Fasten your seatbelts, Russianists: it’s about to get weird.
Well, maybe no weirder than usual for literature of this period. Russian literature of the early 20th century was gloriously, insanely bizarre. Writers were flying their freak flag high, and reveling in it. “Beyond Tula” is a case in point. Although in fact, it’s no weirder than works such as “Petersburg” and “Elizaveta Bam,” and compared with “Victory Over the Sun,” it seems positively tame. After all, “Beyond Tula” is written in something resembling a language, rather than the “zaum” (“transsense”) that some writers were experimenting with.
As I survey the massive production of popular literature of the present era, which is aimed at, above all, popularity, and is therefore disturbingly homogenous and dull, I have to applaud the Russian writers of Egunov-Nikolev’s era even more. Not only were they taking tremendous literary risks, they were taking political ones as well. “Beyond Tula” isn’t exactly protest literature, but it’s still the kind of thing that it’s hard to believe someone had the nerve to write, let alone publish, in the Soviet era.
Anyway, enough about that. You want to know about the story, don’t you?
Well, I wish I could enlighten you, but I’m still a little hazy on the plot myself. The overall story seems to be about a young man from Peterhof who goes out to spend a long weekend with a friend of his who’s an engineer at a mine near Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy estate. The two men alternate between lusting after the local women and, it’s suggested, engaging in some homoerotic fooling around themselves (yes, really. It was a much wilder time than we think it was). A lot of the book is taken up with wordplay and the daydreams/nightmares of Sergey Sergeyevich, the visitor, which meld into reality so that it’s difficult to separate the two at times. To further add to the confusion–I mean interesting nature of the work–the chapters vary wildly in length and sometimes are divided mid-sentence. As a side note, this book must have been the very devil to translate, but the translation conveys the spirit and tone of the period, and there are helpful translator’s notes about some of the more challenging folk sayings and plays on words.
If you think this sounds intimidating, it is, sort of, but it’s also the kind of delightful challenge that Russian literature likes to throw your way. If you’re not used to reading Russian literature, this might be jumping in the deep end, but don’t worry: the book itself is not very long, and there is a helpful introduction and extensive endnotes to explain a lot of the cultural allusions that pepper the work. So don’t be afraid to give it a go. If you *are* a fan of Russian literature and want to branch out from the Realist canon, “Beyond Tula” is a lesser-known work that’s still full of interest and also representative of the era. If you’re looking for some fluff reading, you’d probably best move on, but if you were looking for some fluff reading, you wouldn’t be here anyway, now would you? If you’re looking to expand your literary horizons and check out the more unusual side of Russian literature, “Beyond Tula” is a great place to start.