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.

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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?

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One thing I've really liked about thinking in pulses is that it's become a convenient unit of revision. Instead of reading an entire story-draft, taking notes, and revising it, I've done all that for a pulse-draft. I've found it much easier to hold an entire pulse in my head than an entire story. I also like that a "pulse" is very loosely defined, so it can be whatever your mind needs it to be.

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I am awed when I read all the comments already in about this pulse. I am in the presence of amazing, well-read thinkers and writers. As a sincere thinker who is less well-read and not a writer (yet), I’m adding my random thoughts.

When I read this for the fist time, I wondered at the word “languishing.” I thought of the word as meaning weakened, fatigued, enervated. I looked it up to make sure I had the right meaning, and that is one of the definitions, but it also means dispirited or grieving. All of these definitions are appropriate for the translator’s word choice. The next sentence about the moon looking like a cheap earring brings his thoughts into sharp focus after the slightly vague image of him turning around. You realize he is aware of the reality of what he has done, and has a sense of what is to come.

I’m also trying to picture how this scene would look, say, in a movie or play. Would he put his hand on the gate, take a step out, stop and close his eyes, then look up at the sky? How long would he pause before coming back in? Would it look as if he stepped out to actually leave the courtyard, but then changed his mind? Or would he be stepping out simply to collect his thoughts and steel himself before returning to the men?

Final random thought: I don’t know if it was common for the Cossacks to store silverware in their boots, or if by having the narrator accept a spare spoon out of the man’s boot (yuck) he further accents the narrator’s doing what it takes to fit in. If he stopped to wipe it off, he would risk insulting the person offering it.

Okay, one more random thought. It is the flaxen haired young man who asks about the newspaper and moves over for the narrator. To me this is one of the “cashing in” experiences of reading about the men accepting him and it is so effective.

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Apr 24, 2022·edited Apr 24, 2022

I am thinking about George's questions regarding the necessity of Pulse 6, specifically: "What bowling pins are still up in the air for you if the story ends with that line?" "What aspects of the story’s energy are not adequately honored by that ending?" and "What itch have you been feeling, for which Pulse 6 is the scratch?" I agree with the comments that I've read here about empathizing with the narrator's conflicted attitudes towards war, and towards his own cruel, but arguably necessary actions.

For me, there's also a visceral aspect of the story's "energy" that remains un-honored until the last paragraph. There's a sexual desire that accompanies violence and warfare throughout the story, evoked almost immediately by descriptions of Savitsky in Pulse 1 (the "beauty of his gigantic body", the "iron and flowers of his youth," those boots...) I detect it again when the Cossacks are introduced shaving each other in the yard--an extremely intimate act.

If the narrator's act of violence didn't result in a scene involving blood, desire, and intimate physical contact between the narrator and Cossacks, I feel this energetic "bowling pin" would remain airborne. Babel brings the threads together beautifully(wrenchingly) in Pulse 6.

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Apr 24, 2022·edited Apr 24, 2022

I like the story better with the sentences included: “I wiped the sabre…” Why? I’m not sure I can articulate an exact technical reason. But sometimes in novels or stories I like when the author slows things down a bit, isn’t always escalating. Those sentences also give me a sense of the narrator’s mental state, that he needed to recover from the act. I also like the story better with the last three paragraphs. They show that the narrator has been fully accepted, enough to sleep huddled together. And the last sentence (“and only my heart crimson with murder, creaked and bled.”) tells me that the narrator is still bothered by his violent act. Finally, I think it is a common practice in fiction to have a scene after the resolution. Citizen Kane shows us Rosebud, Raiders of the Lost Ark shows us the ark being stored away, Casablanca ends with the start of a beautiful friendship. Were these scenes necessary? Yes. Anyway, not sure if that makes sense.

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Apr 25, 2022·edited Apr 25, 2022

This may be just me, but each time I read through this story from the beginning, I feel disoriented (what's going on here? what is this about?) up until the moment the narrator kills the goose. It's in Pulse 5 that I feel the story pause to take a breath, it's here that my own internal metronome finally finds the beat of Babel's rhythm. I walk in and out of the courtyard with the narrator, consider the moon. I am languishing. It is the briefest interlude, and within it, a glimpse at the narrator's mental state (there are so few of them in this story. He feels envy over Savitsky, loneliness over the column of smoke that reminds him of his childhood village. Each insight seems precious).

If I put on my efficiency bonnet and cut this line, I also silence the voice inside me that's saying, "aha! So he feels anguish. Tell me more." That line puts another bowling pin up in the air for me, and I find myself asking (as Mary G. puts it), "how do you sleep at night?" The anguish lingers over the last line in this pulse ("like a deaf man triumphant"). The narrator is sharing the words of Lenin with the Cossacks--they ask him to read to them!--but the triumph of this small "victory" now feels empty and as cheap as the moon/earring that hangs over the scene.

And holy crap--have we really already spent five months in Story Club!? The time has flown by. Words can't express how much I look forward to these posts and all the wonderful, insightful comments every week. So much gratitude for you George, for creating this space, and to all you wonderful Story Clubbers who show up here to share and nurture it ❤️

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One thing that strikes me about the story (read in the light of today’s post) is how little we’re told about what the narrator thinks and feels about the events he’s recounting. Because of this, and because we have the sense right from the very beginning that he’s in a hostile environment, I think we’re constantly looking for some sign of how he’s reacting, emotionally and intellectually, to e.g. being called a pansie, having his little trunk tossed over the gate, cracking the goose’s neck, and so on.

Early on in pulse 5 the narrator is accepted by the Cossacks. But at this point we’re still none the wiser what he thinks or feels about that or anything else that has happened. And because we have the sense that the narrator has achieved that acceptance only by doing things that he would ordinarily regard as abhorrent, the question of what he thinks and feels presses. Is our rough assessment of the narrator’s character (as a decent, not especially violent or mean individual) accurate? Or is he, it turns out, just as ruthless as the Cossacks?

His going out of the gate and coming back in again, languishing, suggests a kind of uneasiness with what he’s done, and so reassures us that the narrator is not, after all, a cold-blooded killer. But we still want, I think, some confirmation in the form of insight into the narrator’s state of mind.

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Narrator kills goose, the woman whose goose it is says again she wants to hang herself (not "good lad"), the Cossacks say, "good lad," he leaves the scene and returns, in Morison's translation, "depressed." I think this sets us up for the last line, in which, again in Morison's translation, reads "my heart, stained with bloodshed, grated and brimmed over." He's won over the killers by killing, he reads his beloved Lenin to them. But it is, really, not enough to make his actions acceptable to himself.

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A murder can be wiped from a blade, but not from one's heart.

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Apr 24, 2022·edited Apr 25, 2022

A 24

“I had dreams – dreams of women – and only my heart, crimson with murder, creaked and bled" brilliantly echos that incredible opening "....He rose and with the purple of his breachers, and the crimson of his cap…”

Honestly, I had forgotten the ending so caught was I by the goose’s slaughter so I went back and reread. The end elevates the story, gives it a moral compass, a compassionate compass with which to contemplate war’s brutality.

I can’t think there is anything more awful than humans slaughtering one another. A week or so ago I read a story about the crying of the starving cows in one Ukrainian town & how five men went out to try to feed them. The men disappeared, never to be seen again. That the men were likely killed is unspeakably sadder by the light of their actions – to go to the aid of their starving animals. The plight of those unrescued cows all the more horrible for the way they had to died. Babel’s story similarly entwins the animal with the human animal, our narrator, who despite his erudition doesn’t hesitate to destroy the goose to make himself “fit” in. But that last sentence absolves him to a certain degree because he owns his own black nature which is also the nature of war. A lesser story would have ended earlier without such an apercu.

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I note there has already been some commentary on the story’s chilling title, ‘My First Goose’. It’s a title that is no more than intriguing on a first encounter but which takes on a terrible heft, fundamental to the purpose of the tale, once the story has been read. The titles of the two previous Story Club stories had a similar effect: after reading the story and thinking back to the title, one has the sense of knowing a special secret.

The title of ‘The Stone Boy’ resonates after reading, capturing both the tale and the awful potential of its aftermath in three small words. The title of ‘Cat In The Rain’ left me reflecting on the link between the story’s title and its protagonist. Is she directly represented by the animal or by the contrast between the cat in the rain and the big cat at the end. I wonder whether this represents the contrast between the husband’s early expectations of his wife as [something] to be loved and the evolving wife/girl/woman who is, perhaps, beginning to show more signs of being pampered and independent than her husband has anticipated? Or vice versa: her husband is not going to fulfil her dreams?

I’m going off piste here... but the key is that great titles can add layers to great stories. Perhaps they get less attention than they deserve?

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While this isn't technically an answer as to why we should leave in the two lines, I'm in favor of keeping any metaphor Babel uses by the moon or the sky. They're all so astounding. "Like a cheap earring." Or from the first story in Red Cavalry: "The orange sun rolled down the sky like a lopped-off head." And "only the moon, clasping in her blue hands her round, bright, carefree face, wandered like a vagrant outside the window."

I suppose part of the meaning of the two lines could be part of the narrator's initial realization of the choice he made. He has earned acceptance, but at what cost? Then the ending arrives with the full power of that realization.

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Nathalie Babel is interviewed in 2001 by Diane Rehm upon the publication of The Complete Works -


She tells many anecdotes in her deep throaty voice, including my fave -

how Babel would offer complete strangers money to show him the contents of their purse. Such was his curiosity.

What a rapscallion!

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So many thoughtful responses here, Story Clubbers. I wanted to comment on why the second "sub-pulse" when the narrator "went out of the gate and came back in, languishing etc." is necessary. It occurred to me that this is the only moment our narrator steps off-stage, away from the eyes of anyone in his new life: Cossacks, quartermaster, Savitsky, blind landlady. In front of others, we've seen him remain stoic, even cheerful, despite being insulted and bullied. He has felt loneliness and homesickness, but he covered it up by attempting for the first time to read Lenin's speech in the newspaper. After all, that's why he's here, because of Lenin! And finally, he has taken the quartermaster's advice and has ruined the only female at hand, an old blind woman, by cursing and shoving her, and then killing her goose and then theatrically handing it to her on the end of his sabre, demanding she cook it. All of this is done in front of his audience of Cossacks, the men he is going to have to "get along" with. He has been trying so hard. When he goes out of the gate and then comes back in, he's finally had a moment to come back to himself--stop performing. I have complicated feelings about our narrator at this point. He's probably done what he's had to do in order to survive. His foolish idealism and intellectualism have brought him here, but the writing was on the wall. In order to stop the hazing (and survive the night) he needed to perform a violent act in front of these men. It's cost him something--the rosy sun is gone, replaced by a cheap earring of a moon. By the end of this scene he's eating pork and performing the speech as if he were Lenin himself. "Deaf man triumphant" is so perfect--I can sense he is hearing the falseness of his own voice at this point.

I have a quote from an essay by Charles Baxter on my bulletin board. "Each turning point in a plot will occur as a character steps through a one-way gate. There's no turning back." When our narrator returns to the men, there's definitely no turning back.

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For me, the Pulse 6 is the turn of the story, in the same way that the last couplet of a sonnet turns the poem. From pulses 1-5, the Cossacks are at odds with our narrator, the protagonist. He acts violently out of necessity, to survive. We get the sense that he feels more kinship with the old woman he abuses than with the people he's seeking acceptance from. The word choices pointed out by Mary g. show just how soul-killing these actions seem to the narrator as he enacts them.

But in Pulse 6, we see how quickly the power of acceptance works its way into the protagonist's soul. The Cossacks immediately hand him a role within their little community based on the little they know about him: he's the literate one, the smart one. His short synopsis of Lenin's words indicate a hesitancy, but by the end of the speech, the narrator has already assumed the role he's been given with pride.

The last paragraph is the real kicker, though. So much tension is created with Babel's word choices. The cheap moon is replaced by stars. But the homo-eroticism of his hayloft cuddle with the Cossacks--paired with his dream "of women"--man, that's mastery. It pulls the reader in two directions within such a short period of time. It left me thinking that this protagonist doesn't quite know what to make of the experience portrayed in the story. Despite the pleasure he feels from being accepted by the Cossacks, his heart, "crimson with murder, creaked and bled."

Can I just say one thing about Boris before I go? I read another translation of "My First Goose" today that used the word "screeched" instead of "creaked" in the last sentence. The tone of "creaked" as the narrator lies, huddled with the Cossacks in a hayloft, as if his heart interrupts his sleep like an old floorboard, is genius.

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