"My First Goose" #13
The end of it.
Last time, I encouraged you to read the story but truncate it at the last line of Pulse 5:
“And loudly, like a deaf man triumphant, I read Lenin’s speech to the Cossacks.” (THE END).
…and then to tell me what bowling pins were still up in the air for you. That is, I asked you to justify what we are calling Pulse 6 – those last three paragraphs on page 54.
So, to cut to the chase, and as many of you have said better than I could, in the Comments: what’s hanging over the story at the end of Pulse 5 is the question of consequence. He’s killed his first goose – now what? How’s it sitting with him? Does he feel good about it? Are there any lingering after-effects?
That is, the story is causing us to ask: “What becomes of a person who has made such a choice?”
I think a first-time reader, after the killing of the goose, very naturally leans in, to see the effect of this violent act on the narrator. If we go briefly back to Pulse 5, we see that the action goes like this:
He kills the goose, orders the landlady to cook it;
The camera moves to the Cossacks (sitting “straight-backed”);
They pronounce him “their kind of lad” and start eating…
…and only then does the camera go to the narrator. He steps into the yard.
You might go back and try to recall the state of your reading mind the first time you read the story and hit that moment after the goose-killing (page 53), and recall how primed you were to accept direction re the question, “How does the narrator feel about this?” The precise prose has put us into a state of high alert and we are reading every phrase closely, and every phrase is subtly guiding us, we might say. So when, in the yard scene, we hit that word “languishing,” it is freighted. (Imagine if that sentence had read: “I wiped the sabre down with sand, went out the gate and came back in again, triumphant, my heart singing.”) Ditto with the description of the moon; it becomes a different story if the moon had been described as being “like God’s glorious chandelier” or something.
We also feel the larger, story-relevant, resonance of “we have a shortage in everything” – there is a shortage of mercy, compassion, kindness in this world.
(Amazing, really, how alert we are, as we read, and how many things are hovering around there in our reading minds.)
And then there’s one more indicator of the narrator’s psychological state in that last line of Pulse 5 (“And loudly, like a deaf man triumphant, I read Lenin’s speech to the Cossacks.”) To say someone reads aloud “like a deaf man triumphant” is different from saying that he reads aloud “triumphantly.” In the former, we feel him looking askance at himself, we might say.
All of this to say that an alert first-time reader suspects, as she leaves Pulse 5, that the narrator did not come out of this killing cleanly.
And we arrive at Pulse 6.
There’s a nice little complication there in the first paragraph, when we are told that as he read, he “rejoiced.” In what is he rejoicing? Lenin’s prose. So, for this languishing/violence-disturbed intellectual is still able to take some solace in things intellectual. We might sense a branchpoint here – are we to understand that, even though he was troubled, he will now move ahead, leaving the goose-related sadness behind, serving the Revolution alongside his new Cossack brothers? Surokov agrees with him re Lenin’s prose: a further sign of unification or common cause.
And then we get the last paragraph, which I’ll put in below for reference:
That’s what Surokov, platoon commander of the staff squadron, said about Lenin, and then we went to sleep in the hayloft. There were six of us, huddling together for warmth, our legs tangled, under a roof full of holes that let in the stars. I had dreams – dreamt of women – and only my heart, crimson with murder, creaked and bled.
The overstory, to my mind, has been something like: Will he find a way to be accepted? (He did find it, yes.)
And now the understory is about to reveal itself.
The first sentence of the last paragraph, I read as a sort of breath-taking or recap, that places them, in its last phrase, in the hayloft. Notice how your reading mind is still waiting for…something. It is going along, waiting for one last expansion in the story.
I can almost feel Babel, putting down the phrase “to sleep in the hayloft” and sort of looking around, to see both what there is left to say and what he has to work with. The main thing he’s feeling (at least in my imagination) is: “Yes, there’s something more to be said, that is not mere repetition and is not mere addition-to-mood.”
“There were six of us, huddling together for warmth, our legs tangled, under a roof full of holes that let in the stars.” They are now about as physically close as people can get, these former adversaries, working together for their mutual benefit – and now, the notion of legs comes back into the story, and we recall Savitsky’s legs, and those twelve legs are “tangled,” and there’s something sexual about that (there are, sort of, twelve girls tangled there too, with the narrator and the Cossacks) – and suddenly (as often happens when I reach the end of a Babel story) I feel that I’ve been instructed in an entirely new way in which a story can be told. Babel has embroidered a complex suite of meanings around “legs,” and “sexuality” and “violence” and “men and women” and now all of those elements are reappearing in one final image that is saying…something. But that something is irreducible and deep and poetic. I won’t sully it by trying to precisely articulate it – you know what I’m talking about, because you’ve read the story.
But…that last line. What’s left for Babel to do? He’s still trying to find even one more iota of earned meaning.
His narrator is asleep, so Babel gives him a dream. He could have woken the narrator up and sent him outside to do some thinking. But since “dream” is really the same as “thought” (and might even be seen as a form of very frank, unmediated, thinking) Babel cuts, efficiently, to the chase:
“I had dreams – dreamt of women – and only my heart, crimson with murder, creaked and bled.”
We read this as further confirmation that he has not come out of this thing cleanly. But there’s something else communicated here too. He doesn’t just say, just: “I had bad dreams because I had been violent” or “I had a violent dream of killing something.”)
Let’s look at some different translations of that final sentence:
Dralyuk: “I had dreams – dreamt of women – and only my heart, crimson with murder, creaked and bled.”
Vinokur: “I had dreams and saw women in my dreams—and only my heart, imbrued with slaughter, oozed and groaned.”
McDuff: “I had dreams and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, stained crimson with murder, squeaked and overflowed.”
Constantine: “I dreamed, and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, crimson with murder, screeched and bled.”
One thing that’s happening for me is that I’m being shot back to goose killing. Here’s a nerdy table, comparing the word choices re: the goose’s head at the time of its murder and the word choice to describe what happens to the narrator’s heart at the end of the story:
Translator Desc. of the killing of the goose Last line of the story
Dralyuk “cracked and bled” “creaked and bled”
Vinokur “cracked and oozed” “oozed and groaned”
McDuff “cracked and overflowed” “squeaked and overflowed”
Constantine “cracking and bleeding” “screeched and bled”
Let’s just note that the language here inclines us to connect this moment at the end with the moment of the goose’s death, because of “cracked, creaked, bled, overflowed.” So, this is a way of having him dream about that goose without having him directly dream about it.
When he dreams, he dreams of women. What “women” are in the story? Well, those two leg-women connected with Savitsky’s boots, and the old landlady. (And maybe the goose, although I can’t remember where we landed on that.). I also always, here, for reasons I can’t really explain or justify, supply all of the narrator’s future women – his future lovers and wife, for example. But he’s not allowed this dreamy contemplation of future loves (or even future sex) which should be natural and pleasurable for a young man.
So, I anticipate something like, “I had dreams of women BUT my heart (something).” and am (still) a little confused by Babel’s use of “and only my heart,” since it implies that we were, it should be, expecting something, in addition to his heart, to “creak and bleed.”
Maybe Boris can help us out with that choice of words….(as if he hasn’t done enough already.)
So, we might now want to revise our Hollywood Version, from “A man, rejected, gets accepted,” to “A man, rejected, does what he needs to get accepted – and pays a price.” This is what that last dream-image tells us. And it tells us, with extraordinary nuance, the nature of that price.
A positive thing (“sexual desire,” or “love of life” or “necessary self-assertion”) gets tarnished by a negative thing (violence), although, to me, the story also seems to be saying, somehow, that sex and violence (aggression, engagement) are all part of the same bigger thing…they are all part of self-assertion, and self-assertion (which is necessary and even good) is also always fraught, even in the best case, with consequences and guilt. We were convinced earlier, that the narrator had to take action to protect himself. He did so. But no action is consequence-free. The tangled legs = the ultimate acceptance BUT they come with that creaking/bleeding heart.
The story seems to be saying, a bit sadly: “Yes, that’s how it is in this world.” It corrects us, if we think that we can move through this world in some state of pristine moral cleanness - we are always negotiating this balance between action in the world and the consequences of those actions, many of which are unforeseen and/or harmful.
That’s just the dynamic that we are in, perpetually, as long as we’re lucky enough to be alive.
And, of course, the story is much more than all of this reducing analysis we’ve been doing about it. It is beautiful, mostly, in the how of it – the way it falls on us at-speed, the experience (the irreducible) experience we have while reading it, the Babel’s brisk-but-lyrical language pulls us right into the thing, makes myth out of incident.
So – there’s more, much more, to be said about this story, but also….less.
Less can be good too.
As we conclude our long, lovely discussion of “My First Goose,” I’d love to hear you discuss anything we might have missed, or ways in which you feel this exploration will inflect your writing and reading (or living) going ahead.
I have been so deeply impressed with the quality of discussion in our comments section, so will very happily turn this over to all of you.
The other day I caught myself wondering why a conversation with a loved one had left me feeling the way that it did. Then it occurred to me that I was applying, in a sort of unconscious way, the method we’re employing here (i.e., noticing a response and thinking keenly about the reasons for it). It’s not like I was blind to my emotions before joining Story Club, but I doubt that I would have taken the time to reflect on the conversation, which was pretty commonplace, or my response to it. I’m not sure that the response would even have registered, given how subtle it was.
I think that working through these stories in the way that we are has meant that I’m more attentive generally to the subtle shifts in mood and feeling that I experience throughout the day and more curious about the reasons for those shifts, which has been refreshing.
This is in addition to all the ways in which Story Club has positively inflected my reading and writing.
Thank you for this question, George: How will this story, and our deep reading of it, prompted by the questions you have put before us, inflect my writing? "My first goose", more than any story I have read before, comes closer to poetry in the economy of words and the use of imagery. Without spelling anything out, the story paints a profound and deeply moving (and troubling!) portrait of humanity. Babel treats the reader with profound respect, not laying everything out like a user manual, but using art to connect with us, to bring us into this world. My own writing tends to over-state, to not leave things unsaid. I'm surprised by how much Babel has accomplished in these few pages, and with such beauty. Thank you, George, for this.