Magazine article The Spectator

Winner by a Nose

Magazine article The Spectator

Winner by a Nose

Article excerpt

CYRANO by Ishbel Addyman Simon & Schuster, £16.99, pp. 307, ISBN 9780743286190 £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 When, after his exertions on behalf of the love-struck Gussie Fink-Nottle, Bertie Wooster hears himself compared to Cyrano de Bergerac, his literary knowledge rises to the occasion: 'the chap with the nose'. It was Edmund Rostand's play of 1897 that brought Cyrano and his protuberance their modern fame. The 17thcentury soldier and writer who gave Rostand his model, and who has been overshadowed by his theatrical counterpart for more than a century, would have lain beyond Bertie's range of reference. Rostand's drama belongs to a 19th-century French tradition which romanticised the nation's involvement in the brutal conflict of the Thirty Years War.

In 1834 Théophile Gautier, attempting to revive interest in the original Cyrano's writings, placed them in 'the good old days of beautiful, poetic courtesans, the time of balconies climbed, of silken rope-ladders'.

In the 1840s Alexandre Dumas anticipated Rostand's feat by sensationalising the exploits of Count d'Artagnan, who fought with the true Cyrano at the siege of Arras -- and who duly appears in Rostand's play.

Ishbel Addyman remarks that, while the original Cyrano sported quite a snout, the noses of his fictional equivalents, of whom Rostand's is only the most famous, have grown with the authors' imaginations: 'the longer the nose, the larger the lie'. Rostand's portrait has its accuracies of spirit. It catches the intensity and the self-dramatisation of the original. But it also has its distortions and simplifications. The truth, Addyman plausibly maintains, is 'infinitely more intriguing than the fiction', and the personality of the true Cyrano is much 'the more complex and more impressive'. His family were lowly Sardinian immigrants, though the name 'de Bergerac' gave a fake impression of noble origins in Gascony. His first name was not 'Cyrano', which is the French equivalent of the Italian surname 'Cirano', but Savinien.

The household in which Savinien grew up was lettered and cultivated but stultifyingly devout. No doubt aided by the assumed surname, he joined a Gascon regiment, but he abandoned his military career because he could not afford to purchase a command. Thereafter he hated the futility of warfare, which he called 'a channel for every injustice'.

All his life he made enemies. Rostand saw his opportunity in Savinien's seemingly limitless taste for duelling, and in a celebrated episode in 1842 when he single-handedly repelled a gang of assailants with reckless courage and dazzling swordsmanship. …

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