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.

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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.

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For a while it’s struck me that the deeper story is about the meaning of Lenin’s revolution itself.

The character is a revolutionary fanatic – he wants to do this. He’s not some reluctant refugee just trying to survive. He intellectually admires the military medals, and Lenin’s speeches. But he is also young and naive.

The question seems to be not just "Can he fit in with the Cossacks?", but "Can he fit in with the revolution itself?"

Many previous comments noted how the title “My First...” suggests a continuation (a 2nd, 3rd etc). Now it occurs to me (and others I see) that it also suggests a loss of virginity. The first. He has now committed his first act of brutality in the name of the revolution.

He is being changed from a soft-hearted student into an ends-justify-the-means revolutionary whose triumphant intellect and bleeding heart are separated. Perhaps he can go on to kill many more “geese” without this anguish in future?

The end maybe ties to the very start. He is on the way to becoming like the joyfully brutal Division Commander Savitsky. Perhaps Savitsky also had a “first goose”? Perhaps the creation of such people is the deeper work of Lenin's revolution?

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Wow. It’s over. What a great time this has been, looking so closely at this one story. Never in my life have I examined a piece of writing like this. I’m always in too much of a hurry, I think. I’m always focused on getting to the end—and then stopping. So, this is a great lesson for me. I’m learning to be more patient when I read stories. To finish them and then to dive back in and see “how they did it.” I feel I have better tools now for doing this. What’s clear is how many stories do what Babel has done, which is to repeat motifs and draw connections. Of course, I’ve known this, but there is a big difference between knowing something and experiencing something. So, as always, a big thanks to George for slowing us all down to a crawl. It’s been amazing.

(In my own writing—and yes, I finished that story I mentioned in another thread—I’ve looked closer than ever at making connections, hopefully without being too terribly obvious about it.)

Of course, Babel does more than repeat motifs and draw connections. He gets to the heart of things—and this, also, is what I would wish for in my own stories. (Big wish.)

Another thing I’ve learned from this is that there are lots of people out there who just do not see things the way I do! Hahahaha! Again, obvious. But as I go through the comments, I’m always amazed at the takes and angles others find that perhaps don’t sit with me. Then I’m forced to take a moment and really try to see their point of view. This space gives me that time and opportunity in a way a conversation in person cannot. I appreciate all of you out there who take the time to comment. I learn from all of you.

Lastly, while I agree with George that some things are simply not reducible to explanation, I have one thought about that last sentence. There is our narrator, lying in bed and dreaming of women. Now I can’t help but think these are sexual dreams and of course sexual dreams lead to arousal. But he is not aroused sexual. No, only his heart creaks, overflows, groans, or whatever. And bleeds. Yes, in this story violence and sex intertwine, but for this narrator, violence has won out. He is no longer the young man who can happily dream, lustily, of women.

Since George has said that “less is good, too” when it comes to this story (or when it comes to art-making, as well), I’ll stop there. Looking forward to whatever George has in store for us next.

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Great comments. The homoeroticism peeking out from between the lines. ☑ A coming of age / loss of innocence story. ☑ The connection between the goose's cracking head and the narrator's creaking heart ☑ (Though I have to wonder, did Drayluk's gloss REVEAL the connection or MAKE it more explicitly than Babel intended? Doesn't matter, it works.) And while the title does a lot of useful lifting for the story (☑), I have to agree with Ryan, its best title is "War and Geese." Definitely.

I've been thinking all along that tagging this story as one of needing acceptance and the costs of gaining acceptance, is not wrong per se, it just, um, languishes. For me it's a tragedy concerning what the world extracts from us as we make our way in it. Or how dehumanizing the experience of being human can be. The abusive way he treats the landlady/hostess doesn't at all seem to me calculated to curry favor with his new squad buddies. It's too spontaneous. It feels more like he loses it, like he's transferring the abuse he's received onto her. All midbrain and no prefrontal cortex. He's been diminished by what making his way in the world costs him. And only his heart (the seat of a more encompassing, humane consciousness) knows the cost.

The point I really want to make, though, about what our reading and George's surefooted guidance has evoked in me is this. I have my reading of this story, you have yours and, everything else being equal, all our readings are valid and dang interesting. What's happening here—what always happens with writing as vivid as 'My First Goose'—is that we're not so much reading Babel's story as Babel's story is READING US.

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I'm not feeling very smart lately, so I don't think I can clearly say anything of much worth. But, what I can say is that I went back and read this story once again, and it's a completely different story from when I first read it. It's richer, bigger, and more complex. It's like going into a house and finding secret rooms. Looking forward to what comes next!

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I was not impressed by this story after the first read through. I read quickly. Put it down and went off to do other things as instructed. And all I came away with was: a guy kills a goose in a terrible war. I couldn’t imagine what else could be said about it. And now this story has so much depth to it that I’ll never forget it. Thanks George. I learned a lot. And I’ve developed the habit of reading through quickly and then going back, taking my time not just as an exercise but with real interest (except when it comes to grocery lists and cereal boxes.)

Oddly this story has a connection to a family tragedy. I don’t know if I have the math right but I believe that my mother’s cousin was raped by a Russian soldier/s during WWII at 12-14 years of age. Maybe 15 but not older. I keep on messing around with the math because I want to make her older but it doesn’t work out that way. So with My First Goose and what happened to this cousin, along with what is happening in Ukraine I see that there is a real problem here. Cultural? What is going on with those guys? You can’t help but wonder.

Women seem to always be the shadow in many stories about men and war. A presence outside or underneath the page. As a woman it is chilling knowing that there is so much potential for violence for real out there. I know that I would have never read this story or I’d gotten to the talk about rape and put it down. But I am glad that I got a deeper look inside this story — it gave me so much to think about on so many levels that it feels like I had an experience instead of just reading a story. So thanks so much. I can’t wait to read what is coming up next.

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I read the "only my heart" part to mean that the narrator compartmentalized his feelings. His heart is the compartment that carries the pain, while the rest of him moves on in the world.

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(Raising my hand) George, I have a question. On the last post there was a comment about the significance of the title, how it hangs over the ending. I wanted to ask how much thought you put into titles, do you see them as doing any work in the short story? I think this one would be different if it were called The Last Goose or Another Goose. I tend toward the flippant and wouldn't have been able to resist War and Geese.

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I thought I'd add one comment to the question of what Babel meant by the "only my heart" part. I may be wrong, but I think it was meant ironically -- the heart is of such central importance to life that to say "only" the heart was injured is like saying someone "only" has dementia. This "only my heart" language, diminishing the importance of something that really cannot be diminished, may indicate the terrible division within the narrator (of who he is from this central part of him, a kind of schizophrenia) induced by the violence he has been forced (or chosen?) to embrace.

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Apr 28, 2022·edited Apr 28, 2022

I love everything about the last sentence of this story.

Regarding the use of “and only” instead of “but: ” To me, the use of “and only my heart” instead of “but my heart” emphasizes how much the narrator has compartmentalized his actions and thoughts. I tried putting “…and only…” into a few sentences that could also have used “…but…”

(e.g., “I was sad, but my dog stayed beside me” versus “I was sad, and only my dog stayed beside me.”)

Both wordings convey the same basic idea, but “and only” conveys a feeling that is stronger, sadder, more isolated.

And I’d like to comment on the use of “creaked” in Boris’s translation versus the words “oozed,” “screeched,” and “squeaked.” The loud words — screeched and squeaked — imply an action with a start and an end. “Oozed” and “creaked” imply something more ongoing. I especially like the choice of “creaked.” When a floor creaks, it will creak again and again if a person steps in that same spot. The narrator’s "heart, crimson with murder, creaked and bled.” I get the feeling that when the narrator sleeps and dreams, his heart will continue to creak at times, and bleed. “Oozed” conveys that too, but feels more disgusting and constant. Creaking happens (as with my upstairs hallway), when something torques or moves it a certain way. Creaking until it bled would invoke a feeling of excruciating, if occasional, pain.

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Read George's last entry on this story with trepidation. Thank you, for offering your thoughts on the last pulse and for letting us savor its meaning in slow motion. I would put it like this: there is a price to survival. whenever life is reduced to survival, we pay a price. we don't really have a choice (maybe we do, but for most of us the choice is clear). Think about the people in Ukraine, who are fighting this war they did not ask for. The media is hailing them as brave and there is sometimes even a sort of patriotic celebration of their bravery. But they just have to survive, and they do it the only way they know how, and they, too, will pay a price for that (trauma being the most obvious one). And yet, this is life. As long as we are alive there will be beauty and feeling and dreams and desire and mundane commentary of the spinning mind trying to make sense. I love Babel's writing. I have caught myself imitating his style in my own writing lately, and was immediately conflicted, thinking of George's 'instruction' to listen only to ourselves and to find our own language. But I could not help it. And I guess imitation is a way of trying something out, and I am grateful to Babel and to George for introducing him to me. Feeling a bit sad letting go of this story.

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One aspect of the story I found interesting is the balance of poetic and plain language. Some of Babel's stand-out descriptions are extremely poetic, but the vast majority of the story is described very matter-of-factly. You could almost hear someone tell it like an Old Testament story, adding "And" at the beginning of every sentence.

It's the combination I find interesting. I think that before this exercise, I thought I had to choose between one or the other, poetic or terse. But Babel combines them, and it works. I might try experimenting with that in my own writing a little.

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I've said a lot in previous comments about the interplay of male and female - how "femaleness" is appropriated for "male" power - how the narrator uses his "female" intellectualism for "male" action - how Lenin's line being described as a "hen pecking at a grain" ties these threads together. And how one can also think of the interplay between the conscious and the unconscious, what is left over when one focuses on one perspective. Using femaleness in this way cheapens it, as the cheap earring moon; whatever is "real" about women is left to wander in dreams. That is why "only his heart" creaks and bleeds: it's because in order to act in this way, he must remain unconscious of this deeper reality.

Lacan's conception of woman as "not-all" and man as "all" is an expression of this, which is unfortunately difficult to explain but perfectly expresses what I'm trying to say...crucially, "woman" and "man" don't literally mean "women" and "men" but they are rather structural aspects of the psyche. The "all" is the perspective, the line, the equation taken as absolute truth; the "not-all" is the void through which the line must cut in order to exist, which gives the line its very being; the wider expanse of connections and relations which allow the perspective to even exist in the first place. "All" and "not-all" depend upon each other; we can't have one without the other.

The narrator uses Lenin's words as line, action, blindness, to justify perspective; they are presented as the crowning moment of his "deaf triumph". "Lenin hits it straight away" - as if truth is something that can be "caught" so straightfowardly in this manner! And yet the evening (the not-all) envelops the narrator anyway, and the curve remains mysterious. I think that is what allows the narrator to rejoice - to truly rejoice - he recognizes somewhere within that this curve is more than what it seems to be in the moment, and can always be interpreted in a different way. As a justification of war and violence; or, perhaps, as a justification of huddling together for warmth.

(Also, r.e. the goose - it's described as male - which I think is very interesting in a story where women are mostly being "used" to further the ends of the characters - and I think is representative of the fact that things don't lie neatly along gender lines, that we all have both male and female within us, and that the narrator is killing something within *himself* - his creaking and bleeding heart.)

“Socrates said, ‘The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.’ He wasn’t talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth. A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.” (Ursula K. Le Guin)

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As a gay man, I cannot fail to see the homoeroticism in the story. The narrator desires the love of the Cossacks, they are portrayed as desirable men, and he ultimately gets to sleep with these hunky beasts. And yes, what does it cost him?

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Apr 29, 2022·edited Apr 29, 2022

I favor the words "creaked and bled" for the way they mirror "cracked and bled." Only the narrator's heart creaked and bled. Only his heart. Those last words underline all the other moments when I've felt the narrator's moral ambiguity. He envies Savitsky, says he'll get along. He pushes the old woman and kills the goose, without pause. Some of us here remain unconvinced that the narrator truly fears the Cossacks, was ever *really* in fear for his life (in this story). And though the narrator may feel some hint of remorse for his actions, or at least has not emerged from killing the goose completely unsullied, he lays huddled with the men whose acceptance he sought, beneath the stars, dreaming of women. It's a lovely image. His heart creaks and bleeds, but I see the rest of him as untouched--as downy and white as a goose.

Babel makes no moral judgement, none of what happens is deemed good or bad, and yet—I so want to believe in the narrator's goodness! I know he isn't innocent, but perhaps he's naive. It's my (clumsy) interpretation that because he has faith in his cause, his idealism overpowers his fear of the Cossacks, can make him do things he might not otherwise do, with little question, at least for now. We might all behave the same way for something we truly believe in.

I feel much more alert these days in my reading life, as well as to the world around me, and I'm certain I have Story Club to thank for that. For a while I'd been running on autopilot (or survival mode), but lately I'm moved by so many things again. Little moments, sentences. I looked out the window while typing this to see a man wearing a rash guard and a fanny pack riding up my street on a unicycle(!) and now I'm sure I'll be thinking of him all day. Also—I'm finally reading Babel's Red Cavalry stories. I say finally because over the years I've mostly read around them, avoiding them because . . . well. I'm now making my way through them carefully, slowly. Last week I read "Italian Sun," and this passage made me swoon (yet another thing I can't stop thinking about). It's unrelated to our conversation here, but I'll just share it with the hope it delights someone else as much as it does me:

"The burned-out town—broken columns and the hooks of evil old women's fingers dug into the earth—seemed to me raised into the air, comfortable and unreal like a dream. The naked shine of the moon poured over the town with unquenchable strength. The damp mold of the ruins blossomed like a marble bench on the opera stage. And I waited with anxious soul for Romeo to descend from the clouds, a satin Romeo singing of love, while backstage a dejected electrician waits with his finger on the button to turn off the moon."

(It's that electrician that I can't get over)

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