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.

Tolstoy's novel 'Hadji Murad' reflects the author's fascination with the East-West struggle between the Europeanized rulers of Russia and the Muslims of Chechnya.

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.

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:

"I was returning home by the fields. It was midsummer, the hay harvest was over and they were just beginning to reap the rye. At that season of the year there is a delightful variety of flowers – red, white, and pink-scented tufty clover; milk-white ox-eye daisies with their bright yellow centers and pleasant spicy smell; yellow honey-scented rape blossoms; tall campanulas with white and lilac bells, tulip-shaped; creeping vetch; yellow, red, and pink scabious; faintly scented, neatly arranged purple plantains with blossoms slightly tinged with pink; cornflowers, the newly opened blossoms bright blue in the sunshine but growing paler and redder towards evening or when growing old; and delicate almond-scented dodder flowers that withered quickly."

And David Foster Wallace’s: 

"Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek." 

"The similarity in the passages certainly is striking," notes D.T. Max, author of "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story," the first biography to be written of Wallace.

Both Tolstoy and Wallace use the floral setting as a metaphor for what will elapse in the novel. In Tolstoy’s novel, a particularly hardy red thistle called the Tatar, clearly a floral stand-in for the hardy Chechen tribe, catches the narrator’s attention. At the end of the novel, when Hadji Murad is slain, he falls on his face into the mud like a “scythed thistle”. The narrator tries his best to pluck the plant, but it pricks his fingers even through his handkerchief, making him admire its tenacity. He then comes across the plant again but this time it is badly damaged, leading him to pointedly anthropomorphize its mutilation: 

“Evidently a cartwheel had passed over the plant but it had risen again, and that was why, though erect, it stood twisted to one side, as if a piece of its body had been torn from it, its bowels drawn out, an arm torn off, and one of its eyes plucked out. Yet it stood firm and did not surrender to man who had destroyed all its brothers around it….”

In Wallace’s case, the key to unlocking the metaphorical meaning lies in that first phrase “the flannel plains.” The use of the word ‘flannel’ is just superb. Flannel plains evoke an image of a grey and weed-filled tract of land, but closer scrutiny reveals a plain bursting with foliage that is medicinal, edible, poisonous, pretty,  and, like that prickly Tatar thistle, sturdy. It is like the men in grey flannel suits who populate the IRS and the novel. Dull government types, they are in fact highly individualistic and even idealistic, including a former “wasteoid.” These taxmen who spend their lives handcuffed to boredom are civic heroes like policemen and firefighters but perhaps even more so given that "true heroism is a priori incompatible with audience or applause or even the bare notice of the common run of man.” There is something stirring in all that weediness because this is how Wallace ends that paragraph:

“Quart and chert and schist and chrondite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.”

He is seemingly describing Midwestern American soil but in the burst of short and abruptly ancient sentences that follows, it’s clear that he is talking about Earth before there were countries. That last and unexpected observance – “We are all of us brothers” – takes the reader by surprise. It is nakedly sentimental, curiously so for a writer who had a terror of being sentimental, but also tellingly so, for a writer who fought against the tedium of fresh-faced irony.

In the wake of the Marathon bombing in which two terribly misguided young men wounded their adopted country and, in their uncle Ruslan Tsarni’s anguished words, brought shame on their family and community, it also has an inconsolable pathos. 

"Hadji Murad" was Tolstoy’s last novel and one close to his heart. He understood why the Chechens, oppressed for years by Russian czars, hated his countrymen and called them dogs and swine and poisonous spiders, but he also did not underplay the ruthless violence they unleashed on the ordinary Russian soldier. The only time Wallace appears to have made a direct reference to Chechnya was in his essay on John McCain’s first presidential campaign. The senator, he wrote, got all kinds of questions including those by “Talmudically bearded guys asking about Chechnya.”

Although Wallace often spoke passionately about his admiration for the other great Russian, Dostoevsky – whom he called a writer with “balls” –  he once declared in an interview that “I'm the only ‘postmodernist’ you’ll ever meet who absolutely worships Leo Tolstoy.” After poking fun at Tolstoy’s “wacko, fundamentalist Russian Orthodox Christian” world view, Wallace said that  if one “edited out the heavenly Christian stuff," he agreed with Tolstoy that “the purpose of art was to communicate the idea of Christian brotherhood from man to man and to pass along some sort of message.”

It is the spirit of late Tolstoy – the late Talmudically bearded Tolstoy – that passes over that tragically childlike thought expressed in a flannel field: “We are all of us brothers.”

Nina Martyris is a Monitor contributor.

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