MY FRIEND JULIUS and I once got lost in St. Petersburg on one of the hottest days of the summer. The whole city seemed asleep, or in hiding, and rarely had I felt so much the truth of the old song, that it’s only mad dogs and Englishmen who go out in the midday sun. It was intolerable, the sidewalks powdered down with that special Russian dust. We were very thirsty. Then — this is true — we heard people singing, or groaning, from underground, just down to our right. We stopped and looked round. Five or six steps covered in melting tarmac led down to a wooden door, with a sign on it indicating a bar. We went, undignified, through the door, fast.

Not the cheap ratpiss beer, not the disgraced and desperate clientele, not the sunflower seeds and Raskolnikov-era sawdust on the floor. No, it’s the smell that keeps with me, that still prousts me every time I get a whiff. And here it is, perfect, right at the moment I realized I was going to like this book: “The sticky table smelled like a city bar: peas and dried fish.” The peas make it. Only someone who had been through it and thought about it would remember the absolute, alien, vegetable nature of that smell. This is a novel that knows the qualia of the world, is seductively accurate.

The fact that the winning sentence came only after three chapters of Andrei Egunov-Nikolev’s Beyond Tula[1] and the fact that the third chapter is identified as “Chapter Five,” and begins in the middle of a sentence that has been passed on from the previous chapter (“From outside the hayloft | CHAPTER FIVE | came the sound of chomping…”), suggests something about the initial difficulties of Egunov’s novel — difficulties that it is well worth overcoming, but which it would be foolish to ignore.

In many ways the most exciting period of Russian prose is not the foundational era, the short 19th century of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but instead the wild experimental years, kicked off by Chekhov and shut down by Stalin. Yuri Olesha and Konstantin Vaginov (both namechecked in Ainsley Morse’s excellent introduction), Leonid Dobychin, Daniil Kharms, Lidia Zinovieva-Annibal, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Andrei Bely — these are all figures who wrote prose as though it had no rules, or as if they were inventing the rules as they went along, looking for models from far outside the 19th-century mainstream in order to break them and stick them back together in the 20th-century Russian context. Toward the soft end of this spectrum you have writers such as Isaac Babel and Mikhail Bulgakov, who manage to be innovative while still keeping a firm hold of such elements as character and plot; at the other, less immediately welcoming side of things, someone like Dobychin uses his writing to investigate itself, to think about how many conventions can be stripped away before prose dissolves into nothingness.

All of which brings us back to Beyond Tula (1931), Egunov’s only completed novel, which is definitely toward the weirdy-beardy end of the experimental spectrum. The best way to think of it is as a kind of layer cake, a book that tries to be an Ancient Greek romance, a Soviet-era production novel, a summer idyll, a parody of various 19th-century Russian tropes and ideas, a sour analysis of human nature, and a homoerotic buddy story, all at the same time. It skips from satire to parody to music-hall comedy (the characters are constantly singing snatches of popular romances) in a way that is dizzying to read and must have been a riot to translate. (Ainsley Morse’s translation is impeccable: enjoyable, coherent, inventive, and at times very funny.)

What’s more, the novel tells its stories obliquely, moving from event to event without any time for the reader to pause and analyze what happens (not that what happens is ever particularly clear or even important: the introduction refers to the novel’s “transparently insignificant plot,” which seems accurate enough). Instead, Egunov fucks the frame by throwing as many events at the reader as possible, itemizing every version of this pastoral without focusing on one part more than another. Plot is replaced by event. For instance, one of the protagonists, Sergey, accidentally treads on a kitten: “Sergey stumbled; there was a piteous moan, and the maimed kitten crawled off like a paralytic, dragging its newly useless hind legs.” And that’s it — no remorse, no reflection on what has happened, the little scrap of life dealt with and abandoned in a single sentence.     

Beyond Tula was officially published at the beginning of the 1930s but was withdrawn before Egunov was arrested and sentenced to a first term of three years’ internal exile to Siberia in 1933. The satirical side of the novel is very carefully organized: the book’s other main protagonist, Fyodor, is designed among other things to be a version of the standard hero of the Socialist Realist era, but when he says things like, “Around here the word ‘engineer’ has taken on the meaning of nobleman,” it is clear that the plus ça change aspects of the early Soviet regime are under polite but unswerving attack.

I kept on thinking as I read it that this was a novel ahead of its time — in fact, so far ahead of its time that it really shouldn’t have been a novel at all. In many ways, Egunov’s book is a postmodern movie, filled with characters who are aware of their role as characters, who have no other option than to repeat the clichés they have been dealt, and enact various types of “Russianness” at the whim of their author. There is so much that is visually enjoyable in this book that would work well on the screen. It is full of absurdities that a film would only emphasize (“Girls came out from behind the birches. Each of them was holding a large white mushroom”), and jeux d’esprit that would even work better on the screen than on the page.

But this is a book, not a film. It is set near Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s country estate, and obviously measures itself against the 19th-century realism it so clearly and deliberately parodies. Which brings me back to the smell of the city bar: there are many moments when Egunov captures something — a thought, an emotion, a scrap of dialogue — so perfectly that you find yourself wishing that his artist’s eye was deployed in the service of a slightly more traditional structure. Even the more eccentric parts of the pattern feel pleasant on the tongue and in the head: “How fine it is to sit and go through papers — subscriptions, clippings — when there are apples spoiling in the desk drawer.”

I’m not trying to argue that it should be Tolstoy’s way or the highway, but sometimes refusing to lead the reader by the hand risks losing him. As it stands — es kann nicht andersBeyond Tula is a fine addition to the subgenre of Lucianian satires about nothing much, about mooching and musing, alongside Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist or Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet. We are lucky to have it in a forthright and laugh-out-loud funny English translation that pops and bubbles.

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James Womack is a translator and writer. He has published two collections of poetry, Misprint (Carcanet, 2012) and On Trust: A Book of Lies (Carcanet, 2017). He has translated several books from Russian and Spanish, including a selection of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poetry, “Vladimir Mayakovsky” and Other Poems (Carcanet, 2016).

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[1] This translation of Beyond Tula is published as being by Andrei Egunov-Nikolev. The author’s name is Andrei Egunov; he published Beyond Tula under the pseudonym “Andrei Nikolev.” I’ll refer to him by his real name here.