Another new take on Hamlet: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

To our surprise, we’ve read two novels in the last year that riffed off Hamlet.  The first was John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, a clever “prequel” to Hamlet that used Shakespeare’s characters (see this Emsworth post). The second was a fairly new, equally clever, popular novel urged upon us by our wife: David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

David Wroblewski

Unlike Updike, Wroblewski invented his own characters for Edgar Sawtelle, and he set his story in central Wisconsin, not Denmark, but he purposefully took his plot directly from Hamlet. As a result, nearly all the characters represent figures from Hamlet; in fact, some of their names deliberately evoke Shakespeare’s characters. Edgar’s mother, for example, is not “Gertrude,” but “Trudy.” Edgar’s uncle (who becomes Trudy’s lover) is not “Claudius,” but merely Claude. Just as Prince Hamlet’s name was the same as his murdered father’s, Edgar’s name is the same as his father (“Gar”), who is also murdered.

If you’re into Shakespeare, part of the fun of reading Edgar Sawtelle is figuring out which character corresponds to which Hamlet character, and which scenes correspond to which scenes in the play. The royal court’s trusted adviser Polonius, for instance, becomes the Sawtelle family’s trusted friend Dr. Papineau, a veterinarian who advises the Sawtelles on their family business of breeding and training dogs. Laertes becomes the vet’s son Glen, who blames Edgar for his father’s accidental death. The reader is startled to realize, a third of the way through Edgar Sawtelle, that Ophelia is represented by Edgar’s dog, Almondine.

One might well ask whether the essential plot of Hamlet truly has such universality that it merits retelling. When we think of the core stories and legends of our culture — Oedipus and his complex; Ulysses and his long journey home; the Prodigal Son; Hansel and Gretel; the quest for the Holy Grail, to name a few — we think of motifs that trigger sympathetic vibrations deep within us: a boy’s intense, jealous love for his mother, a child’s fear of being left alone, a young man’s wanderlust, the universal yearning for the transcendent. These themes appear and reappear in our literature.

But what of Hamlet‘s story?  Does each of us have a primal fear that our uncle will murder our father to marry our mother?  We all have mothers, we’re all afraid of being abandoned, and we all feel at times that we’re born to wander, but how many of us have nightmares in which our uncles replace our fathers in our mothers’ beds?

The part of Hamlet that resonates, of course, is his dithering and equivocation, his procrastination, and his self-loathing. We can all identify with indecision, and in Edgar Sawtelle Mr. Wroblewski duly makes young Edgar vacillate over what to do after he learns that his uncle has murdered his father. But here the story is strained; noble deeds decisively performed may be expected of a prince, but Edgar is just a boy.

And so Mr. Wroblewski’s gimmick of recycling key elements from Hamlet doesn’t always work — especially with ghostly occurrences.  Those were part of Prince Hamlet’s world, but Edgar Sawtelle is the story of secularized, twentieth-century Americans living somewhat unconventional but nevertheless thoroughly American lives on a farm in Wisconsin, a world where otherworldly manifestations have no place. When the deceased Gar appears to his son Edgar as a ghost, and when other unnatural events occur, one can’t help feeling that the supernatural has been forced into a story where it does not belong, merely because the author concluded that a “re-telling” of Hamlet had to have a ghost.

Other elements seem forced, as well. Because Hamlet includes a scene in which Prince Hamlet persuades the traveling players to re-enact on stage the scene in which Claudius pours poison in his brother’s ear, Mr. Wroblewski wrote a scene in which Edgar’s trained dogs re-enact the scene in which Claude injects his brother with poison. The scene taxes our credulity. And again: in the middle of Hamlet, the prince is dispatched off to England by his uncle. In Edgar Sawtelle, young Edgar is also exiled — but where Hamlet’s adventures away from Elsinore occupy very little of the play (and occur offstage), Edgar’s wanderings around rural Wisconsin (an odyssey that during which, un-Hamlet-like, Edgar learns important truths about himself) occupy a quarter of the novel.

The last few pages of Emsworth’s softcover edition of Edgar Sawtelle included something he has never seen in any book: a transcript of a fawning interview with the author about how he wrote the book (it took him 10 years). Sample (and remember that Edgar’s dog Almondine represents Ophelia): “”That being said, your ‘Ophelia’ is the first one I’ve ever really understood emotionally.” “Thanks very much. I’m very proud to hear you say that.”

We rolled our eyes, figuratively speaking, when we learned from this interview that Mr. Wroblewski (who was 48 years of age in 2008 when this, his first and only novel so far, finally came out) spent a good deal of time talking about it in a masters program writer’s workshop. One thing he and his fellow work-shoppers must have fussed over was whether readers would stay interested in a novel whose twists and turns would necessarily be so predictable.  There was no need to worry.  Either because or in spite of the advice Mr. Wroblewski got from his workshop, Edgar Sawtelle is a first-class page-turner; we know what’s going to happen, but we’re desperate to know how. The prose is excellent, the characters are truly drawn, and Mr. Wroblewski’s powers of description are fully equal to his powers of narration. The book is a keeper.