Mario and the Magician

Mario und der Zauberer; Mario and the Magician (1930)

This novella is set in Torre di Venere, an Italian seaside resort which translates as ‘Tower of Venus’. It is narrated by an anonymous German narrator who is on holiday with his family. They attend a performance by the magician and hypnotist Cavaliere Cipolla, which ends fatally. Cipolla, a hunchback, is a powerful orator who knows how to exploit the irrational desires of the audience, and to harness them in the service of his sensational performance. He is an expert at crowd control, a study in miniature of a fascist leader. The story can be read both as an exploration of fascism and as an exploration of art. It suggests a parallel between the figure of the artist and the figure of the fascist demagogue, since both attempt to seduce their audiences by stimulating and channelling their repressed desires.

The bourgeois narrator is complicit in Cipolla’s performance, not only because he remains at the show with his children despite knowing that it is unsuitable for them, but also because the narrator, like Cipolla, is an expert manipulator of language. The narrator demonstrates considerable artistry, for example through his frequent rhetorical questions to the reader, and he even claims that (like Cipolla) he can read people’s thoughts.

The novella contains subtle references to Mann’s other Italian novella Der Tod in Venedig; Death in Venice: on the beach, there is a loutish boy called Fuggièro who is the complete antithesis of Tadzio in Death in Venice, and the theme of infection also crops up early on in the story, when one of the hotel guests complains about the coughing of the narrator’s child and the hotel manager asks the family to move to a different room. Instead the family leaves the hotel and moves to a pension run by Signora Angiolieri, a former assistant to the famous singer Eleanora Duse. Signora Angiolieri later attends Cipolla’s performance, where she is hypnotised away from her husband.

Cipolla is a sexual predator and his performance culminates with his seduction of the young waiter Mario. Cipolla hypnotises Mario and pretends to be Silvestra, the girl Mario loves. Spellbound, Mario is persuaded to kiss Cipolla. The audience applauds. Traumatised by his sexual humiliation, Mario pulls out a gun and shoots Cipolla. The narrator experiences this event as a liberation, but does not admit the extent to which he has been complicit in the proceedings.

Further Reading

Alan F. Bance, ‘The Narrator in Thomas Mann’s Mario und der Zauberer’, Modern Language Review 82:2 (1987), 382-98

Alan Bance, ‘The Political Becomes Personal: Disorder and Early Sorrow and Mario and the Magician’, in Ritchie Robertson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 107-17

Eva Geulen, ‘A Case Study of Thomas Mann’s Mario and the Magician’, New German Critique 68 (1996), 3-30

Ronald Speirs, Mann: Mario und der Zauberer (London: Grant & Cutler, 1990)