Irish novelist Colm Tóibín has won the £30,000 Rathbones Folio Prize for The Magician, a fictionalized biography of writer Thomas Mann. It follows the life of the German Nobel laureate, whose works include Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain, against the backdrop of the turmoil of Europe in the first half of the 20th century.
Like his 2004 novel about Henry James, The Master, this book uses fiction to imagine the mind of a writer from the past. Guardian reviewer Lucy Hughes-Hallett called it “an enormously ambitious book, in which the intimate and the important are perfectly balanced”.
A statement from this year’s judges, Tessa Hadley, William Atkins and Rachel Long, called The Magician “an expansive, generous and ambitious novel, taking in much of the history of the 20th century, but steeped in intimate details. of a man’s private life”.
Long added that after reading 80 books during the judging process, Tóibín’s novel made him “fall in love with reading all over again.”
Tóibín had written four chapters of The Magician when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. Six months of chemotherapy followed. “I knew if the cancer came back, the chances of writing the book were zero,” he said. “Once I was able to start working again, I worked very hard and very fast.”
Only when the novel was over would he worry about his health, he decided. “Anyway, I finished it,” he said. The cancer has not returned.
The Rathbones Folio Award was created after judges for the 2011 Man Booker Prize sparked controversy for praising books with “slippery” “readability”. The new prize would aim, said literary agent Andrew Kidd who originated the idea, to bring literary gems to as wide an audience as possible. Unlike the Booker, it considers non-fiction and poetry as well as fiction, and all books considered for the award are selected by an academy of peers, with judges chosen from that academy. Previous winners include George Saunders for short stories, Tenth of December, and Raymond Antrobus for his debut poetry collection The Perseverance. Last year’s winner was Carmen Maria Machado for her memoir In the Dream House.
Tóibín has already been shortlisted for the prize and three times for the Booker. Winning the Rathbones Folio for The Magician is “meaningful and rewarding,” he said.
“It was a difficult book to write. The research took 15 years, but the task was to make it read as the story of a family in turbulent times rather than historical research.
After rising to the top of a shortlist that included Damon Galgut’s Booker The Promise winner, Tóibín said it was “a surprise” to win. He has no idea what he will do with the prize money just yet and is currently busy teaching at Columbia University in New York. In May, he plans to continue working on a new book which is a “kind of sequel to [his much-loved 2009 novel] Brooklyn”.