Babel’s literary style has been called “as terse as algebra,” but its lyricism is also unmistakable. He juxtaposed poetic and natural details in his descriptions, often stressing the grotesque and sensual, as in “My First Goose.” Critics have noted that these tactics are Babel’s way of catching us off guard and breaking down our defenses so we will be more receptive to his main theme as a writer, the complex relation between our illusions about life and the truth of life.
“No steel can pierce the human heart so chillingly as a period at the right moment,” wrote Babel, a pun on Stalin’s name as “the man of steel.”
–Ann Charters, The Story and Its Writer
“The dying sun, round and yellow as a pumpkin, was giving up its roseate ghost to the skies.”
This story is short, complex, and the reader must infer much from the brief series of actions that take place in order to derive the greater significance of what’s going on. The narrator arrives at a Cossack camp, where he’s welcomed by a giant of a Commander and ordered to bunk down with the others. He does so, but finds himself teased and bullied for wearing glasses and being physically unintimidating. Frustrated, he turns on the peasant landlady who’s property they are staying at, and ignores her pleas for sympathy and instead kills her goose and forces her to cook it for him. The other Cossacks, witnessing this brutal interaction, welcome him into their midst; he joins their circle, eats with them, reads to them from the newspaper, and eventually they all fall asleep in the hayloft, their legs intermingled. The story ends: “I dreamed: and in my dreams saw women. But my heart, stained with bloodshed, grated and brimmed over.”
Babel does some very interesting things in this story. For one, the manly Cossacks that the narrator admires for their masculinity are described in a feminine manner; the great giant of a Commander causes the narrator to “wonder at his beauty”, smells of soap and has long legs that were “like girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding-boots.” When he is finally accepted by the cossacks, they lie down, “warming one another, our legs intermingled. I dreamed and in my dreams saw women.”
The narrator feels a sensual attraction to the warrior Cossacks that is at odds with very machismo he seems to admire. Is Babel hinting that the narrator remains effiminate, is he equating the narrator’s intellectual mien with a more feminine, sensitive nature that the narrator cannot overcome, no matter how brutally he acts? The poetic descriptions of the sunset, the moon, the environs and men betray a more sensitive nature, are portrayed in a manner that the Cossacks’ would not have perceived. When the narrator forces the peasant woman to do his bidding, he is brutalizing his own sense of self, seeking to exchange it for that which he claims to admire.
The paragraph that precedes this action contains a strange line that resonates with the beginning of Dante’s Inferno: “The sun fell upon me from behind the toothed hillocks, the Cossacks trod on my feet, the lad made fun of me untiringly, the beloved lines came toward me along a thorny path and could not reach me. Then I put aside the paper and went out to the landlady…”
From Dante’s Inferno:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
Dante strays from the path of a virtuous life, and finds himself lost within a frightening forest. The narrator of My First Goose sees at this pivotal moment his beloved lines (words, education, his true self) attempt to reach him during this moment of fear and insecurity, and they are unable to pass through the thorny path and rescue him from his fall.
My First Goose is about the first step the narrator takes in self deception, where he abuses a weaker person in order to appear tougher and more masculine, a cowardly act that reveals not only his own insecurity but, due to the effeminate manner he which views the masculinity he seeks to emulate, reveals that his action is doomed to failure by his nature. Even as he sleeps, contented amidst his new peers, his heart grates and brims over.
How might Babel have gone about writing this? He’d have first identified the issues he wished to write about. Masculinity versus intellectualism. The narrator viewing them as mutually exclusive, and needing to choose which he wants to embrace. Then he would have figured out the act that would encapsulate that decision (bullying the peasant woman into cooking her goose), and work backwards to the beginning from it (he is sent to the camp and bullied), and forward to the logical conclusion (he’s accepted by the Cossack’s yet ultimately feels sick at heart).
I’m going to spend the rest of tonight thinking on this, and perhaps try my hand at writing a story using this technique tomorrow.