by Éric Mathieu
QC Fiction, 2019
Before me, there was silence. Then I came into the world one misty November morning, and speech with me, and in the previously austere, joyless family home, where no one exchanged a word, only I could now be heard, because I chattered away incessantly, even in my sleep. I’d tell all kinds of stories and tales, I’d perform lines from obscure plays — Cyrano de Bergerac’s monologue on his nose came to me as naturally as any nursery rhyme — I’d recite poetry, I knew Valéry’s ‘The Young Fate’ by heart, not to mention most of Verlaine’s ‘Poems Under Saturn,’ and, eyes closed, I’d spout forth whole passages from ‘Memoirs from Beyond the Grave’ and ‘The Songs of Maldoror’ in a soft yet firm voice, never faltering, with a quick but clear cadence, accompanied by a knowing, measured smile.
France Claudel, my mother, couldn’t stand it. Her lower back pressed against the sink, her face grimacing in disgust, she’d wipe her hands on her apron, stick her fingers in her ears, and sigh with discouragement.
It was hardly my fault if nature had decided I’d express myself like an adult right away. The babbling and gurgling innate to other babies were foreign to me: from the very first day, from the very first hour, I grasped language in its entirety, like a loaf of bread that had yet to be sliced or a perfectly ripe fruit. It was as though I wanted nothing to do with being a baby; I needed to zip ahead, to cut corners so as to enter into language as quickly as possible, and I also wanted to shine, to show that I was superior, that my intelligence, my wit, my knowledge went far beyond those of my parents, those insignificant little people of no importance whom, already, I detested.
The second anyone leaned down over my crib by the kitchen window, where my mother would put me each morning, I would let loose a string of complex words that no one knew, I would reel off long and winding phrases whose meaning escaped the lot of them. When people indulged in baby talk with me, I’d reply, “Whatever’s gotten into you? Why are you talking like that?” The handful of neighbours, uncles, aunts, and cousins, all the curious folk who weren’t too afraid to come see me — rumour had it I was a devil or a demon — would stare at me wide-eyed, then beat a hasty retreat. My mother would stand off to the side, ashamed, dabbing at her tears with a dishcloth. Those visitors who stuck around would nod off in their chairs, lulled by the monotonous sound of my voice as I recited one thousand forgotten poems. My mother would clench her teeth and curse me. When it was time for supper, she’d wake the dozing guests with a clang of her pots and pans. Before they left, they’d say, “Your son sure is a chatterbox!”, “What a talker!”, or with a whisper, “Is the child normal?” and they’d cross themselves. My mother, cheeks ablaze and not knowing what to reply, would shoo them outside and slam the door. Then, with no encouragement from my mother, I’d launch into a diatribe about the visitors, giving my opinion on each of them, the meanings of the words they’d used, analyzing their every reaction, their mannerisms, and I’d begin holding forth on behaviourism, Skinner, and the philosophy of the mind, then I’d move on to Freud and Jung without so much as a pause, to the anima and animus, the ego and the superego, and all the other scientific concepts that were especially popular in the fifties but that my mother had never heard of.
France Claudel never understood a thing: the words I used were too obscure, the turns of phrase too complicated; some had fallen out of fashion. She had left school at age eleven.
Quickly I began speaking other languages: German, Romanian, even Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. My mother, a not particularly religious woman, would look to the heavens and pray to God, “When’s all this nonsense going to stop?”
The poor woman! Others would doubtless have marvelled at my verbal virtuosity, at the sheer range of exotic idioms I had mastered, but not her. Her embarrassment stemmed perhaps from her upbringing. She was of a generation, a time, when children were expected to be seen and not heard; and, as far as my mother was concerned, I was making every effort to draw attention to myself, and that she couldn’t forgive. That, she would never forgive.
Translated by Peter McCambridge