The Master and Margarita - A Novel for All Time


I reread this wonderful novel very recently. I remember the first time I read it, on the recommendation of my dad, many years ago, I thought it funny, clever, beautifully written. But this time round, I also realised just how powerful and how satirical it is. And why, allegedly, Putin is afraid of it. 

I can think of any number of organisations and well-known toadies here and now in the UK that should also be afraid of it. But it cheers me up enormously. It was written between 1928 and 1940. Bulgakov burned the first manuscript but wrote it again. It wasn't published - and even then in a censored version - till after his death. 

You can buy a very beautiful Folio Society edition (cover above).Worth every penny. 

What's it about? 

Satan comes to Moscow. Of course nobody believes in him. Or his sidekicks, including a 'cat like personage' called Behemoth. He is free to wreak havoc. And he does. Especially among those complacently in power. Especially, it seems, those complacently in power in the arts. London and Edinburgh, take note. 

Meanwhile, enjoy this extract. Then, if you haven't already done so, read the whole novel.

'The branch office of the Theatrical Commission was quartered in a peeling old house at the far end of a courtyard, which was famous for the porphyry columns in its hallway. That day, however, the visitors to the house were not paying much attention to the porphyry columns. Several visitors were standing numbly in the hall and staring at a weeping girl seated behind a desk full of theatrical brochures which it was her job to sell. The girl seemed to have lost interest in her literature and only waved sympathetic enquirers away, whilst from above, below and all sides of the building came the pealing of at least twenty desperate telephones. 
    Weeping, the girl suddenly gave a start and screamed hysterically: 'There it is again!' and began singing in a wobbly soprano, 'Yo-o, heave-ho! Yo-o heave-ho!' 
    A messenger, who had appeared on the staircase, shook his fist at somebody and joined the girl, singing in a rough, tuneless baritone: 'One more heave, lads, one more heave . . .' 
    Distant voices chimed in, the choir began to swell until finally the song was booming out all over the building. In nearby room No. 6, the auditor's department, a powerful hoarse bass voice boomed out an octave below the rest. The chorus was accompanied crescendo by a peal of telephone bells. 'All day lo-ong we must trudge the shore,' roared the messenger on the staircase. Tears poured down the girl's face as she tried to clench her teeth, but her mouth opened of its own accord and she sang an octave above the messenger : 'Work all da-ay and then work more . . .' 
    What surprised the dumbfounded visitors was the fact that the singers, spread all through the building, were keeping excellent time, as though the whole choir were standing together and watching an invisible conductor. Passers-by in Vagankovsky Street stopped outside the courtyard gates, amazed to hear such sounds of harmony coming from the Commission. As soon as the first verse was over, the singing stopped at once, as though in obedience to a conductor's baton. The messenger swore under his breath and ran off. The front door opened and in walked a man wearing a light coat on top of a white overall, followed by a policeman. 
    'Do something, doctor, please! ' screamed the hysterical girl. 
    The secretary of the branch office ran out on to the staircase and obviously burning with embarrassment and shame said between hiccups: 'Look doctor, we have a case of some kind of mass hypnosis, so you must. . .' He could not finish his sentence, stuttered and began singing 'Shilka and Nerchinsk . . .' 
    'Fool!' the girl managed to shout, but never managed to say who she meant and instead found herself forced into a trill and joined in the song about Shilka and Nerchinsk. 
    'Pull yourselves together! Stop singing!' said the doctor to the secretary. It was obvious that the secretary would have given anything to stop singing but could not. When the verse was finished the girl at the desk received a dose of valerian from the doctor, who hurried off to give the secretary and the rest the same treatment. 
    'Excuse me, miss,' Vassily Stepanovich suddenly asked the girl, 'has a black cat been in here?' 
    'What cat? ' cried the girl angrily. ' There's a donkey in this office - a donkey! ' And she went on, 'If you want to hear about it I'll tell you exactly what's happened.' 
    Apparently the director of the branch office had a mania for organising clubs. 'He does it all without permission from head office!' said the girl indignantly. In the course of a year the branch director had succeeded in organising a Lermontov Club, a Chess and Draughts Club, a Ping-Pong Club and a Riding Club. In summer he threatened to organise a rowing club and a mountaineering club. And then this morning in came the director at lunch time . . . '. . . arm in arm with some villain,' said the girl, 'that he'd picked up God knows where, wearing check trousers, with a wobbling pince-nez . . . and an absolutely impossible face!' 
    There and then, according to the girl, he had introduced him to all the lunchers in the dining-room as a famous specialist in organising choral societies. The faces of the budding mountaineers darkened, but the director told them to cheer up and the specialist made jokes and assured them on his oath that singing would take up very little time and was a wonderfully useful accomplishment. Well, of course, the girl went on, the first two to jump up were Fanov and Kosarchuk, both well-known toadies, and announced that they wanted to join. The rest of the staff realised that there was no way out of it, so they all joined the choral society too. It was decided to practise during the lunch break, because all the rest of their spare time was already taken up with Lermontov and draughts. To set an example the director announced that he sang tenor. What happened then was like a bad dream. 
    The check-clad chorus master bellowed: 'Do, mi, sol, do!' He dragged some of the shy members out from behind a cupboard where they had been trying to avoid having to sing, told Kosarchuk that he had perfect pitch, whined, whimpered, begged them to show him some respect as an old choirmaster, struck a tuning fork on his finger and announced that they would begin with ' The Song of the Volga Boatmen.' 
    They struck up. And they sang very well - the man in the check suit really did know his job. They sang to the end of the first verse. Then the choirmaster excused himself, saying, 'I'll be back in a moment . . .' - and vanished. Everybody expected him back in a minute or two, but ten minutes went by and there was still no sign of him. The staff were delighted - he had run away! Then suddenly, as if to order, they all began singing the second verse, led by Kosarchuk, who may not have had perfect pitch but who had quite a pleasant high tenor. They finished the verse. Still no conductor. Everybody started to go back to their tables, but they had no time to eat before quite against their will they all started singing again. And they could not stop. There would be three minutes' silence and they would burst out into song again. Silence - then more singing! Soon people began to realise that something terrible was happening. The director locked himself in his office out of shame. With this the girl's story broke off - even valerian was no use,.
    A quarter of an hour later three lorries drove up to the gateway on Vagankovsky Street and the entire branch staff, headed by the director, was put into them. Just as the first lorry drove through the gate and out into the street, the staff, standing in the back of the lorry and holding each other round the shoulders, all opened their mouths and deafened the whole street with a song. The second lorry-load joined in and then the third. On they drove, singing. The passers-by hurrying past on their own business gave the lorries no more than a glance and took no notice, thinking that it was some works party going on an excursion out of town. They were certainly heading out of town, but not for an outing: they were bound for Professor Stravinsky's clinic.

Publishing Advice for the Faint Hearted

My new non-fiction book,
to be published in spring 2023, by Saraband.

There is an ocean of publishing and self publishing advice out there already, some of it very good indeed, and I don't propose to reinvent the wheel. But given that I'm a 'hybrid' writer - both traditionally and self published, roughly half and half - and also that I'm 'contaminated by experience' as somebody at the BBC once described us more mature writers and I'm sometimes asked for advice, I thought a few pointers might not go amiss. 

1 Don't self publish too soon. 

If you want to try for a traditional agent and publisher, then by all means go down that route first. Polish your manuscript till it's as good as it can be, and start sending out those query letters, those sample chapters, those synopses. Do your research. Be professional about it. Be polite. Don't harass people. (You should see the emails some would-be writers send to publishers!) But at the same time analyse your ambitions. Do you just want to get this one book 'out there' or are you planning for the long term. In which case ...

2 Don't wait too long to self publish.

By which I mean, don't hang about for years, hoping that you're going to hit the big time. Agents and wildly successful writers will tell you that if you persevere you will get there, and you may. But you may also waste half a lifetime on a single project. Bestsellers are the stuff of our dreams. Steady sales, even small ones, are possible. You might be surprised by how many writers combine self with traditional publishing these days.  

3 Don't keep polishing the same book, over and over.

Well, you can. I've done it more times than I care to remember, but mostly because I hadn't got it right the first or second or third or fourth time and in general I love to edit. Whatever you do, do not keep rewriting your book to the demands of a string of different editors, because nothing is more certain than that it will eventually implode under the weight of contradictory demands. 

Take The Amber Heart. That was by far my longest saga of rewrites, a book that I'm pretty satisfied with now. I'm very glad it's out there, and reasonably well reviewed. But at one point, two different agents had told me to delete a third of it. Unfortunately, one wanted me to lose the first third and one the last third. I did neither, but I certainly pruned it drastically and then rewrote large chunks of it as my skills as a novelist improved. I enjoyed it, but it took years, and I was writing plenty of other things at the same time. The trick is not to get bogged down in one project.

4 Do keep on writing. 

Write your next book while you're trying to sell the first, and write another book once you've written that one. Practice makes perfect. You'll be learning how to write while you're doing it. We all have bottom drawer novels that should probably never see the light of day. But once you have a significant body of work, you can decide which projects have 'legs' and which you've lost interest in. Then you can choose what, if anything, you want to do with them. 

5 Time is a good editor.

If you can leave a book - or any piece of writing - for a few months, even after you think you have edited it to within an inch of its life - you will see not just typos and repetitions and infelicities, but all kinds of structural things that you want to work on. This is another reason to be prolific, to leave one project in abeyance while you work on something else. The other tip is to send your manuscript to your Kindle and read it on there. Problems will leap out at you, because you're seeing it in a different format, much closer to print.

6 Write for love, try to publish for money. 

Samuel Johnson said no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, but almost nobody publishes for money these days and we're not all blockheads. Publishers, except for the big corporations, don't make much either. If you want money, buy a lottery ticket. But although you will and should write for love, remember that publishing is a business, whether it's yours or somebody else's, and you should treat it as such. Be polite, be thoroughly professional, but don't assume you always have to be a humble supplicant either. 

Bird of Passage was definitely a labour of love!

7 Be realistic about selling

I know a number of writers who boycott Amazon. Oddly enough, they don't ever seem to demand that their publishers boycott Amazon too. There are some truths in their stance. Amazon doesn't pay much tax here in the UK, but that's the fault of the government who don't ask for it. And it isn't only Amazon. If you're reading this on a smartphone, check just what your phone company doesn't pay in UK taxes either. At the same time, you could look up just who owns the UK's biggest bookseller. 

'I prefer to buy from a small business,' people say, and so do I. But the fact is that thousands of small businesses (some with bricks and mortar stores too)  trade on Amazon, thrive and pay their taxes, because no small business will get anything like the publicity, the digital footfall and customer security a site such as Amazon will deliver. I notice that Amazon is starting to flag up these small businesses, and good for them. 

8 Be realistic about your own skills

When I first decided to self publish some of my older titles, I did it through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing and still do. They have made it progressively easier over the years. I can also put new, experimental (for me) work out there, such as Rewilding. More recently, I decided that three of these older, recently revised novels deserved to be in paperback. While I can format for Kindle, which is fiddly but easy, I soon realised that formatting for print-on-demand paperbacks was a much harder proposition. Ironically, one of the ways I realised this was when reading a book that had been published by a small publisher, only to find 'printed by Amazon' on the back and to realise that the company had made a terrible job of formatting the paperback.  

After some searching, I discovered Scottish based Lumphanan Press, who now help with my formatting for paperback. I pay a flat fee and they make a truly excellent job of formatting text and cover so that I can upload it myself. I'm delighted with the finished product and it means I have some copies to sell alongside my traditionally published books, at various events. I either use my own photographs or my husband's artworks for the cover images. (I'm aware that I'm lucky to have a painter on hand.) I should point out here that Lumphanan offer a full spectrum of services, so if you want more extensive professional help with your project, you can get it. They are emphatically not a 'vanity press'  and they will never do the hard sell -  but they will obviously charge realistic rates for the services they offer. Finally ...

9 Live in hope.

I don't make any fortunes out of my writing. I never have. I have had spells of making a reasonable living but it was always a switchback. A giant game of snakes and ladders. Now, between my traditionally published work, some paid events, a pension and a small monthly payment from Amazon (who pay every month, on the nail) - my artist husband and I get by. I also sell antique textiles online to supplement my writing income. I'm not retiring any time soon and have a big new project in mind. But I know people who have made quite a lot of money. Those self publishers who have done this have treated it as a business. They do indeed write for love and publish for money. And they are prolific. Not all of us can or would want to do that and some people just want a traditional deal. For some, seeing their work in print is enough. There is no single right way - but it is good to be aware of your options. Do feel free to comment or add questions. 

 Whatever you decide to do, go for it wholeheartedly. Love what you do. And good luck! 

Ice Dancing is a grown up love story and - in terms of reviews -
probably my most successful book!