Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 12, 2021

The Magician, by Colm Tóibín

I can’t help feeling a bit discontented about the latest novel from Colm Tóibín. I’ve read and enjoyed all of his novels, starting with The South in 1990, and continuing with each new release, the more recent of them reviewed here on this blog.  I loved The Master, (2004) a ‘bionov’ about Henry James —  so why I am disappointed by The Magician, a ‘bionov’ about Thomas Mann? (I just discovered this new word ‘bionov’ from Twitter: it means a fictionalised life, a biographical novel. Will the label catch on?)

The Magician is a fictionalised life of Thomas Mann, whose books I like, and Mann had a tumultuous life as did many who had to flee Nazi Germany, so at the surface level the novel makes interesting reading, though not as engaging as I expected it to be.  The focus on Mann’s repressed homosexuality is a bit overdone, and the prose is a bit ponderous here and there —channelling Mann himself? I don’t know, I can only read Mann in translation… was he ponderous in German? OTOH I really liked the segments portraying the mind of the novelist at work, harvesting and hoarding events and people in his life for his next novel.  I especially savoured this when I’d read those novels myself, that is Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus (see my reviews here) and found myself wanting to read Mann’s other fiction, and the work of Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann’s brother as well. On that level, for a reader like me, the novel succeeds.  How it travels with readers unfamiliar with Thomas Mann’s writing, I can’t guess.

However…

Having read Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile (and under-appreciated it at the time) I knew something of the Mann family, but not much about Thomas Mann’s children who  seem to have been ‘difficult’, to say the least of it, more so in adulthood. (I am assuming biographical accuracy in The Magician, which is not a given in a fictionalised life.*)  They experienced the horror of Nazi Germany displacing civilised life so trauma is to be expected, but they were tiresome, aggressively rude and socially embarrassing even before that. Their parents were remarkably tolerant both then and in later years in America, and not in ways that you might perhaps expect in a bohemian household because the Manns were not at all bohemian, they were bourgeois in their lifestyle and habits.  This strand of the novel made me realise how little Tóibín attends to Katia, Thomas Mann’s wife.  She speaks, sometimes with forbearance that can be deduced, but there’s very little about her feelings or her interior life.  Or even about how she spends her days except when she’s trying to organise their escape from Europe.

I’ve also read a very fine novel about the existential crisis faced by Thomas Mann when he was weighing up whether or not to denounce Nazism.  That book was The Decision by Britta Böhler, translated by Jeanette K Ringold.  As I said in my review:

[Thomas Mann] had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.  His was a powerful voice, and — having left Germany for Switzerland in 1933 when Hitler came to power, he had to decide how best to use his celebrity.

He has written a letter denouncing the regime to the Zurich-German press, that when published would amount to cultural suicide.   It is not just that he cannot ever go back unless things change, it is also that he is tormented by the idea that he shares the same cultural tradition as new regime, and may be tainted by it.  He’s not even sure if he can still enjoy the sublime music of Wagner, now that it’s been appropriated by the Nazis.

Tóibín’s Thomas Mann is diffident to the point of seeming indifferent in many situations where a thoughtful man, as we see in Böhler’s novel, would be tormented by cascading perils, including his own safety and that of family members remaining in Europe as it was rapidly being overrun.  But no, in Tóibín’s novel, nothing disrupts Mann’s morning routine so he continues to disappear into his study to write for four hours until lunchtime.  Well, of course, a writer (even a very wealthy, successful one) should do that, treat his work like a proper job, especially if he has something important to write about.  And, yes, the routine of work can be a welcome distraction or a solace when everything around you is chaos.  But still… in this novel Mann’s restrained response to tragedies that would crush most people seems inauthentic.  Was he really a cold fish who wasn’t distraught about his children and extended family?

Which brings me to why I feel discontented.  I was mildly disappointed by House of Names:

When an author of the stature of Colm Tóibín decides to rewrite an ancient myth, it must be because he feels he has something new to say about it, but I have to confess that I read quite a bit of this book thinking that it was a mere retelling.  Written in beautiful words, but held captive to a plot that could only be reworked in insignificant ways.

And

Tóibín’s Clytemnestra is unconvincing.  A mother who’s been used to lure her daughter to be sacrificed by her own father would surely suffer a torrent of emotions, but Tóibín’s retelling fails to convey them.  His Clytemnestra, telling the story from her perspective, is restrained by his prose.

The Magician, for me, is disappointingly the same.  It features central characters, Thomas Mann and his wife Katia, both of whom lack an authentic emotional range of responses to events. Surely writing a novel rather than a biography gives the novelist the opportunity to imagine a compelling interior life for its central characters? But Tóibín doesn’t do that.  The Magician mimics biography: it might/might not be reliable. It has no footnotes or endnotes, because novels don’t.  Unless we research, we can’t know what’s real or imagined or if/where it departs from the documented facts.  The onus is on the reader to identify if/where Tóibín is being selective for some purpose of his own.

But my discontent is more about why an author of Tóibín’s stature isn’t writing fiction of some contemporary relevance.   I don’t mean that it has to be set in the contemporary era, I mean I would like its theme or preoccupations to be relevant in some contemporary context.  I can’t see the point of rewriting a life as a novel unless there is something new to say — something that matters to us in the 21st century — something which can only be written as fiction, rather than in a biography or a Wikipedia entry.

The Magician does reveal Mann’s suppressed desire for young men and boys.  I assume this aspect of Mann’s life, revealed posthumously in his diaries, is already covered in literary biographies, but not being an expert on Mann, but rather just a reader of his books, I didn’t know about it.  Whatever about that, Tóibín doesn’t IMO do anything illuminating with it.  In a newly released Australian novel called Modern Marriage, by Filip Vukašin, the author engages in a sophisticated way with the harm that derives from repressed sexuality.  He shows how a young gay man marries because of fear of rejection by his conservative family; he shows how that decision impacts disastrously on the wife.  He shows the damage that can be done and felt, even in an apparently open and tolerant society like Australia. TóibínOTOH, doesn’t seem to invite the reader to understand anything much about Mann, not empathetically imagining how his repressed sexuality affected his relationships, not adequately exploring how exile affected him or his writing, and offering only a glimpse of how Mann’s detachment made him a poor father. (Tóibín is interested in fathers, as we know from reading Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know.)

The nearest we get to understanding how Mann’s children feel is when he receives a letter from his son Michael.

‘I am sure the world is grateful to you for the undivided attention you have given to your books, but we, your children, do not feel any gratitude to you, or indeed to our mother, who sat by your side.  It is hard to credit that you both stayed in your luxury hotel while my brother was being buried.  I told no one in Cannes that you were in Europe.  They would not have believed me.

‘You are a great man.  Your humanity is widely appreciated and applauded.  I am sure you are enjoying loud praise in Scandinavia.  It hardly bothers you, most likely, that these feelings of adulation are not shared by any of your children.  As I walked away from my brother’s grave, I wished you to now how deeply sad I felt for him.’ (p.394)

But Tóibín declines to imagine how Mann felt when he read this letter:

Thomas placed the letter under a book on his bedside table.  Later, he would read it once more and then he would destroy it.  If Katia and Erika [his daughter] found out that it had been sent and asked him about it, he would say that he had not received it.  (p.394)

Guilt, regret, shame, denial, anger or indifference?  We cannot even get a sense of colour rising to this passionless character’s cheeks…

I’ve been an admirer of Colm Tóibín for a long time, and it was his name that made me want to read this book.  But TBH, having invested time in reading over 400 pages about Thomas Mann without much return on that investment, I think I’d rather have read a biography.

* Re my reference to ‘accuracy’ above: On p.253, there is a reference to Klaus Heuser working for a trading company in ‘Dutch India’ in 1939.   Wikipedia tells me that Dutch India consisted of the settlements and trading posts of the Dutch East India Company on the Indian subcontinent. It is only used as a geographical definition, as there was never a political authority ruling all Dutch India and that Dutch presence on the Indian subcontinent lasted from 1605 to 1825. (Underlining mine.) The Dutch East Indies, OTOH is a geographical entity which was ruled by the Dutch government from 1800 until August 1945, when Indonesian nationalists declared independence which was formally recognised in 1949.  So where exactly was Heuser?  In India, safe enough while under British rule?  Or in what is now Indonesia, soon to be occupied by the Japanese after Pearl Harbour?

The Magican has been reviewed in all the prestige publications but they’re all paywalled.  However, I found these:

  • fellow-blogger Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes who loved it: ‘A sweeping and grand tale about a family within the context of a changing world. The politics, the art, the literature and music, the morality; this is more than a novel about the life of Thomas Mann, it is a history of the rise and fall of early 20th century Germany and the imprint this left upon its people, and the wider world’. 
  • Bookpage says that this ‘deeply researched, highly accomplished fictional narrative still makes for compelling reading’ and suggests that Mann was ‘a stoic observer of family trauma’ rather than indifferent.
  • The Kirkus Review which says it’s ‘an intriguing view of a writer who well deserves another turn on the literary stage’.   
  • The Scotsman calls it ‘a very accomplished and enjoyable novel. It reads easily, more easily indeed than Mann’s own novels. But it is so interesting and understanding [sic] that many who read it are likely to be encouraged to return to Mann’s own works or tackle them for the first time.’

Maybe that’s really all that Tóibín wanted to achieve, to encourage a new generation of readers to discover Thomas Mann, and I’m being unreasonable to expect more.

But then, there’s Roman Clodia at Goodreads who felt like I do…

Author: Colm Tóibín
Title: The Magician
Cover design: Chris Bentham
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan) 2021
ISBN: 9781760984113, pbk.,433 pages
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan.


Responses

  1. It’s disappointing when a writer whose work you enjoy and admire produces a sub par novel. Maybe he’s becoming over-interested in biographical fiction when he’s so brilliant at inventing rounded characters – like Nora Webster.

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    • Yes, high expectations collapsed as I read on. But, weren’t Brooklyn and Nora semi-biographical… about his mother or an aunt?

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      • True, they were based on real characters – but then surely most novelists mine their own lived experience to ‘create’ their fictional worlds and the characters who inhabit them: take DHL, who was forever upsetting friends and acquaintances for seemingly putting them into his novels, often in unflattering light. He always insisted they were all inventions and not to be taken ‘biographically’. Maybe Nora and the others based on people he knew are more impressive because he knew them intimately, unlike Mann, who he presumably got to know through his writings and biographies of him – one step removed, in other words.

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        • Yes, you could be right about that. But also, with The Master, Toibin was only covering a short period of time in the author’s life. In this he covers the whole lifespan.

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  2. Oh dear…perhaps I liked it so much because I haven’t read Mann, nor any other books on him. That letter from Michael was deeply affecting to read. I thought that it was terrible, them not attending that burial. Really shameful. My overall view of Mann was that he was selfish and narcissistic and his reaction to that letter just fell into accord with that view. He didn’t want to deal with that so he would just put it aside and destroy it. Did you not find it amusing, the novel? Particularly the family conversations?

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    • Well, I don’t mind Mann being selfish so much. I’ve always thought that there has to be a level of ‘selfishness’ — perhaps even ruthlessness — in doing anything great, whether it’s a politician neglecting his family in order to be a great Prime Minister who leads the country well, or any kind of creative person needing to shut the door in order to have the peace and quiet to work. Beethoven would have had to be selfish if he’d ever married and been a father, or we wouldn’t have had the 9th symphony. But that doesn’t have to make a person unfeeling or unaware of the emotions and sensitivities and needs of other people.
      What we have in the novel is one letter that may have been written in intemperate rage and later deeply regretted. (Actually, we don’t even know if this is real. If Mann destroyed it, how do we know it existed and what its contents were?) Whatever its authenticity, this is followed by a paragraph that makes us judge Mann in the same way as his son judges him. Who is to know whether Mann had by then suffered so many losses (not mentioned in my review because of spoilers) that he was just numb and needed to grieve in private? Who is to know whether, in the knowledge that so many had died in the barbarity of the camps without any grave or memorial, Mann might have felt that a funeral was a kind of indulgence that he could not participate in because Germans no longer had a right to grieve their loved ones? (After all, we know that until recently, Germans felt that they could not discuss their WW2 sufferings at all, because as a pariah nation they had lost the right to do so.)
      I liked it more in the beginning, it was as I read more of it that my discontent grew…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think I’ve taken this book at face value more than your deeper reading. I also think my lack of knowledge on Mann has made a difference too. This is my only viewpoint of him to date, and I acknowledge that it’s fiction, but perhaps having no actual knowledge on him from other sources has allowed me to simply enjoy this as a work of fiction insteadcof thinking of it with any biographical references.

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        • That’s the way most people will read it, Theresa, so it’s actually a very useful way to review it.

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          • I have enjoyed this discussion about it. I am without a bookclub now so this was like an impromptu one. Just without the cake or face to face!

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  3. Not read either of these but your review is interesting. Not familiar with the term “bionov”.I must say I am not a fan of trendy phrases or corporate lingo though I do collect it with a friend to have a laugh. I think we’re “on the same page about this ?” Hahha

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    • I hear you.
      But then, it does seem like a handy shorthand to describe this type of novel that’s not really a novel at all…

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  4. I have mixed feelings about Toibin: I enjoyed his travel book “The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe” and his collection of short stories, but I find his novels ponderous and (to be honest) boring. So I doubt that Toibin is “channeling Mann” in this book. Many years ago I read “Buddenbrooks” in German and enjoyed it; I don’t recall finding the prose ponderous, as it can be in German-language novels. I haven’t read any biographies of Mann, but I remember seeing a German TV series which was a fictionalized account of Mann’s life (Die Manns, 2001), and his homosexuality was portrayed, so perhaps this aspect of Mann’s life is better known in Germany than in the English-speaking world.

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    • Hi Paul, thanks for this, I haven’t read The Sign of the Cross but I turfed Homage to Barcelona (which I wanted to read because I was going there) because it was too much of a plod. I’ve got Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border on the TBR, but I’ll defer reading that until one day, hopefully, when I get to visit Ireland again…
      I wish I could read in German… I’m making progress in reading in French, but I no longer have any illusions that I might one day be able to read in Italian or Russian both of which I can speak at tourist level, so German will always be beyond me because I never got past ‘thank you’ and ‘good morning.’ I wonder if I can get hold of that TV series here, I’ll check it out, thank you!

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      • I had a quick look on the Web, there’s a 3-DVD set of the TV series but it’s in German only, not even English subtitles as far as I can see, so probably not much use to you I’m afraid.

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        • Thanks, Paul, I appreciate you taking a look for me. I’ve had a couple of really great German TV series, The Weissensee Saga and Line of Separation, both of them recommended by blogging friends, and neither of them ever available here so I’m always on the lookout for recommendations.

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  5. A fascinating review Lisa. I’ve not read Tóibín but he’s someone I keep meaning to get to – as is Mann! It’s a shame when favourite authors seem to go off the boil a bit – I agree, there’s no point telling a familiar story unless you’re bringing something new.

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    • Well, I’d suggest starting with something else. To see how good he can be at depicting women’s feelings, see The Testament of Mary (which might also suit you for Novellas in November!)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I am actually looking forward to reading this at some point (I requested a review copy but looks like they ignored it) because I know NOTHING about Mann so will only be able to judge it on the storytelling/prose/character rather than the biographical nature of it.

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    • Which will make your review all the more valuable. Books like this, in the prestige press, tend to be reviewed by experts who know a lot about the subject. But most people who read it won’t be experts!

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  7. I can’t see the point in writing a novel about a real person if you’re not going to imagine their inner life. Sometimes authors use fiction to fill gaps in the known story but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. I think if I wanted to know about Mann I’d go elsewhere (years ago I had a German friend who made me read something of his but I forget what now).

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  8. Really interesting review, Lisa, and I read a glowing one somewhere recently (and I can’t recall where). I must admit to being sceptical about most ‘bionovs’ (I really hope that term doesn’t become established) as in the main they lack the spark of a good biography and frankly in many cases just seem like laziness on the part of the author. Why not create new characters and situations? You *can* use real life events as a basis for a great novel (A Pin to See The Peepshow springs to mind), but simply writing fiction about a real character usually doesn’t do it for me. Especially if there’s no emotional development of the characters! I’ll be avoiding this…

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    • I’ve read a few which tell the story of some forgotten woman whose husband was famous, and while I appreciate their good feminist intentions, I haven’t found any of them great reading, and some of them have been downright stodgy, as if captive to the research script.
      But in the case of Toibin, I am puzzled as to why he doesn’t do as you say and imagine new characters and situations. Maybe he’s just not a very imaginative man?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A very thoughtful and thought-provoking review, which I particularly enjoyed as you assess the novel quite differently from the other reviews that I’ve read (the New York Times loved it).
    I’m a huge fan of Toíbín’s writing (like you, I loved The Master but thought House of Names didn’t work) as well Mann’s novels, so I’ve been eagerly anticipating this for some time. I still intend to read it although it might not be until the end of the year.
    I very much appreciate the links to your reviews of Mann’s novels, as I didn’t know you enjoyed his fiction. I’ve read Buddenbrooks a couple of times (about 20 years apart; it was even better the second time) and surmounted The Magic Mountain at a formerly ambitious period of my life (loved it BTW but wow, was it time consuming). I’ve tried Doctor Faustus twice but it didn’t take; maybe a third time will do the charm. I will eagerly pop over and read your review!

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    • Thank you for your kind comments!
      I do think people will read this differently depending on whether they have read some/any of Mann. And then there is the difference between professional reviewers with expertise on Mann and/or Toibin as in the TLS and the LRB, and the keen amateur like me. But I am curious, limited by what I could access because of paywalls, I have wondered whether a female reader notices the absence of authorial empathy and the weak characterisation of Katia more than a male does…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. A review in the TLS was scathing of it.

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    • I saw a link to that on Twitter but was only able to read the first two paragraphs of it because of the paywall. The headline said it should never have been written, why was that?
      I bet they had more erudite reasons than mine!

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  11. Such a thorough and thoughtful response, Lisa. It caused me to think again, more deeply about both Mann & Toibin. I read Mann, Hesse, Grass and Boll at uni and I found all of them fascinating. But that is a long time ago. We change so much and I was only saying recently that I doubt I would feel the same about any of them today. I did find Mann cold and curiously detached even then. I wanted to engage more with the dilemma faced by so many Germans in the ’30s but found his books didn’t somehow invite that. Perhaps he was as passive as Toibin portrays.
    But you have also reminded me that I have sometimes found Colm Toibin’s books a little like that too. Because he writes so beautifully, I had not stopped to think too much about a certain lack of empathy in some of the characters, particularly the female ones. I thought very highly of The Master, so I shall have to go back and see if that ‘bionov’ feels different to me now.

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    • I find myself thinking about Nora Webster and Brooklyn. My impression now is that the books left me feeling intensely sorry for the female characters, their loneliness and vulnerability, but I don’t remember how that was achieved. Did I ‘infill’ gaps in the characterisation of the women, or did were their interior lives depicted by Toibin?
      So many reviews are by male reviewers, and again I find myself wondering whether that matters or not…

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    • As a man, I find many of Toibin’s male characters quite unsympathetic.

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      • That’s interesting… can you please tell us why?

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  12. All very interesting. I see how time can change our view of much of our readings. There is a kind of mystery to reading and its effects for I cannot remember much about Brooklyn and yet other authors leave a permanent imprint. Strange.

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    • Yes, that’s so true. Sometimes, all I have is just a memory of the pleasure of reading the book without remembering why.

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  13. I’m saving this post for later Lisa, as I’m three quarters of the way through the book right now. It has been a slow read for me, took me ages to get into. Not sure if it is me, Toibin’s writing or Mann himself that is keeping me at bay. But I have enjoyed the middle bits about moving to the US and the build up of the war.

    I knew nothing Mann and had never read his books (although a good friend did a few years ago, so I have a little of that under my belt), but have found it easy to keep up.

    I read somewhere that Toibin wrote The Master with the idea that any reader could pick it up and enjoy it without having read any of Henry James’ novels. This feels the same.

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    • That’s good to know… if it’s well done, a book like this should be accessible for anyone, while also offering ‘extras’ for those with a bit of ‘inside’ knowledge. I’m not sure where I put myself here: I’ve read Mann, and two books about him/his family, but that’s all. I’ve just read them, and moved onto something else, so I’m light years away from being an expert.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. This is indeed a splendid review, Lisa, and I’m glad you read some of Mann’s books as well as other books about him so your review is an informed one. I was going to read this book because 1) growing up in Germany I read most of Mann’s work and absolutely loved every one of them (from memory did not find them especially ponderous) and 2) I have loved most of Coibin’s books though never read The Author because I’m not a fan of Henry James, and reading Nora Webster at present find it a bit boring, but after your review, and because it’s based on your substantial knowledge of Mann, I won’t bother now.

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  15. Wow, this thread seized everyone’s imagination. I read your review in the gaps while watching Mark Rubbo interview Toibeen for Readings at lunch time. There seemed quite a bit of focus on the protagonist’s undeclared sexuality. Katia, fictional Mann’s wife has really excited my interest. I might look for that novel.

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    • I was going to watch that interview too, but it was on at the wrong time for me.
      I would have liked more exploration of Katia’s feelings…they always had separate bedrooms, which doesn’t have to impact on intimacy and obviously didn’t prevent parenthood, but did she know? Did she mind? Did she feel she was just stuck with it?

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      • That’s an interesting question, Lisa and one I am dealing with now in my current manuscript which is a story about Lorenzo de Medici. Homosexuality was rife in 15th century Florence, to the point where in Germany at the time, homosexuals were referred to as Florenzers.
        Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice, was in conflict with his greatest and most intimate friend Angelo Poliziano, for her entire married life. There is no evidence that she ever referred to a homosexual relationship between them but it is very likely that what became a life-long attachment might well have begun that way. Clarice and Angelo were jealous of each other from the very beginning. Angelo was most definitely homosexual. It is unlikely that Lorenzo was, but accounts of his youth and indeed most young Florentine males, show that it was a fairly usual rite of passage. My question as a writer is how much emphasis this deserves within his relationship with his wife.

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        • That is a difficult one to wrestle with. But hostile relations with a best friend (for whatever reason) is a tricky problem to deal with in any marriage, which would make interesting reading.

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      • Well it’s not far to walk. Does the book says who instituted it? I suppose raising 6 children and being clever might have meant their work schedules were different. I’m speaking here from ignorance because I haven’t read the book. Just wondering whether a separate life suited her as it did many women in past times?

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        • There’s a lot of incidents where the reader has to infer what’s going on.
          But what suited her isn’t canvassed in the book. I wonder if she kept a diary?!

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