This piece continues a series of reviews highlighting philosopher-novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s list of the best “novels of ideas”. Thomas Mann’s The Holy Sinner was the third entry on her list.
Reviewed in this essay: The Holy Sinner, Thomas Mann. Translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter. Knopf, 1951.
When The Holy Sinner was published in English in 1951, the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature winner’s greatest works were behind him. The Holy Sinner is nonetheless a well-told and dense story continuing his late-career engagement with his place in the literary tradition. The follow-up to Mann’s famous modernization of the Faust legend, Doctor Faustus, The Holy Sinner continues Mann’s homage to earlier literature, retelling Gregorius by the medieval German poet Hartmann von Aue, “who took his legend of chivalry from the French” [viz. from the Vie du pape Saint Gregoire].
Born of incest between a Duke and his sister, Gregorius washes ashore elsewhere after being set adrift. Following a monastic childhood, he discovers his origins and begins life as a knight, searching for knowledge of his family. His first stop, Bruges, is run by his mother, whose identity he does not know. Of course, they fall in love and marry. When Gregorius learns of his sin, he finds a stone in the wilderness and stays next to it for seventeen years, shrinking to the size of a hedgehog. His penance is rewarded when he is discovered and named Pope. Receiving his mother’s confession finally completes his knight’s quest for self-identity.
This family history and biography is narrated by the “Spirit of Storytelling” incarnate in monk Clemens the Irishman (né Morhold). In the place of modernization, The Holy Sinner takes its story outside of time and (apparently) languages. While both the narrative and the style of the prose continue to evoke the Medieval, the Spirit of Storytelling abstracts from contingencies to tell the essential story. This essence, however, can be difficult to unearth for those unfamiliar with the style of writing Mann evokes in parody and the source materials with which he similarly plays. Like much of Mann’s work, The Holy Sinner operates on its face as one story while simultaneously engaging in larger questions in the history of ideas.
The narration of the story (not merely its odd style) is often highlighted to demonstrate the parodist elements of this book. Clemens’s limits as a narrator are clear. His lack of worldly experience leads him to call on “allegory” to describe sorrow and he struggles to describe sex. Indeed, the treatment of sex throughout the book can be quite (intentionally) funny. Despite its evocation of the Medieval style, The Holy Sinner is an entertaining read with many humourous passages. Clemens further admits to perfecting the narrative to the detriment of even intra-narrative fact, omitting Gregorius and Sibylla’s discussion on marriage. Gregorius, a great wrestler, scholar, knight, Duke and Pope, is likewise so perfect (especially in “The Very Great Pope”, detailing his great qualities) that he seems destined to succeed and his path seems almost cute despite its vulgarities. The novel is too overblown to be accepted on its face in the twentieth century, demonstrating parodist intent.
Setting aside the stylistic and intellectual traditions, however, even description of a single scene suffices to demonstrate that the text ably engages with the nature of man and the role of penance in Christendom on its face. When Gregorius learns of his fate, the novel’s most pointed theoretical discussion follows. It primarily focuses on the distinction between man’s nature and whether his actions can change it, but also raises the novel’s other main prima facie theme, the role of penance as a path to glory. The Abbot’s famous dictum, “Very well can love come out of evil, and out of disorder something ordered for the best”, is borne out in the narrative. Gregorius’s time in the wilderness described as first redeeming family and then preparing him for a blessing, the Papal seat.
One must enter this story at a critical angle, questioning its themes and internal veracity, but should nonetheless be willing to let the story serve as a path to engaging with the former. As Clemens asks his readers to “hearken and believe!” when detailing the story’s fantastic elements, one must be prepared to (perhaps critically) immerse one’s self even in fictive legend.