War. I felt sure that she must have been a fascinating woman and I was looking forward to learning more about her. And I did learn a lot from this novel. Mata Hari narrates her story (fictional, but based on fact) in her own words and tells us all about her dancing career, her experiences of life in European cities such as Paris and Berlin, and her many romantic relationships, including several with military personnel which led to her being accused of passing secrets to Germany.

However, I wanted to get to know the woman behind the newspaper headlines and the seductive costumes – Margaretha Zelle, or M’greet as she is called in the novel – and although she does confide in us now and then about her childhood in the Netherlands (she did not come from an Indian background, as she tried to claim), her time in Java during her unhappy marriage to Rudolf MacLeod and her heartbreak at the loss of her children, I never felt very close to Mata Hari and didn’t gain a very good understanding of the person she really was.

The one aspect of Mata Hari’s life that Moran does successfully capture is her loneliness; I didn’t like her and had very little sympathy for her as she seemed so immature and selfish, but I could see that she was not a happy person and that her character had been shaped by her earlier experiences. The descriptions of Mata Hari’s various dances are also well done, particularly one that she performs with a live snake while dressed as Cleopatra. The novel is strangely lacking in period detail, though, and apart from the obvious references to the war and to other famous people of the time – her rival dancer, Isadora Duncan, for example – I didn’t feel that there was much sense of time or place at all.

The book is also disappointingly short, with under 300 pages in the edition I read. If you just want a basic overview of Mata Hari’s life and career, it’s perfectly adequate, but for something deeper you will need to look elsewhere. The section of the novel covering her spying activities is very brief and feels almost like an afterthought, which is a shame as this is the part of the story which should have been the most interesting. Even on finishing the book, I’m not completely clear on what we are supposed to assume; was Mata Hari really a spy or was she just someone who had made some poor decisions and been carried along by events outside her control? To be honest, long before we reached this point I had lost interest anyway and had already decided that I would need to look for another book on Mata Hari one day. Has anyone read The Spy by Paulo Coelho?

The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach by Esther Meynell

Magdalena Bach Novels about the wives of famous men seem to have become very popular over the last few years. Books on Zelda Fitzgerald, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Hadley Hemingway, Lizzie Burns (Engels) and Virginia Clemm Poe are just a few that I’ve read or heard about. You could be forgiven for thinking that with The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach, Esther Meynell is following the current trend – until I tell you that this book was published in 1925.

Anna Magdalena Bach was, of course, the wife of the composer, Johann Sebastian. In this novel, Meynell imagines that, following Bach’s death, Magdalena is visited by Caspar Burgholt, a former pupil of her husband’s, who suggests that she write down everything she remembers about him. The Little Chronicle is the result.

“Write,” he said, “write a little chronicle of that great man. You knew him as no one else knew him, write all that you remember — and I do not suppose your faithful heart has forgotten much — of his words, his looks, his life, his music. People neglect his memory now, but not always will he be forgotten, he is too great for oblivion, and some day posterity will thank you for what you shall write.”

Magdalena begins by telling us about her first encounter with Bach in the winter of 1720, when she hears him playing the organ in St Katharine’s Church in Hamburg. Unaware of the organist’s identity, Magdalena is mesmerised by the beauty of his music, but runs away in a panic when he turns to look at her. Her father tells her later that the man whose playing she loved so much is Johann Sebastian Bach, the Duke of Cöthen’s Capellmeister (director of music). In 1721, more than a year after the death of Bach’s first wife, Barbara, he asks for Magdalena’s hand in marriage. Magdalena is overjoyed – and goes on to devote the rest of her life to caring for her husband and raising their children.

And that is the problem with this book. Magdalena’s life (at least as it is portrayed by Meynell here) just isn’t very interesting. Of course, I’m aware that eighteenth century women weren’t usually expected to do anything more than be a wife and mother, and it’s possible that Magdalena was content with that, but I’m sorry to say that I found her story quite tedious to read. The real-life Magdalena apparently shared her husband’s passion for music – she was a talented singer and she also worked as a copyist, transcribing Bach’s music – but the fictional Magdalena constantly plays down her own achievements and gifts, happy in the knowledge that she could never compete with her husband’s genius. On reaching the end of the book, I didn’t feel that I’d really learned anything about Magdalena as a person; I had no idea how she really felt about anything, what she liked and disliked or what her hopes and dreams were. All I knew was that she loved and worshipped her husband, because she told us so over and over again.

I did learn quite a lot about Bach himself (while remembering that, as is stated at the end of the book, some parts of the story are imaginary). Magdalena’s chronicle takes us through all of the key moments of Bach’s career and also spends some time discussing his music. I think, though, that the musical aspect of the book could be too detailed for readers who are more interested in the human side of the story, while not scholarly enough for those who already have a good knowledge of Bach’s music. And again, it seems that Bach didn’t have the most exciting or dramatic of personal lives, which makes me think that maybe he and Magdalena just aren’t good subjects for a work of fiction.

It’s a shame, because there’s nothing wrong with Esther Meynell’s writing; it’s the story itself which lacks colour and vibrancy. I was pleased this was such a short novel because had it been much longer I’m not sure I could have persevered with it. I was disappointed but, if nothing else, reading this book has made me more interested in listening to Bach’s music, which can only be a good thing.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Death in Berlin by M.M. Kaye

Death in Berlin Almost exactly a year ago I read Death in Kashmir, the first in M.M. Kaye’s series of mystery novels. I loved it – in fact, it was one of my favourite books of the year – and last week I decided it was time to try another of her Death in… novels. I chose Death in Berlin because it’s the second in the series (although the books all have different settings and characters and all stand alone).

Death in Berlin, published in 1955, is set in a Berlin struggling to recover from the devastating effects of World War II. The city is divided into zones – American, British, French and Russian – and there are ruined buildings and piles of rubble everywhere. At the beginning of the novel we meet Miranda Brand, who is on her way to Berlin with her cousin Robert and his wife Stella. Robert, an army officer, is taking up a new post there and Miranda has decided to come along for a month’s holiday, keen to have a chance to see post-war Germany. During the journey to Berlin, they and a group of other military families listen to Brigadier Brindley tell a story involving a set of diamonds stolen by the Nazis during the war – a story which has special significance for Miranda. Later that night, the Brigadier is found dead in his train compartment and when a murder investigation begins, Miranda discovers that she herself could be a suspect.

This novel has many of the same elements as Death in Kashmir – a young heroine in danger far from home, a romance with a man she’s not sure she can trust, an eerie and atmospheric setting – but this book didn’t impress me as much as the first one. It doesn’t have the stunning opening chapter that Death in Kashmir has and the characters feel less developed, to the point where I had trouble telling some of them apart. I also thought there was a lack of chemistry between Miranda and her love interest, whom I found very bland.

What I did like was the portrayal of a ruined Berlin in the aftermath of war. M.M. Kaye herself spent some time in Berlin when her husband’s regiment was stationed there, so she could draw on her own knowledge of the city while writing this novel. While it isn’t the exotic setting that 1940s Kashmir is, it does provide a great backdrop for a story of murder and mystery. Kaye really excels at creating a sense of unease and writing spine-tingling descriptions of what it feels like to be alone and vulnerable in dark, lonely surroundings – to be the only person awake in the sleeper carriage of an overnight train or to be sitting downstairs in a large, empty house and hear noises coming from upstairs.

I didn’t guess the solution to the mystery, but I did have my suspicions about various characters. I don’t think it would have been possible to work out everything, though, because a lot of information is withheld from us until the final chapters of the book. This information is provided by one of the characters who, in one very long scene near the end, sums everything up for Miranda and the reader. This is something that works well in an Agatha Christie novel, but feels a bit unnatural here.

While I didn’t like this book as much as Death in Kashmir, it hasn’t put me off wanting to read the rest of the Death in… mysteries. Death in Cyprus will probably be the next one I read, but I also have a copy of Kaye’s historical novel, Shadow of the Moon, which I’m looking forward to reading (and should really have read before now as The Far Pavilions is one of my favourite books).

Have you read any of the Death in… books? Which do you think is the best?