There are a lot of very strange things happening in Bulgakov’s book, but at the moment, I find the connection between Margarita and Margerite de Valois/Henry IV to be the most interesting, at least for taking in the whole range of Margarita’s role in the narrative.
Exhibit A: While flying over Moscow, Natasha calls Margarita ‘Queen Margarita’, she’s also referred to as a queen at the midnight ball very many times.
Exhibit B: The goat-legged man on the banks of the Yenisei calls Margarita ‘Queen Margot’ (‘Forgive me, I didn’t see you, your majesty. Queen Margot. It’s the fault of the brandy.’). Queen Margot was Marguerite de Valois, famous for her beauty, literary talent and numerous affairs. Her wedding with Henry III of Navarre (later Henry IV of France) occasioned the St Bartholomew Massacre and I think there’s a reference to the massacre in the same paragraph (the goat-man ‘in a mixture of Russian and French jabbered some nonsense about having just come from a wedding in Paris’). This would further fit with Margarita’s story because Queen Margot was trapped in a loveless marriage and couldn’t have children.
(HOWEVER, the goat-man first calls Margarita, ‘Claudine, the merry widow!’ – my guess is that this was Claudine Françoise Mignot 1624-1711, who was a very merry widow indeed – she was married three times, every time to very rich men who were much older than she and who died a few months/years after their marriage.)
Exhibit C: ‘I rather think that a certain king of France of the 16th century would be most astonished if somebody told him that after all these years I should have the pleasure of walking arm in arm round a ballroom in Moscow with his great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter.’
‘A certain king of France of the 16th century’ is, I think, Henry IV of France who was a famous womaniser and had lots of mistresses and illegitimate children. Now, you know Berlioz’s disappearing head? Henry IV’s head disappeared too! When revolutionaries ransacked his tomb in 1793, they took his head. An embalmed head that was supposedly his was passed around by collectors for some while then dropped off the radar. It was only rediscovered last year in the attic of a retired tax collector and the French state recuperated it and gave it a national mass then buried it with the rest of Henry IV’s body.
‘Dostoevsky is dead,’ said the citizens, but somehow not very confidently.
‘I protest!’ Behemoth exclaimed hotly. ‘Dostoevsky is immortal!’
We live, but we do not feel the land beneath us,
Ten steps away and our words cannot be heard,
And when there are just enough people for half a dialogue,
Then they remember the Kremlin mountaineer.
His fat fingers are slimy like slugs,
And his words are absolute, like grocers’ weights.
His cockroach whiskers are laughing,
And his boot tops shine. …
Decree after decree he hammers them out like horseshoes,
One in the groin for him, and the forehead for him, for him one over the eyes, one in the eyes for him.
When he has an execution it’s a special treat,
And the Ossetian chest swells.
‘There were certain rules of listening and talking that we children had to learn,’ recalls the daugher of a middle-ranking Bolshevik official who grew up in the 1930s:
‘What we overheard the adults say in a whisper, or what we heard them say behind our backs, we knew we could not repeat to anyone. We would be in trouble if we even let them know that we had heard what they had said. Sometimes the adults would say something and then would tell us, ‘The walls have ears,’ or ‘Watch your tongue,’ or some other expression, which we understood to mean that what they had just said was not meant for us to hear.’
The Russian language has two words for a ‘whisperer’ – one for somebody who whispers out of fear of being overheard (shepchuschchii) and another for the person who informs or whispers behind people’s backs to the authorities (sheptun). The distinction has its origins in the idiom of the Stalin years, when the whole of Soviet society was made up of whisperers of one sort or another.
Poetry – and literature in general – was never just an art form in the Soviet Union. Heavily influenced by Romantic ideology, it exhibited the features of myth, of ritual, of destiny. Poets were priests and purveyors of national ideals, and their rhymed words were a serious affair, at times more important than those of the General Secretary of the Communist Party. The field of aesthetics was a true battlefield, where many were exiled or even lost their heads. The sacred utterance of poetry invested it with enormous cultural capital – a situation envied by many writers in the West – but that uncritical reverence also ossified its forms and range, and made it an easy tool for Soviet propaganda purposes, as much as for dissent.