The Pale King’s Opening Lines Vs. Hadji Murad’s Opening Lines

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.

5 thoughts on “The Pale King’s Opening Lines Vs. Hadji Murad’s Opening Lines”

  1. Compare with the second graf of Babel’s “Crossing the River Zbrucz”:

    “Fields of purple poppies are blossoming around us, a noon breeze is frolicking in the yellowing rye, virginal buckwheat is standing on the horizon like the wall of a faraway monastery. Silent Volhynia is turning away, Volhynia is leaving, heading into the pearly white fog of the birch groves, creeping through the flowery hillocks, and with weakened arms entangling itself in the underbrush of hops….”

    The very next sentence is “The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head…” And the rest of the story concerns the narrator’s encounter with the family of a murdered Jew.

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  2. I believe I’ve read that it was an editorial decision to order The Pale King as it is and that Wallace did not actually indicate anywhere that this was to be the opening section of the novel.

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