"My First Goose," #12
Well, we’re nearly to the end of “My First Goose.”
This week let’s take up the penultimate pulse, Pulse 5: The Cossacks, reversing themselves, accept him (last three grafs on 53 to middle of 54).
First, let’s break this pulse into four sub-pulses:
He gets the Cossacks’ attention and approval (grafs 1-3, pg 53).
He wanders out of the yard (graf 1, pg 54).
The Cossacks invite him to join them for dinner (grafs 2-3, page 54).
The Cossacks ask him what’s in the paper and he reads to them (grafs 4-6, page 54).
You’ll recall that our original summary of the story went: “A man, rejected, gets accepted.” So, by the end of the first sub-pulse above, that’s pretty much been accomplished. After the narrator kills the goose, the Cossacks are said to be “motionless, straight-backed as priests” (i.e., he’s got their attention). Then one of them, winking, pronounces that the narrator is “our kind of lad.” (Or, in another translation: “The lad will do all right with us.”)
And just like that, the narrator is accepted.
So, why does Babel keep going?
As you probably know by now, one of my ideas about the short story is that once a story has stopped escalating, it should be over. (Again, this is not a rule – more like a general aspiration - we want out stories to be expanding in their meaning even into their very last lines.) When a great writer like Babel keeps writing, he’s essentially saying that he feels there’s further escalation to be had, with “escalation” meaning something like “further earned meaning.”
In an earlier post, I mentioned the “Gods of Fiction,” who are always saying things like, “Tell me more,” and “Why do you think that character did that?” and “Can you be more specific?”
Another thing they really like to say is: “Prove it.”
One of the fundamental moves in fiction is this: an assertion is then followed by proof of what has been asserted.
In Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” there’s a lovely example. Two men arrive at the house of a friend. Chekhov writes: “Once in the house, the two visitors were met by a chambermaid, a young woman so beautiful…” So, that’s the assertion: this woman is especially beautiful. Then Chekhov proves it: “…so beautiful that both of them stood still at the same moment and glanced at one another.”
If I write, “Once there was an extremely nervous man…” don’t you find yourself waiting for me to prove it (or demonstrate it), by some clever and specific example of his nervousness?
This assertion/proof move is deeply pleasurable for a reader; it’s a sort of “cashing in,” if you will – the writer is “cashing in on” the tension she’s worked so hard to create. It can work, too, on a larger scale; we might think of A Christmas Carol. Toward the end of Chapter 4, Scrooge asserts that he’s a changed man, in that famous speech that begins, “I will Honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” Then all of Chapter 5 proves this – we see various demonstrations of his changed nature – his overjoyed attempt to get dressed, his “frisking” into the sitting-room, his conversation with the boy on the street below, his arrival at his nephew’s party, and so on.
Here, in “My First Goose,” one of the Cossacks has asserted that the narrator is “their kind of lad;” one reason Pulse 5 keeps going after that first sub-Pulse is…for the fun of it; to demonstrate that the narrator has been good and truly accepted, which is done by the third and fourth sub-pulses listed above (they invite him to dinner, they invite him to read to them).
In a sense, then, this pulse can be seen as a sort of celebratory, slightly prolonged, demonstration of his acceptance by the Cossacks, that, in the process, masterfully uses elements previously introduced (the food, the reading of the paper, his intellectualism, etc).
But this pulse is doing something else, too…
Here, we have a nice opportunity to learn something deep about the short story form.
We’re done with Pulse 5. He’s done a bold and violent thing to gain acceptance into this originally hostile tribe. There are three paragraphs left in the story. I’d argue that they are essential; they elevate the story into the realm of greatness. (It’s in Pulse 6 that what I’ve been calling the understory is going to surface.) Babel, too, is claiming these paragraphs are essential, by virtue of the fact that, all those years ago, at the height of his mastery, he elected not to cut them.
So, we can learn something about the form – about how it works on us – by simply reading the story, again, from the beginning, and lopping off Pulse 6.
That is, let it end as follows:
“And loudly, like a deaf man triumphant, I read Lenin’s speech to the Cossacks.”
What bowling pins are still up in the air for you if the story ends with that line? What is dissatisfying about that ending? What aspects of the story’s energy are not adequately honored by that ending? What itch have you been feeling, for which Pulse 6 is the scratch?
That is: why do we need Pulse 6?
I’m going to resist the urge to provide an answer, because I know we’ll have a great discussion about it.
I will, however, give you a slight clue, or prompt, or nudge, which is simply the observation that the second sub-pulse above (“He wanders out of the yard”) isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary. That is, donning our Extreme Efficiency Bonnets, we could cut that sub-pulse (which consists of the two sentences, “I wiped the sabre down with sand, went out of the gate and came back in again, languishing. The moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring”) out of the story pretty cleanly. (The result would be:
The Cossacks commenced their dinner with the restrained elegance of peasants who hold one another in respect.
“Little brother,’ the eldest of the Cossacks, Surovkov suddenly said to me, “come and have a bite with us until your goose is ready.”’)
That’s what we might call a pretty clean suture - a very painless, non-bumpy cut. It eliminates that little move of the narrator going out into the yard only to come right back in. And so on.
So…why do we not want to do that?
Please discuss, in your usual joyful, articulate, and courteous manner, which has given me much happiness and hope over these last five (!) months.
It’s going to be very hard to talk about Pulse 5 without talking about Pulse 6. But I will try (and probably fail).
George’s first question regards the necessity of two sentences within Pulse 5. In sentence one, our narrator wipes the sabre clean of his crime against the goose, leaves the scene of the crime for the outside world, and feels himself “languishing,” which can be defined as “breaking down.” Here—outside—is a moment of reflection for the narrator. A time separate from the Cossacks when he can ponder what he has done. And, as it turns out, he doesn’t feel so great in his triumph. He feels broken. In the second sentence, he notices something in nature—the moon. And it is not a beautiful moon, a celebratory moon, a worshipful moon, a moon that makes one think of the possibility of a Divine Maker, but a moon that looks like a cheap earring, the kind perhaps worn by a woman who is paid for sex. Sex—a natural and beautiful act—is cheapened when one pays for it, when it becomes transactional as opposed to lovingly given. And so our narrator feels and knows he has prostituted himself in his action. He has demoralized his soul in payment for acceptance. Without these two sentences—the first, where he leaves to reflect for a moment (and feels broken) and the second where his reflection tells him he is losing his soul—the story loses some of its depth and intensity. The reader needs to be led to a place where they can understand the narrator’s position before he reads to the Cossacks, and these sentences provide that.
As to George’s second question: can we quit here, at the end of Pulse 5, in the narrator’s triumph? After all, his quest has been to read the words of Lenin to the Cossacks, and now he is doing so. Well, the problem with ending here is that then story would lack the resonance to which it has been building the entire time. Like anyone who commits an act that goes against one’s heart, the question becomes: How do you sleep at night? Even though the narrator has fulfilled his desire, it came with a cost. His brokenness, which he has pushed aside while he reads to the Cossacks (“loudly, like a deaf man triumphant”), comes alive at night when he tries to sleep under that cheap earring-moon. That cost must be revealed—and it will be in Pulse 6.
From that second sub-pulse: the narrator feels dirty, he needs to be alone, he feels weak, and even the beauty of the moon looks cheap to him. And so for me the question I take going into the final segment of the story is: at how high a cost to his soul has his acceptance come?
Beyond that, throughout the story I'm thinking, "This is just the first goose, the title says." And so the even larger question would be: what will killing people in war do to him, if killing a goose does this?