Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita



“Didn’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn?”

I first read The Master and Margarita when I came across it in the Tawa College library. It must have gone deep into me because I didn’t realise until I reread it many years later how much it had influenced me.

It comes at its main story by two debonair flanking movements. The devil and his retinue appear in Moscow in the slightest of disguises, and go largely unrecognised because vain members of Masslit – the writers union – and venal theatre managers, and rapacious, luxury-starved Muscovites, are all too busy being themselves, thus collaborating with the devil’s obscure mission – which might simply be to host his annual slap-up party. It is a book in which a novelist is driven mad by despair, and burns the manuscript of his book about which editors and critics have only wanted to know why he, ‘a Muscovite in this day and age’, wrote a novel ‘on such a curious subject’. The Master’s novel concerns Pontius Pilate. The reader encounters the novel’s story of Pilate in chapter two, around 150 pages before the man writing the Pilate novel – the Master – makes his appearance. We don’t know why we’re being told about Pilate. We do know it’s riveting. The Pilate chapters, which appear at intervals in the novel, are measured, realist, vivid. So is the ostensibly most fantastical chapter, in which the Master’s lover, Margarita, turns into a witch and flies around the city causing mayhem, then travels upriver on a senses-saturating summer night. Margarita’s every witchy move is real, concrete, logical. But the novel also has scenes in a confined commonplace present: the offices of a theatre manager, where a couple of worldly men get excited trying to work out why someone would be pretending to be the theatre treasurer and claiming to have been magically transported to Yalta. They discuss a series of telegrams from someone in Yalta. And the telegrams keep arriving, carried by the same girl from the post office,  giving the two guys just enough to react to each message before she walks in with the next. It plays like a stage farce.

It is this melting, shimmering quality that I most love. The novel manages to be is stately and tragic – in Pilate’s and the love story – while also being antic and flamboyant. It thrives on madness and mixedness, but the net result is a strong sense of mission which I suppose could be distilled down to this idea: How easy it is for cruel and implacable individuals to create a world in which it is almost impossible for decent people to do good. Just that idea, with myriad proofs. It’s a novel in which almost all the heroes are compromised or defeated, and have given up on civilisation to save their souls. 

When I read The Master and Margarita at sixteen I thought it was the strangest and most astonishing book. I’ve read it twice since. It has changed and deepened, both with my accumulated life and with history, and is still the strangest and wildest, and wisest, book I’ve read. And the next time someone asks me dubiously about my use of fantasy I will wish that Woland would dispatch the black cat Behemoth to smack them in the ear.


They Come to Class

After reading Jolisa Gracewood’s post School Bully on her blog Busytown—an impassioned argument about the wisdom of teaching for testing—I’ve had a number of conversations about the direction and future of education. This guest blog, by a highly dedicated (and now despairing) teacher in the tertiary sector, is the result of one of those conversations.

. . . → Read More: They Come to Class

Brothers and Sisters: A Grimm tale

I wrote this for a Grimm’s fairytale Bicentenary event. It was published in Sport Magazine in 2012, and I think it deserves another outing.


Stargazer is running the meeting. He unlocks the room and puts a fresh bag in the coffee machine. Hansel arrives with muffins.

Stargazer is a pretty smug fellow. Things . . . → Read More: Brothers and Sisters: A Grimm tale

Why Horror?

This essay first appeared, in a slightly less finished form, in Canvas. I sat on it awhile before posting.

Horror has been called the most moral of the genres, perhaps because it deals in calamity, in inexorable events and the experiences of small human victims, witnesses, collaborators. Because human existence is prone to repeated . . . → Read More: Why Horror?

My History with Horror


I will begin with withered leaves blowing through an empty fairground, tent canvas gulping and gulping, and the seats on the dark Ferris wheel creaking, rocked by ghostly fairgoers. By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.


My first encounter with horror was a book of ghost stories I sneaked . . . → Read More: My History with Horror

Where Wake Came From


As an blogger’s introduction to Wake I’ve decided to transcribe what I wrote in my journal some months into my writing the novel. I had returned to it after a break, finally seeing what it was doing and what it might be for.

I have used letters or a long dash to replace . . . → Read More: Where Wake Came From

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

This is my speech for the launch of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries at Unity Books in Wellington, 3 August 2013. ‘Fergus’ is Fergus Barrowman, my husband, and Ellie’s New Zealand Publisher. I was honoured that Ellie asked me to launch her novel.

I have a habit from my student days of writing page references . . . → Read More: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

My Interview for YALSA

This is an interview I did for The Hub website. Julie Bartel provided the questions. It is mostly about my teenaged self.

One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Elizabeth Knox

Letting in the Ghosts: Why certain things are in Mortal Fire

Southland, showing main cities, rivers and mountain ranges. A detailed map of the Zarene Valley and environs with be added in later post.

I keep producing blogs that are highly finished pieces of writing, like essays. Which isn’t to say I labour over them, more that I keep feeling each has to be a . . . → Read More: Letting in the Ghosts: Why certain things are in Mortal Fire

My Workspace

My Workspace (without the customary cats)

I guess this piece could be titled ‘How I came to change the way in which I do everything’. It could go two ways—and I’ve decided it’s better to resist neither, to do both, even if one is personal and might seem beside the point of workspaces, and . . . → Read More: My Workspace