Colm Tóibín has been awarded the prestigious Rathbones Folio Prize for his novel The Magician, based on the life of German author Thomas Mann.
The £ 30,000 prize was announced tonight at the British Library in London. The Enniscorthy-born author, who lives between Dublin and Los Angeles, was previously nominated for her 2014 novel Nora Webster.
“It’s one of the big London awards of the season and it’s one that everyone is watching,” Mr Tóibín told The Irish Times. “Authors nominate the books, and the judges are authors too, so it’s very nice, it’s amazing.”
The Folio Prize was established in 2013 and is open to authors in all genres – fiction, non-fiction and poetry; another Irish author, Claire Keegan, was also shortlisted for her short story Small Things Like These, as was Damon Galgut with her Booker winner, The Promise. Past winners include George Saunders in 2014 and Akhil Sharma in 2015.
This year’s award judges were Tessa Hadley, William Atkins and Rachel Long. The latter said that The Magician – an epic that takes readers from Mann’s birth in Lübeck to his American war exile and back to Germany – had made her “fall in love with reading again”.
After reading 80 titles in total, the three judges spent hours around a table selecting passages in the nominated works and arguing for their case.
“It gradually became clear – and it was a surprise to all of us – that we had all reached the same decision,” they saddened. “Colm Tóibín’s The Magician is such a spacious, generous, ambitious novel that takes a great impression on 20th – century history, yet is rooted in the intimate details of a man’s privacy.”
For Tóibín, the completion of The Magician ended an epic journey to write a novel about Thomas Mann, which he began researching in 2005 and which gained a new urge when he underwent cancer treatment in 2018.
“It was pretty outrageous because – while I know other people have different priorities at a time like that – I got four chapters written and I did not want to lose this book,” he said.
For Tóibín, the decision to write a major book, what he calls a “cumulative, preliminary approach” to Mann’s life, was dictated by the material and his subject. It will not appeal to everyone, he says, “but sometimes one will be lucky and hit a good number of readers, for example, it is even better to hit one or two in the jury for a prize”.
The critical reaction has been mixed: praise in the English-speaking world and mixed reviews in Mann’s home country, especially for his long experience of a life that many German readers know.
“The German response was just fascinating, something I will never forget, it was the whale’s belly,” Tóibín said. Some critics took issue with his mix of fact and fiction, while others believe that others in Germany took issue with his portrayal of Mann as a “figure of insecurity, restless and not heroic in his own household, even against himself”.
“From this period the Germans are desperately looking for someone who is above reproach,” he said, “but that’s not how a novel works, it’s a sermon.”
While The Magician continues to be launched around the world, he said he is fascinated by how each country’s publisher places the book differently: Turkey has put a photograph of Mann on the front page, he said, while Spain demanded a subtitle : “A novel about Thomas Mann”.
The author remains as busy as ever: In addition to recently succeeding Sebastian Barry as award winner for Irish fiction, he is also Chancellor of the University of Liverpool and Mellon Professor of English at Columbia University, New York. He curates an upcoming James Joyce exhibit at New York’s Morgan Library and writes a sequel to Brooklyn that takes place 20 years later. Two of seven episodes have been completed, he says, but he refuses to say more about what his main character, Eilis, is up to. Does she know herself? “Oh, she does, yes,” he said.
This week’s New Yorker magazine features the title poem from his first collection, Vinegar Hill, published by Carcanet Press:
“The hill is above all that / insoluble, unrecognizable, peaceful. It is in shadow, then in light / And often trapped in between.”
His diverse collection of poems ranges from champagne-driven oral sex in Budapest to the disappearance of the moon, the latter inspired by a book he read about Pope Francis.
“Imagine we were told that the moon only had a month left, it’s very difficult to get started in a novel,” he said. “But you can do everything with facts, imagination and imagination in a poem. You can work from a single image and have a lot of freedom. ”
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine escalates, increasing the likelihood of a third world war, Tóibín finds it “disturbing and frightening” that one person can create chaos again despite all the post-1945 organizations and barriers created to prevent just that.
“It’s yet another example of what will be seen as a great moment in history that no one a few days before was sure would happen,” he said. “That’s the story of The Magician: every time a crisis came to him, Thomas Mann did not see it.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also prompted a shift in Tóibín’s own thinking.
“I never thought I would feel a loyalty to NATO,” he said. “In Ireland, there has always been a strong anti-NATO sentiment, and suddenly one realizes now that the stronger NATO is, the safer people will be.”
So he’s in favor of Ireland joining the alliance?
“I think the geography of Ireland means it does not bother anyone in any way,” he said. “If we were where Lithuania is, I think we would have a different view of NATO.”
Winning the Rathbones Folio Award contributes to an impressive collection for Tóibín: the Costa Novel Award for Brooklyn, the Impac Award, an Irish Pen Award and the David Cohen Award for Literature in 2021. How does he view literature awards now, especially after his three Booker nominations – and the infamous near-miss for the Master, about another author, Henry James, in 2004?
“I think you can go crazy,” he said. “The best picture for a writer going on about prizes he won or not won is a dog chasing its own tail. I don’t think about that much.”