Boston marathon bombing: how it connects Tolstoy, David Foster Wallace
Echoes of one of Tolstoy's great works, inspired by the conflict between Russia and Chechnya, can be found in the final novel by David Foster Wallace.
The Boston Marathon bombing brought together two disparate worlds: Cambridge and Chechnya. And at the same time it reasserted a connection between two great writers: Leo Tolstoy and David Foster Wallace.Skip to next paragraph
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In the United States, many people became focused on the strife in Chechnya only last week. Tolstoy beat us by more than a century. His 1912 novel "Hadji Murad" (written years earlier) tells a story of violence between Chechens and Russians that was historic even then.
This slim novel – a sapling when compared to the oaks of "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina" but with a theme as weighty – tells the tragic story of the eponymous Avar warrior, who, after a falling out with a Chechen chief, turns himself over to the Russians, escapes from them, only to find himself trapped like an animal in a ditch between the Russian militia and his own people. Finally, another tribesman cuts off his head. It is a brutal story but softened with touches of great tenderness and empathy, both for the ordinary Chechen as well as the ordinary Russian soldier.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Long before the Boston Marathon bombing, "Hadji Murad" seems to have left its imprint on the troubled and capacious mind of a writer who made Boston his home for three years: David Foster Wallace, author of the peculiarly brilliant novel "Infinite Jest." It is not in "Infinite Jest," however, that we see the striking influence of Tolstoy. Instead, it is found in Wallace's last work, "The Pale King" – an unfinished novel completed and published in 2011, three years after Wallace's 2008 suicide.
Theme-wise the two novels are completely different. ("The Pale King," set in Illinois in the 1980s, satirizes the Internal Revenue Service.) The similarity is found in the form and style of the first chapter. The opening paragraph of "The Pale King," in which the weeds and wild flowers in an Illinois field are described with a forensic clarity, is an unmistakable bow to the first page of "Hadji Murad," where the flowers and weeds of the Chechen mountains are evoked with the rustic lyricism that Tolstoy did so well.
Consider the opening of Tolstoy’s novel: