Thursday, June 11, 2009

My First Goose

The slings and arrows of New York City Real Estate lead to the demise of the Gotham Book Mart. It is no more and as a result, one is left to wonder where do wise men go to fish?

Well, when the shop was around, you’d fish in the diamond district on 47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. I always had mixed feelings about the place. With every visit, it seems I had to witness pretentious managers dressing down some poor, enormously likable young person who’d the misfortune of working there. I was employed as an accountant by Lehman Brothers at the time and saw enough of such behavior during my working day, (ironically another institution undone by the world of real estate).

But Lehman was temporary for me during that time and it was not due to any prophecy I had of the firm’s demise. These were the days when I could actually say I had an agent shopping my novel around the major houses. I was soon to be a published author so visits to the Gotham Book Mart became a sort of obligatory pilgrimage. I felt my transformation into one of these folks in the picture below was imminent. Any day, my book deal was coming, whereupon I would complete my remaining days on this earth donning my tweed coat and horn rimmed glasses. A pipe would forever be clenched between my teeth and around me would be an impenetrable aura of wonder and a sea of fawning bookish coeds.

Needless to say, no book deal materialized. My novel sits in some unidentified location amid the chaos of my closet. There is no tweed coat and all around me is an impenetrable disquiet regarding my ability to endure another thirty-one years of accounting. But I am left with a handful of books I’d picked up at the Gotham Book Mart and these, I must reluctantly admit, would most likely not be found anywhere else in the city.

My wife subscribes to The Week. Breezing through it recently, I found they had Jay McInerney list his favorite books. Among them, he mentions Isaac Babel’s Red Calvary and more specifically, the short story My First Goose. It forced me to be reunited with this find from the GBM and I’m grateful for it.

McInerney described My First Goose as one of the greatest short stories ever written in any language. It is amazing, I'll give him that. Babel, a Jew from Odessa incongruously found himself in the Red Army while it raped Poland. His experiences led to the collection of stories that is Red Cavalry.

Most of these stories are about how humanity can somehow, warranted or unwarranted, eek through in the most awful of circumstances. In My First Goose, Babel presents himself as bookish soldier recently appointed to the staff of the division. His bespectacled appearance and educated manner are instantly met with resistance among his peers. The narrator quickly reacts to this treatment by retreating - he quietly reads a recent speech by Lenin in Pravda. But this leaves him restless and unsatisfied. He abruptly gets up and approaches a landlady whose house has been imposed upon by these soldiers seeking a spell of respite. He demands she feed him. She rebuffs, not rejecting his request directly, but by merely stating that she wishes to kill herself.

Babel's narrator then mercilessly grabs an adjacent goose, crushes its head under his foot and demands that the landlady cook it for him. Still not renouncing to her wish to kill herself, the landlady nonetheless takes the now-dead goose and resolves to cook it for the men.

These other soldiers, once outwardly hostile to Babel's narrator, now warm to him. Through senselessness, by becoming something inhuman to a woman enduring an inhuman occupation, this man has now enabled an acceptance among his comrades. His first goose. There would be more. And what a further toll those would take?

Uneasily, he sleeps that night. "I dreamed: and in my dreams saw women. But in my heart, stained with bloodshed, grated and brimmed over."

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