poetry friday: Cyrano by Geraldine McCaughrean
Cyrano by Geraldine McCaughrean. Harcourt, 2006 (0-15-205805-2)
The play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand has just about anything a romantically inclined reader could want: swordfights, star-crossed love, sacrifice, and a magnificent yet deeply vulnerable hero. This essentially faithful "novelization" strips the story to its bones, then dresses it again in language that is fluid and accessible, opening it up for readers who might have trouble appreciating the dense, archaic poetry of the original. Although the translation of busy stage action into fiction occasionally limps, Cyrano soars in filling in the parts of the story that would, in a good production, be conveyed by the power of the actors--the emotional lives of its characters.
Cyrano, a renowned swordsman and wit, is a larger-than-life character--but even his reputation is smaller than his nose. Able to easily outtalk or outfight anyone who mocks him, Cyrano maintains a dazzling image, but inside he feels grotesque and invisible, especially to his beautiful cousin Roxane. When Roxane asks for a rendezvouz, Cyrano briefly believes his love is requited: "Like the spilled oranges bouncing down the aisle of the theatre, Cyrano's heartbeats tumbled through him, golden, sweet, falling bruisingly hard." But Roxane only wants to confess her love for the beautiful Christian:
"'I haven't actually spoken to him yet, but no one with a face like his could be anything but marvelous and good! His soul shines out through his eyes!'
Cyrano held up a hand to his face. On the wall beside him, his shadow seemed to thumb its prodigious nose at him... His tumbling heart struck the floor and broke, unnoticed, like a bird's egg nudged from its nest by a cuckoo."
When Cyrano meets Christian, a newcomer to his regiment, Roxane's passionate belief in his soulfulness hardly seems justified: "Christian snorted. 'Well, naturally I can write. Joined up and everything! It's just that... poems and suchlike? Love letters?" Once again the mouth hung open, and Cyrano thought that he glimpsed, between those perfect white teeth, a space as large as an empty library: a vacancy." But Christian's inability to communicate turns out to be an opportunity Cyrano can't resist, to finally express his love to Roxane.
Showing a respect for its source that never creates a reverent distance, Cyrano beautifully captures the noble idealism, pathos and tragic irony that are the heart of Rostand's play, thankfully avoiding any hint of postmodern mockery. (There is only one notable change for modern sensibilities: Roxane is not depicted as finding Cyrano ugly.) It may inspire readers to discover the original play, but even if it doesn't, the story of the dashing hero who covers up his heartbreak and vulnerability by living his life with panache will be hard to forget. (12 & up)