Tensions in the family bubble and boil over in this excerpt from The Lobster by the award-winning Monique Proulx, translated by Frances Pope. What happens when Marceau brings home a lobster he can’t afford? Read on to find out.
“Are you mad? What d’you expect me to do with those? How d’you even eat them?”
As always, Laura’s first words were recriminations. It has to be said that the creatures were no less threatening for being quite dead; amongst the tangle of legs, claws, and feelers which now filled the sink, you could make out here and there the glimmer of a small, black, malevolent eye—more alive than the others, you’d swear—peeking at you with belligerent hate. Marceau had stopped twice on his way home, hearing the wind flap against the big plastic bag, worriedly checking to make sure that the contents weren’t still wriggling, and that his hand wasn’t about to be sliced clean off by a claw.
“You eat them just like that, with butter.”
“Yes, with butter, with butter, for crying out loud!”
The strained voice of Marie, trying to dissuade the children from stabbing each other with forks, came from the room next door. Meanwhile, apron in hand, Laura was impatient—too despairing to be really angry.
“Butter, my foot, I’m not about to stand here and spread butter on these bloody great carcasses of yours. What am I to do now? We don’t even have butter, all we’ve got is margarine . . . ”
“That’ll do just fine.”
They were walking ahead of him. Marceau had simply raised his head and had been immediately drawn to the subtle magnetism of their presence; it wasn’t just their furs (so silken that they seemed to ripple all by themselves, marbled with snowflakes like crystalline stars); it was in their very step, a kind of victorious advance, the animal joy of treading the earth. The woman turned her small, round head towards her companion; he gently squeezed her arm; their every movement betrayed the closeness of an almost priest-like complicity. “S’lebs” off Radio-Canada, no doubt, Marceau had thought at first, but as he looked more closely—staring with a kind of admiring abandon—he decided that couldn’t be true, they were too beautiful, too real. A thousand possible lives seemed to dance in their eyes, in their dazzling smiles. Besides, the man didn’t look like a poofter, that was for sure. And when they disappeared inside a shop, Marceau couldn’t resign himself to losing them so abruptly, so he stayed right where he was, in front of the window of the fishmonger, wriggling his toes inside his poor-quality boots to keep the biting cold at bay.
Pierre, aka “Pete,” was doing his best Smart Alec, nut-cracker in one hand and fork in the other, with a pretense of dexterity which irritated Marceau to high heaven.
“See that, Gramps, you take your lobster like this, and you . . . ”
“Enough with the advice already! And they’re not called lobsters, that’s English—they’re homards!”
Once they’d gotten over their initial shock, Ralph and Nancy had found a wonderful use for the crustacean’s claws and, under the table, took violent stabs at one another’s shins. “That’s for eating, not for fighting with . . . ” Marie said wearily, her eyes glazed. But even she was forgetting to dip the pieces of lobster in the melted margarine, and she was struggling to hide her repulsion.
Pete, as always, was talking: about the cold that had wrecked the doors so they wouldn’t close, about the Nordiques’ last hockey game, about the new government which would surely put them in the red, and even about the humble ways of the lobster, which, did you know, can only walk backwards . . . he knew everything, and on and on it went. At the head of the table, Marceau suffered in silence. Usually mild-mannered by nature, he couldn’t help but be alarmed, each time he and Pete were together, to rediscover this bottomless pit of animosity for his son-in-law.
He had Marie, of course—and she was the only reason that he agreed to Laura’s idea of inviting them to dinner—yet when Marceau and his daughter found themselves face to face, a kind of reciprocal embarrassment paralysed them both; they never said more than a few words to each other and even those were feebly banal. But what could they have said, after all, over Pete’s vociferations, the children’s shrieks, and Laura’s petulant complaints? Marie sank into a nervous silence which Marceau felt as a reproach. He had discovered to his astonishment that (much like himself) his daughter just wasn’t the family type; at heart, she was quite as elusive and away-with-the-fairies as he was. He even caught himself blaming the children for causing her to age prematurely, and even more so, blaming Pete for willingly drowning her in this wearisome mediocrity.
“Why’s it like that, p’pa, that lobssers only walk backwards? Why’s it like that?”
Nancy was hanging on her father’s forearm, forcing him with her imperious grip to let go of the nut-cracker, wanting greedily to know everything, now.
“C’est comme ça, that’s the way it is,” Pete answered, switching into English mid-sentence. And he proceeded to launch into a generous explanation, the words gushing inexhaustibly from his mouth like the spray of a machine gun. At the same time, he held back Ralph’s hand which sneakily tried, with well-calculated jabs of the pincers, to pinch his sister’s ribs.
Annoyed, Marceau bit his lip.
“What I want to know is why you speak to your kids in English half the time . . . reckon you could just talk French to them, like everyone else. It’s not like they don’t understand French!”
“Dad, please . . . ” Marie sighed, feeling the tension ratchet up a level.
“Don’t start this again,” Laura began.
“He could just talk in French,” Marceau insisted. “D’you see the rest of us talking English? No, eh? We’re all French, here, aren’t we?”
“You’re a fine one to talk,” Laura cut in. “You’re jealous because you can’t speak a damn word of English!”
“Let it go, let it go,” Pete said diplomatically. “This is one subject we’re never going to agree on, Gramps and me. For what it’s worth, I don’t want my kids ending up second-class citizens. I want my kids to be bilingual from the get-go, so they can get a good job, and a decent salary.”
“Yeah . . . and if they follow in their Papa’s footsteps, that’ll be nothing to write home about!”
“That’s enough, Dad, drop it!”
Marie’s hands were clenched into fists on the table, and Marceau stopped in his tracks, aware that he was about to push it too far. Again. But it wasn’t his fault—whenever he was with Pete, Marceau’s resentment would skulk like a wildcat just behind his lips, ready to spring out and mangle his every word. All his good intentions (which he never failed to resurrect when he saw Marie) went out the window. But really, this was too much—it was more than he could handle to confront both his daughter’s furious glare and the unbearable yacking of his son-in-law, for whom unemployment was like a badge of honour.
“You could have used the good china, Laura,” Marceau said by way of a diversion.
“This is the only china we have, Benoît Marceau. Heavens, where’s all this coming from?”
“Right, right, well I’ll buy you a new set, don’t you worry.”
“With what—your pay from the shoe repair shop? I don’t think so!” Laura retorted, and Marceau wanted to tell her to shush, but she was on a roll, obviously still cross about the lobsters, and not about to let him off. “I’ve never seen anything like it, he’s worse than a lobster—he goes backwards instead of forwards, he brings home a smaller salary every year, I wonder sometimes just how on earth we make ends meet, never in my life have I met a man so lacking in ambition . . . ”
She was off on one. Marceau played with the antennae of the crustacean on his plate, and just for a moment, he had the impression that it looked back at him with sympathy.
He could have stood for hours in front of the fishmonger’s window. Their life was spreading out before his eyes, unrolling dreamily, filling his whole field of vision. It stretched serenely like a beautiful film from which he was powerless to escape. They appeared to be madly in love, and what’s more, they floated serenely above it all—the winter, the slush, the smell of petrol—while Marceau stood on the pavement, wistful, his senses slowly numbing. Their overflowing happiness cut him like a knife. Good God! They must be rich, draping one another with love like that, gratuitously, for all the world to see, with their fancy fur coats and silver-screen faces! Wait for me, Marceau longed to cry out, let me catch up, I want to understand . . . but it was impossible, they were in their own little bubble, quite apart from the rest of the world. They were in a foreign universe, as untouchable as extra-terrestrials. The man looked like someone familiar, but who? Who? Marceau racked his brains for the answer, but couldn’t put his finger on it . . .
Without realising what he was doing, Marceau had pushed the door open and now found himself inside the shop, next to them. They were buying everything, as if they had an army to feed, and on and on they went, picking out rare, delicate fish, and bizarre creatures of all varieties, costing upwards of $10 the half-pound. Up close they were even better, and they radiated a warmth that was catching—and the best part was that you could hear everything they said, my love, my darling, my treasure, all in the most impeccable French, most likely from France. Enchanted, Marceau followed the silken melody of their words, and he was mortified that all he could do was mumble his common speech, his meagre language, his poor and insignificant words. The man turned towards him—Marceau recognised him instantly—and the shock was so great that the room started to spin, and he had to grab hold of the counter to keep from falling.
Marceau could practically smell the hostility, which hung in heady distillations like an aura around the family table. With her fists and forearms stained greenish up to the elbows, Nancy was trying to splatter her brother with the liquid intestines of her lobster; in the blink of an eye, despite Marie’s sugar-coated warnings, the tablecloth was plastered in mess; the supper was ruined. “And whose fault is that,” Laura added, “no prizes for guessing! He can’t do a thing right, I told him to get steaks, but oh no—look what he brings back instead . . . ” Ralph was giggling under his breath, Marie stared obstinately out of the kitchen window, and Pete’s chin was clenching in a sort of pained twitch, as if from an electric shock.
“Anyway, Gramps, the important thing is, you obviously feel like you’re rich . . . ” he said.
“Rich? Rich? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Laura, having tossed aside her apron, now wiped her hands on the good tablecloth. She was taken over by a sudden, visceral worry as she listened to her son-in-law, thinking she could make out the metallic jangle of cash echoing between Pete and her husband.
“What are you trying to say? If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that we ain’t rich!”
“It’s just,” Pete said in a strange, throaty voice, “it’s just that I find Gramps to be very generous, that’s all!”
Laura still didn’t get it.
“Why? What do you mean? Not because of those horrid creatures, surely?”
Marceau raised his head and looked Pete straight in the face, his eyes veined with menacing zigzags.
“What do you mean?” Laura repeated stupidly. “Are they really all that pricey, those things?”
“Pricey? Lobsters? I’m saying nothing.”
Pete had spoken with such uncharacteristic economy that his words dropped as heavily as balls of lead. A deathly silence fell.
“Benoît Marceau, how much did those things cost you? Benoît Marceau, I asked you a question!”
In the fishmonger’s, the world had frozen for a fraction of a second; the cashier hurriedly sponged the counter as she leant towards Marceau: “What would you like, Monsieur?”
“Yes . . . six . . . six of those . . . ”
The couple were leaving the store, disappearing into the snow—she with her furs and bright laughter, and he with his borrowed face, his stolen, unbelievable face, the face which had belonged to Marceau thirty years ago before life screwed him over, that face he couldn’t forget because it was there, shut away in the drawers, etched on every wedding photo . . . “My double,” Marceau said to himself. “It’s my double, the happy one,” he thought, over and over again, while the cashier handed him the package and he scooped out the money, almost half his pay, from the bottom of his dog-eared wallet.
“Have you finally gone mad?”
Laura was gobsmacked. She hadn’t even got her head around the full extent of the disaster yet, nor the gaping hole in their already-tight budget—it was a catastrophe, they’d have to patch this up as best they could—but how?—even if they ate nothing but bread and margarine every day, destitution was hot on their heels, they’d soon be on the streets, crushed by debts, drowned by unpaid bills, and the rent was already two months overdue, and the heating, and the electricity . . .
“You’re being a little dramatic there, Laura,” Pete said, with a rising sense of indefinable remorse.
“Monster!” Laura shrieked. “Madman! How could you be so cold-blooded? Answer me, you useless layabout, say something! What did I do to deserve this? Oh, for the love of God, what did I do . . . ?”
Her despair knew no limits. Marceau babbled apologetically, cringing, wishing he could sink under the table and hide.
“It’s not as bad as all that, Laura”, he said, “I’ll do extra time at work . . . I’ll buy you a new set of china . . . ”
There was no way out. His whole life, poverty had followed him like a black mark, like a stain; he ruined everything, even his family, who were already up to their eyes in shabbiness. It was a cruel God indeed who let someone be born as unlucky as Marceau—more pathetic than a maggot, more insignificant than a speck of dust, nothing, in fact, less than nothing. “I’m sick of it, crisse, I’M BLOODY SICK OF IT, OSTIE!” he suddenly exploded.
“Don’t you dare swear in front of the kids, Benoît Marceau!”
“Sshh, Mum,” said Marie, placing a firm hand on Laura’s arm.
Marceau had got up, trembling, his face a deep purple; he felt it all rising in his throat like too-strong medicine; the cancerous frustration he had always brushed aside, the loveless void which yawned, terrifying, all around him . . .
Ralph kicked his sister under the table.
“Look!” he squawked. “Look, he looks like a lobster!”
Translated from the French by Frances Pope
Monique Proulx was born in 1952 in Quebec City, and is one of Quebec’s best-known authors and screenwriters. Having worked in the theatre and as a French teacher at UQAM, she has written several novels, collections of short stories, and screenplays. She has also written a number of radio plays for Radio-Canada. Proulx’s works are highly acclaimed and she has been the recipient of dozens of awards and nominations throughout her career, both for her novels and short stories and for her screen adaptations. “Sans cœur” won the Adrienne Choquette literary award in its year of publication, Homme invisible à la fenêtre (Invisible Man at the Window) won the Prix Québec-Paris, and Proulx has twice been nominated for the Governor General’s Award.
Frances Pope is an emerging translator and writer from the UK, living in Montreal since 2015. She has a background in translation, writing (poetry and short stories), and linguistics, and a master’s degree in Translation Studies from Montreal’s Concordia University. Her studies and research in translation and Québécois fiction, as well as two translation residency programs, have inspired her to pursue literary translation as a passion and career. Frances also takes part in poetry and spoken word events and has published writing in QC Fiction, L’Organe, UNAM’s Periódica de Poesía, and The Cannon’s Mouth.
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