Today I want to talk about Cyrano de Bergerac. It isn’t going to be very easy, as details of his life are scant. But he does have one, arguably two, totally fictional accounts of his life that I can tell you about.
The real Cyrano was probably baptised in Paris on this day in 1619. He was the son of Abel de Cyrano, lord of Mauvières and Bergerac. He was first educated in the countryside by a parish priest along with his friend Henri Lebret, who later became his biographer. He didn’t pay much attention to his lessons there and sounds like an awful student. His father sent him to Paris to finish his education. I don’t know where, it might have been Collège de Beauvais, because he later wrote a play called ‘The Pedant Tricked’ which made fun of one of the tutors there.
Alternatively, he was not aristocratic at all, but descended from a Sardinian fishmonger. He was the lover of Charles Coypeau d’Assoucy, a burlesque poet, until 1653 when they fell out horribly and wrote lots of rude things about each other. Pick which one you like best. I suppose it is possible that they might both be true to some extent.
He enjoyed a life of drinking gambling and duelling and joined the army when he was nineteen. As he wasn’t keen on discipline, war or the death penalty, he didn’t fit in particularly well there. Cyrano was severely wounded twice, he was shot through the body and wounded in the neck with a sword. In 1641, he left the army and began to study under the philosopher and mathematician Pierre Gassendi. Gassendi tried to reconcile Christianity with Epicurean atomism, which I don’t have time to look into today, but it must have been odd as Epicurus didn’t believe any gods were watching us at all, ever.
Cyrano de Bergerac died in 1655, either as the result of a wooden beam falling on his head or because he was involved in a botched assassination attempt and suffered from ill health after he was subsequently confined to a private asylum by his brother. Or perhaps it was syphilis. Again, you choose. Or take all of them…
Cyrano’s life was fictionalised in the form of a play by Edmond Rosand in 1897. The fictional Cyrano is a renowned duellist and a gifted and joyful poet. He is also crippled by self-doubt because he has a very large nose. So he cannot tell his beautiful cousin, Roxane, that he loves her. She is also loved by a handsome young man called Christian. Just when Cyrano is about to tell Roxane how he feels, she tells him she is in love with someone. At first he thinks, and hopes that she means him But when she describes him as handsome, he finds out it is Christian. Roxane also asks Cyrano to look after Christian, they are both soldiers and she doesn’t want to see Christian hurt. After that, the two men become friends and, because Christian doesn’t have the gift of poetry, Cyrano agrees to write his love letters for him. Now Cyrano can pour out his heart to Roxane without her ever knowing that the words are his. Roxanne falls deeply in love with Christian because of his beautiful words and eventually confesses to Cyrano that the letters mean so much to her that she would love Christian even if he was ugly. Just as Cyrano is about to confess that he is the author Christian is wounded and dies. So Cyrano feels he can now never confess that it was him all along.
Fifteen years later, Roxane is in a convent, still mourning the loss of Christian. Cyrano comes to visit her, but on the way, someone drops a log on his head and he is mortally wounded. He arrives at the convent, knowing it will be the last time he sees her. She asks him to read Christian’s last love letter to her, which he does. But as he is reading it grows dark. As he continues to read even though it is too dark to see, she finally realises that he is the author of the letters. He denies it to his dying breath. He dies saying that he has lost everything, except one important thing his ‘panache’. The play has been performed many times, rewritten and adapted for film. Off the top of my head, there is the one with Gérard Depardieu, a modern day version starring Steve Martin with an upbeat ending and ‘The Truth About Cats and Dogs’ is a gender reversed version of the same story. It is from the original play that the word ‘panache’ first entered the English language.
Cyrano de Bergerac also wrote stories with a hero named Cyrano which were published after his death by his biographer Lebret. But they are not obviously about his life. Cyrano’s Cyrano travels to the moon and the sun. ‘L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune.’ (The other world: states and empires of the Moon) and ‘Les États et Empires du Soleil.’ (The states and empires of the Sun) are, in a way, science fiction novels before there was any such thing as science fiction.
Cyrano first tries to reach the Moon by strapping bottles of dew to his body. The sun shines on the bottles which become clouds and lift him into the sky. When he comes down again he is in New France (Canada) because the earth has moved round beneath him. He meets a tribe of people who are naked. He, thinking he is in France, wonders how long French people in the provinces have gone about naked but expects that they are equally surprised to meet someone wearing bottles. Eventually he meets the governor of New France and explains to him that all matter is formed inside, and expelled by stars, which is a pretty surprising idea coming from the seventeenth century. He thinks that the reason the Americas have been only recently discovered is that they have only just been put there by the sun.
In his second attempt to reach the moon, he builds a flying machine and launches it off a cliff. It crashes but he escapes from the wreckage. Then some soldiers find it and think if they attach rockets to it, it will fly into the sky and look like a dragon. He catches them and is upset. He climbs into the machine to try to unfasten the rockets and is blasted into space. On the moon he meets people with four legs who have musical voices and weapons that can cook game at the same time as it is being shot. He also meet the ghost of Socrates and a man named Domingo Gonsales. Domingo is a character from an earlier novel by an English bishop, called Francis Godwin, who flies to the Moon in a chariot drawn by swans. They all decide that the concept of God is nonsense and that men have no souls. Cyrano returns to earth and lands in Italy.
He builds a second flying machine that focuses solar energy, using mirrors to create burst of air. It takes him to the sun. He lands on a sun spot and the beings that live there explain to him how the solar system works by comparing it with the movement of atoms. On the sun, he is tried by a court of birds for all the crimes of humanity But luckily, he is saved by a parrot who recognises him. Then he meets an Italian philosopher called Tommaso Campanella. They start to discuss what sex would be like in Utopia and the book pretty much ends there. As I said, it was published posthumously and it is likely that there was more but Lebret was not brave enough to publish it. There may also be a third story about a journey to the stars, but his original work is now lost. So, if you read it, you’ll have to decide how it ends.