Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The purported narrator is the Irish monk Clemens, writing at the Benedictine cloister of Sankt Gallen. Representing the spirit of storytelling, as symbolized in the inexplicable ringing of the bells in the first chapter, he is almost a character in his own right. Claiming not to know in which language he writes because he knows so many, the narrator blends High German, Latin, Old French, Middle High German, Low German, and English. It is a linguistic medley that has many humorous implications.

The story is also enriched by numerous appurtenances of courtly life: furniture, weapons, musical instruments, costumes, and so on. While not so elaborately detailed, the atmosphere of the fishermen’s huts is also graphically described. Mann handles the sexual encounters with delicacy, and there is much humor and wit throughout the book, particularly in the comments of the narrator, through whose voice Mann is able to inject an element of ironic parody.

The Holy Sinner (the original German title means “the chosen one”) was the last work written in the United States by this prodigiously prolific and gifted writer. It has been called a humorous epilogue to Mann’s greatest work, Doktor Faustus (1947; Doctor Faustus, 1948). For its ingenious, entertaining, and seriocomic qualities, many readers prefer it to Mann’s more complex and profound writings.