Putting together a review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King right now, I realize I have no place to put , nor anything intelligent or even thoughtful to say, about an observation I made about its opening lines (you know, that sentence you halfway paid attention to on some dude’s tumblr), which seem to echo the opening of Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, which said observation I only observed because I read the books at the same time, and in fact read the opening chapters on the same day. Anyway.
First lines of The Pale King—
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.
First lines of Hadji Murad—-
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 plaintains 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.
I’m not suggesting that Wallace is consciously following Tolstoy here, although the structures of the openings are remarkably similar, and in each case, the flora imagery is ultimately ironized by the narrative that follows.