Prince Hamlet Of Shchigrovo by Ivan Turgenev, 1852
The magic trick:
Structuring the story in a way that gives the title character the platform to tell his life story
It’s unfortunate that we close our week of stories from A Sportsman’s Notebook with this one – not at all my favorite from a great collection. It leans heavily into social commentary, which inevitably dates badly. Can I imagine why that two-page characterization of a vain, rich, and dumb landowner particular to 1850s western Russia is so sharp and funny? Sure. Does that mean I enjoy reading it for 20 minutes? No.
Eventually, we do get to the heart of the story, though, and it’s an interesting setup. Essentially, our narrator crashes in a spare bedroom for the night after a party and finds an odd man sleeping nearby. Except he isn’t sleeping. He wants to talk. He keeps our narrator up, telling the story of his life. That biography becomes the heart of this story. He is the titular Prince Hamlet.
And he sure gets going. Turgenev captures his voice and manic energy very well. There’s a lot there about philosophy that, frankly, I probably didn’t catch. But whereas 45 years later Chekhov would expertly use monologues in the Little Trilogy to espouse different philosophies or political opinions, this one-man show does less to crystalize a philosophy as much as it becomes a distinct character study.
The reader – or at least this reader – is left with a specific feeling about the prince; namely that he is smart but self-absorbed, aware but obsessive; all to a fault.
The story’s structure allows for him to be anything. He gets 15 pages to introduce himself to us in full.
And that’s quite a trick on Turgenev’s part.
“That is, I am amusing you, you mean… So much the better… And so, I must inform you, I’m described hereabouts as an original, described, that is, by those who happen, in the midst of other trifles, to mention my name: ‘For no one feels greatly concerned with my estate.’ They want to hurt me… Oh, my God, if they only knew… Why, in fact, I’m dying just because there’s absolutely nothing original about me, nothing but such pranks as, for example, my present conversation with you; pranks that are not worth a brass farthing. It’s the cheapest and basest form of originality.”
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