Online | Open-Genre | Translation | Reading Group

5 Weeks of Reading Soviet Novels in Translation as Writers

“These books are indescribable,” the critic Brodsky once wrote of Platonov’s novels. “The power of devastation they inflict on their subject matter exceeds by far any demands of social criticism and should be measured in units that have very little to do with literature as such.”

In this course, we will be reading four early Soviet novels. Indescribable, haunting, biting, injected with illogical hope amid devastation–the books we read in this course are singular works of world literature, challenging our aesthetic sensibilities. Our course begins by comparing excerpts of Kharms’ absurdist stories and Akhmatova’s poetic elegies, asking how these two writers respond in dramatically different ways to the world around them. We will then look closely at how each of our four novels construct the worlds of the text, with particular attention to estrangement on the level of the sentence. From the apocalyptic mire of The Foundation Pit, to the rhetorical leaps of Shklovsky’s longing in Zoo, we will study how these authors twist and distort language. The themes and topics of our discussions will include: approaches to reading translated literature, blending genres, apocalypse, using the absurd and surreal, and estrangement.

This course is meant for writers and readers at any level, at any stage in their career, and will introduce students to new authors and aesthetics and will help develop the student’s voice. The main focus of our meetings will be discussing the novels, but for each course meeting, there will be an optional writing prompt.

Participants are expected to have read selections from Today I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms, as well as “Requiem” and “Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova before the first session.

Books will include:

The Foundation Pit, Andrei Platonov

Envy, Yuri Olesha

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov

Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, Viktor Shklovsky

Note: Any ‘ Writers’ student can opt in to a 45-minute consultation with the instructor for an additional fee of $105, in which you receive one-on-one feedback on any writing that emerged from the course, including ideas for revision and specific line edits. Please email [email protected] after your final group meeting to arrange a consultation.

*Class meets every other week

Class meetings will be held over video chat, using Zoom accessed from your private class page. While you can use Zoom from your browser, we recommend downloading the desktop client so you have access to all platform features.


- Develop a new set of questions and techniques to ask of writing.

- A deep familiarity and skill for estrangement, both in world building and sentence construction.

- Learning how to read and approach novels from different cultures and time periods.

- 10% discount on all future Catapult classes


Students should come to class having finished the readings, ready to discuss them. Our discussions will be very focused on the texts, as these are our shared language. Students should be sure to read carefully, marking any places in the text that stand out to them, so they are ready to discuss.


Week 1 - Kharms and Akhmatova; discussion of translation and genre, and literature as testimony and witness. In our first discussion, we will foreground our own positionality and what we bring to these texts. We will discuss how, as readers of texts from different times and places, there will be references we will miss, and how the texts in front of us are always mediated through the hand of the translator. We will ask how this mediation, through time, space, language, and culture, affects our approach to the texts.

Week 2 - Zoo, or Letters Not About Love by Viktor Shklovsky; discussion of estrangement, blending genres, the use of digressions, and blurring the line between fiction and non.

Week 3 - Envy by Yuri Olesha; discussion of point of view, unlikable (hateful) narrators, ambiguity and satire. Writing about the abject, writing about the body.

Week 4 - The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov; discussion of apocalypse, ambiguity, the surreal, making and dismantling the world through the text, estranging nature, estranging language.

Week 5 - The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov; discussion of writing towards hope, humor, returning to the absurd, intertextuality, plot pacing and character. 

Madeline Vosch

Madeline Vosch is a writer and translator. She writes fiction and essays, and is currently working on a memoir. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offing and Heavy Feather Review, among others. She was an Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow and the winner of the Ploughshares Emerging Writer's Contest in nonfiction in 2021.


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