Let me start with a disclaimer. I’ve had this book on my Amazon wishlist for two years and so, when I stumbled over it on the shelves of the addictive Book & Comic Exchange in Notting Hill, I snaffled it immediately. I’ve long been fascinated by the few details I know about the real Cyrano de Bergerac and, since I first saw it, the film version of Edmond Rostand’s play has been one of my all-time favourites.
Like Ishbel Addyman, I was even inspired by Cyrano to take up the sword, albeit briefly: when I first moved to London in 2006, I did a ten-week fencing course at the Swash & Buckle Club in Pimlico (yes, that really is its name). However, like Addyman, I won’t be holding off a hundred men at the de Nesle Gate any time soon. But my point is this: I was a captive audience for this book. And who, even those less romantic than me, wouldn’t be intrigued by a biography of Cyrano de Bergerac? Addyman has given herself a gift of a subject, and she has a very firm purpose: to rescue the real Cyrano from the shadow cast by Rostand’s immensely popular stage and screen version. In doing so, she conjures up a surprisingly modern figure.
The real Cyrano was neither Gascon nor noble, and yet by the end of his life he’d managed to convince many of his friends that he was from a wealthy family in Bergerac. With one eye always open for publicity opportunities, he created a legend around his swordsmanship, fighting duels at every opportunity, including the famous incident at the de Nesle Gate. Risking the Inquisition, he constantly questioned the assumptions of the church, turning instead to the empirical discoveries of the natural philosophers. These inspired him to create some of the first science fiction novels, in which his hero travels in a rocket to the moon and the sun. Like his fictional alter ego, the seventeenth-century duellist had a great deal of panache. There are few cases where fact is stranger than fiction, but Addyman came up with several other little nuggets of information that delighted me. For example, Cyrano very probably knew d’Artagnan; he also may well have met the three real-life musketeers whose names have now been popularised as Porthos, Athos and Aramis. It’s almost too good to be true. Conscious of the many myths and rumours circulating about her subject, Addyman often cites sources and does her best to weigh them, considering what can be trusted and what can’t. When she quotes original sources, the translations she uses are wonderfully lively and I presume they’re her own.
Despite all this verve, the book is flawed because Addyman’s enthusiasm for Cyrano can’t disguise the weaknesses of her writing. Her sentences are short and choppy, and don’t always make sense, and her use of punctuation is erratic. There is little discernable focus within chapters, which tend to dance all over the place, and Addyman has a tendency to repeat herself. This may not bother you overmuch, but it does bother me because I’m pedantic; more importantly, it makes the book difficult to read and Addyman’s argument difficult to follow. Often the book feels like a student dissertation which has been assembled from bullet points without the benefit of some good, hard editing. Addyman is clearly writing popular history, but even so the style needs to be tidied up and she needs to make her arguments clearer and more forceful. She also seems to be excessively fixated on the question of Cyrano’s sexuality, as if his being gay carries extra importance because it makes him even more ‘modern’. Based on the sources which she quotes, I can see very little proof either way and I am not sure that it really matters that much in the greater scheme of things.
There’s no doubt that Cyrano is a controversial, contentious and yet highly appealing figure. Reading this book definitely made me more aware of his complexity and I’m keen to get my hands on his stories so that I can read them for myself. It’s just a shame that a historical figure who’s renowned for his equal facility with sword and pen wasn’t served with more fluidity and sprezzatura in his biography.