Book of the week: Black Gold by Jeremy Paxman

Paxman’s history of coal is told with ‘characteristic panache’

Miners pictured after their last shift at Kellingley Colliery, the UK's last deep coal mine, on 18 December 2015 in Knottingley, England
Miners pictured after their last shift at Kellingley Colliery, the UK's last deep coal mine
(Image credit: Oli Scarff/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) led an overwhelmingly “sedentary existence”, said Lucy Hughes-Hallett in The Guardian: most of his adult life was either spent “behind a desk”, creating the works that brought him wealth and fame (such as Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice), or “going for sedate little postprandial walks with his wife”.

Yet from such unpromising material, Colm Tóibín has fashioned a “compelling fictionalised biography” – which exquisitely balances the “intimate and the momentous”.

This isn’t the first time Tóibín has portrayed a writer who subsumed his homosexual desires into his work, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times: in the Booker-shortlisted The Master (2004), he delved into the mind of Henry James. But while that book focused on a four-year period, here Tóibín “seeks to grasp the entirety of Mann’s life and times”.

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He does so “over 18 date-stamped, place-tagged chapters”, which move from Lübeck in 1891 to Los Angeles in 1950, said Anthony Cummins in The Observer. As the novel progresses, two main themes emerge: Mann’s “hidden yearnings as a married father of six” (including his attraction towards his teenage son, Klaus), and the “problem of how to position himself amid the dawning horrors of Nazi Germany”. While individual scenes are subtle and moving, the enterprise as a whole is “somewhat confounding” – uncomfortably “stranded in a stylistic no man’s land between biography and fiction”.

I disagree, said John Self in The Times. Tóibín’s quiet, “unruffled” sentences are perfect for capturing Mann’s “struggling restraint”. No mere biography, this is a captivating “work of art” – and probably the finest novel Tóibín has written.

Viking 448pp £18.99; The Week Bookshop £14.99

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