Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Cyrano de Bergerac
Edmond Rostand
1897, France
Carol Clark, translator

“[…] You’re lacking in invention,
Young man. You could have said so many things.
You could have been aggressive, for example:
‘Good heavens, man, if I’d a nose like that
I’d have it amputated right away!’
Solicitous: ‘But sir, how do you drink?
Doesn’t it trail in your glass?’ Or else descriptive:
‘It’s a rock, it’s a peak, it’s a cape… No, not a cape,
It’s a peninsula!’ Inquisitive:
‘Do tell me, what is that long container?
Do you keep pens in it, or scissors?’ Twee:
‘How darling of you to have built a perch
For little birds to rest their tiny claws.’
Facetious: ‘When you smoke, do they call “Fire”?
Do people think some chimney is alight?’
Worried: ‘No do be careful, when you walk,
That you don’t overbalance on your face,’
Motherly: “We must make a little parasol
To shade it from the sun.’ Perhaps pedantic:
‘Only the creature, sir, which Aristophanes
Calls Hippocampelephantocamelos
Could carry such a weight of flesh and bond
Below its forehead.’ […]”
(I.IV.313-335)

The image of Cyrano de Bergerac, he of oversized nose and outsized wit, is so familiar as to seem to have seeped into popular culture, yet I found that I really knew very little of the actual play or man. I was surprised, first, to find that the play was not a comedy as it first appeared, or at least not purely comedy. For there is tragedy here. But second, I was surprised to learn that most of the characters, Cyrano included, were based on real people (though the plot is not).

First performed in 1897, Cyrano de Bergerac is set in the mid-1600s, the era of the Musketeers, d’Artagnan and Cardinal Richelieu, and it is every bit as swashbuckling as one of Alexandre Dumas’s adventures. The main crux of the action revolves around Roxane, the beautiful and intelligent cousin of Cyrano. She is loved of three men: Cyrano, his fellow cadet Christian de Neuvillette, and the nefarious Comte de Guiche. Roxane, oblivious of Cyrano’s feelings, but drawn to Christian’s good looks requests that her cousin look out for the young cadet. Out of love for Roxane, Cyrano complies, even to the point of becoming Christian’s voice in wooing Roxane, both figuratively, in letters, and literally, in the balcony scene.

Fast paced and witty, Cyrano seems an incredibly big play, and not just in its outsized personalities. The cast is large and the scene descriptions provided by Rostand—a theater, a bakery, a square, a battlefield, and a convent—are so minutely detailed as to seem impossible on a mere stage, and surely meant for a reader rather than a stage director.

What makes Cyrano so relatable, though, is the self-doubt, the feelings of inadequacy that the main rivals, Cyrano and Christian share. Though in theory, they should be rivals, the two become masks for each other, presenting to Roxane the “face” each thinks she most wishes to see (or hear). In so many arenas–duels of sword or wit, especially–Cyrano is more than confident, but he lacks self-confidence in one key area: that anyone should care for someone with his looks. Christian, on the other hand, though with the looks Cyrano lacks, knows himself to be lacking in the intelligent speech that Roxane desires. Thus, each uses the other to cover what they see as their own inadequacies. While such deceptions are more likely the realm of the stage than reality, the underlying view of self, the low self-esteem, even if in only one field, is universally felt, and only adds to the poignancy of the play’s final scenes.

The Nibelungenlied

The Nibelungenlied
Anonymous
c. 1200, Germany
A.T. Hatto, translator

We have been told in ancient tales many marvels of famous heroes, of mighty toil, joys, and high festivities, of weeping and wailing, and the fighting of bold warriors – of such things you can now hear wonders unending!

Thus begins the medieval German epic poem, The Nibelungenlied. The poet’s introductory description is indeed apt, for it is full of both brave heroics and great tragedies.

One of several sources for Wagner’s four-work cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, The Nibelungenlied tells us the story of the great hero Siegfried and his fair Kreimhild. As the epic opens, Kreimhild declares that she will never love, for she believes that if she ever knows such happiness, it will only come with great pain. Siegfried, for his part, has heard the tales of Kreimhild’s beauty, and vowing to make her his wife, sets out from his homeland for Burgundy, where Kreimhild lives with her three brothers, Kings Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher. The tales of Siegfried’s great strength and prowess as a warrior go before him, and he is warily greeted, but the kings are won over to admiration and friendship for Siegfried by his great bravery and he soon joins them in battle. The reward for his success in battle is his first sight of Kreimhild–who he nevertheless was already in love with–and despite her earlier protests against love, she in turn loves him. Gunther and Siegfried soon agree: if Siegfried will help Gunther win the hand of the proud Icelandic queen Brunhild, Siegfried will be granted Kreimhild’s hand in return.

A series of great feats–and great deceptions follow. And from these deceptions, great tragedy will come. Brunhild’s mistaken belief in Siegfried’s status as an inferior to Gunther (rather than an equal) will spur a great fight between herself and Kreimhild, and Brunhild, publicly humiliated, will plot Siegfried’s death in revenge. This can only mean further plotting and vengeance, for due to Brunhild’s schemes, Kreimhild’s brothers have twice betrayed her, and so many years later, remarried to King Etzel of Hungary, Kreimheld will plot against her brothers and their vassals in return.

One point of interest for me–and some mild amusement–is the frequency with which the poet tells us what is going to happen. There is no doubt from the first chapter that this will not end well, for so we are told: “the maidens will have reason to weep,” or, “the knights will rue the day that…” What a contrast to our contemporary abhorrence of “spoilers”! But this poem was written for an audience that knew the stories being told; The Nibelungenlied is likely the formalization of an oral tradition already well established.

The Nibelungenlied is described by its translator and a heroic epic “surpassed only by the Iliad,” and while I have not read enough epic poems to know the justice of this assertion, I did note points of comparison between the two poems. In both, themes of honor and vengeance underline much of the action. Just as Achilles, smarting from Agamemnon’s insult to his honor, does not enter the fray until he has reason to seek revenge for his dear friend Patroclus’s death, so many of Etzel’s sworn allies will not entertain Kreimhild’s schemes of revenge against the Burgundians until they feel compelled to defend their own honor as warriors or to seek revenge for their own friends, slain in the Burgundians’ desperate attempts to escape fate. In the end, in both poems, we see great feats of battle, great tests of courage and honor–and many, many deaths. More deaths, in fact in The Nibelungenlied–this is a story in which is seems the cycle of violence cannot end until nearly all in its path are consumed, save a scant few to tell the tale. It reminds me rather of the bloody revenge drama Titus Andronicus, though here we are spared the cannibalistic feast.

There is some inconsistency in The Nibelungenlied. Brunhild, so important to much of the inciting action, nearly completely disappears in the second half, and we never learn her fate. Characters seem to be introduced more than once. Some actions or words seem inexplicable on their own. The translator provides helpful notes and Appendices that explain possible reasons for these seeming contractions, primarily being, it seems, the melding of multiple older sources and adapting certain scenes to the more ‘modern’ sensibilities of his audience (such as making Siegfried more chivalrous). These minor inconsistencies aside, it is a gripping tale well told, and a poignant reminder that injustice and violence beget too often only more violence.

I read this for the Classics Club Spin #23.

Completed: Silence

Cover: Silence by Shūsaku EndōSilence
Shūsaku Endō
Japan, 1966
William Johnston, translator
With a forward by Martin Scorsese
(Picador Modern Classics, New York, 2016)

Nearly the last book I finished in 2016, Silence was certainly among the most powerful I’ve read in the last few years. It is the story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests, desperate for word of their mentor and disbelieving that he could have apostatized, who sneak into 17th century Japan only to find a world vastly different from anything they have previously experienced. Told in the form of letters, 3rd person narrative, and diary entries, Silence is a powerful and thought-provoking investigation of faith and its testing.

I suppose I should simply cast from my mind these meaningless words of the coward; yet why does his plaintive voice pierce my breast with all the pain of a sharp needle? Why has Our Lord imposed this torture and this persecution on poor Japanese peasants? No, Kichijirō was trying to express something different, something even more sickening. The silence of God. Already twenty years have passed since the persecution broke out; the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of the churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent. This was the problem that lay behind the plaintive question of Kichijirō. (Ch 4)

There are no easy answers here, and while it is clear that the Portuguese are out of their depth, tossed into a culture and mindset so different than that they have previously known and a persecution they were not truly prepared for, it also allows the reader to interrogate their own response: in the position of the priest or the Japanese Christian peasant would you act the same? What does it mean to renounce a belief outwardly but inwardly keep it; is this still an apostasy? Is there a penalty for faith hidden rather than professed? Endō does not tell us; in the end we are left to decide for ourselves.

 

Reading All Around the World

In some–no, many–ways I feel very fortunate. One example: Although I am from a small (and shrinking) city in the Midwest and although I’ve lived in said city my whole life, excepting my time at college–which was only 25 miles up the road–, and a semester in Italy, I have had the good fortune to both meet people from all over the world and people who have traveled the world. Some, like me, have family that has been here for several generations, but unlike me, still have strong ties to their ancestors’ cultures, often throught their churches. Some I’ve met have been immigrants, firmly settled here, or students, just passing through. And some I know–including some family members–have lived oversees, fully experiencing another culture and country. Regardless, I have found that there is no better way to reinforce that people everywhere, despite our cultural differences, are much the same at the core, than to engage with people–sometimes even at the most minimal level–who have experienced another culture. My initial opinions on the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq were complicated by my acquaintances with an Iraqi-American who had fled Hussein’s government and a Bosnian who had survived the siege of Sarajevo. My awareness of the history of Crimea was not from the evening news, but a former roommate from the region. My concern over Syria increases from the many Syrian Christians in my hometown.

But we are not always so fortunate to meet people from elsewhere. Or even when we do, it may only be in passing and we never know their story. Even 14 years ago, when I was in Italy, there were many African migrants who I would pass on the streets, or sit across the aisle from at the Episcopal Church on Sundays. But I never actually met any, knew their names, knew their stories. Only that they were. On the other hand, books can bring us there. I’ve never been to Chile, but The House of the Spirits taught me much about Chilean history and about Chileans impacted by forces larger than themselves. Add to that the many wonderful books I’ve read from other countries, and I’ve long been wanting to expand my reading beyond my typical U.S.-Britain, occasional Spanish-language material.

So I knew I wanted to jump on board when I saw that Jean of Howling Frog Books was hosting a Reading all around the World–well, not challenge, but adventure, I knew I wanted to join in.

Buttong: Reading all around the World

But I’m adding my own personal twist. See, when I was first thinking about my own project for this–long before Jean announced the Club–I thought I would pick books out for an international reading project based on people I’ve met. Perhaps a little more limiting that the entire world, but with roughly 200 countries to choose from, it seemed a good way to narrow down my options. And wouldn’t you know it–when I started to list them out, I had no trouble reaching 50 (albeit, some of the connections are a bit tenuous).

There are few rules–a minimum of 50 countries (reader-defined) either fiction (author must be from/live in said country) or nonfiction about a country, no time limit, no pressure (see Jean’s post for details). I highly encourage anyone interested in expanding their reading past their comfort zone-countries to join in!

I’m tentatively aiming for five years, knowing the reality is more like ten (ambition never hurts!). My current list, subject to change, in alphabetical order:

  1. Afghanistan
  2. Argentina
  3. Australia
  4. Belgium
  5. Bosnia
  6. Brazil
  7. Canada
  8. Chile
  9. China
  10. Colombia
  11. Croatia
  12. Cuba
  13. England
  14. Estonia
  15. Fiji
  16. Finland
  17. France
  18. Germany
  19. Greece
  20. Guatemala
  21. India
  22. Iran
  23. Iraq
  24. Ireland
  25. Italy
  26. Jamaica
  27. Japan
  28. Kenya
  29. Mexico
  30. New Zealand
  31. Nicaragua
  32. Niger
  33. Pakistan
  34. Peru
  35. Philippines
  36. Poland
  37. Qatar
  38. Romania
  39. Russia
  40. Scotland
  41. Spain
  42. Sri Lanka
  43. Sudan
  44. Sweden
  45. Switzerland
  46. Syria
  47. Thailand
  48. Turkey
  49. Ukraine
  50. Wales

This should be fun! Now, which country to choose first…?

Deal-Me-In Challenge – 2017

The last few years I’ve watched other bloggers make and post lists for a challenge hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis–52 short items (frequently short stories, but often also including poems, essay, or plays), each linked to a specific playing card. The idea: over the course of the coming year to select a card for each week then read that item in the appropriate week of the year. And it’s always been tempting–nothing too long to read, a great way to spend some time with literature types I don’t usually read. I finally succumbed to the temptation year, but under the strict understanding: I will almost certainly fail (I’m placing my bet on week four 😉 ). Actually I stand a lot better chance if I don’t commit to posting on everything I read, so, whether I do or not will probably be by whim. Regardless, I’m hope this helps me continue to push my reading boundaries away from longer forms.
Deal Me In Short Stories Challenge Logo

My List is half short stories / half poems (for weeks with more than one poem, the poems in question are very short). All selections are from collections either on my own shelves or pilfered from my parents (they won’t even notice…)

Hearts – short stories
A – The Leader of the People – John Steinbeck
2 – Mr. Know-All – W. Somerset Maugham
3 – The Old Demon – Pearl S. Buck
4 – Young Archimedes – Aldous Huxley
5 – Butch Minds the Baby – Damon Runyon
6 – Suspicion – Dorothy L. Sayers
7 – The Open Boat – Stephen Crane
8 – My Oedipus Complex – Frank O’Connor
9 – The Snows of Kilimanjaro – Ernest Hemingway
10 – Six Feet of the Country – Nadine Gordimer
J – The Boarding House – James Joyce
Q – The Brute – Joseph Conrad
K – Lead Her Like a Pigeon – Jessamyn West

Spades – short stories
A – Vanka – Anton Chekhov
2 – Hautot and His Son – Guy de Maupassant
3 – A Letter to God – Gregorio López y Fuentes
4 – The Little Bouilloux Girl – Colette
5 – The Ruby – Corrado Alvaro
6 – A Double Game – Alberto Moravia
7 – Maternity – Lilika Nakos
8 – God Sees the Truth, But Waits – Leo Tolstoy
9 – The Walker-Through-Walls – Marcel Aymé
10 – The Augsburg Chalk Circle – Bertolt Brecht
J – The Procurator of Judæa – Anatole France
Q – My Lord, the Baby – Rabindranath Tagore
K – Modern Children – Sholom Aleichem

Diamonds – poetry
A – To the Memory of My Beloved Master, William Shakespeare – Ben Jonson
2 – L’Allegro – John Milton
3 – Il Penseroso – John Milton
4 – Lycidas – John Milton
5 – To a Mouse – Robert Burns
6 – Tam o’ Shanter – Robert Burns
7 – Kubla Khan – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
8 – Morte d’Arthur – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
9 – Ulysses – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
10 – A Grammarian’s Funeral – Robert Browning
J – Pioneers! O Pioneers! – Walt Whitman
Q – O Captain! My Captain! – Walt Whitman
K – When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d – Walt Whitman

Clubs – poetry
A – Sonetos I, LXI, LXXXI – Juan Boscán
2 – Sonetos & “Da mi basia mille” – Cristóbal de Castillejo
3 – Sonetos I, IV, X, XI – Garcilaso de la Vega
4 – Sonetos XIV, XXIII, XXIX, XXXII – Garcilaso de la Vega
5 – Canción III – Garcilaso de la Vega
6 – Canción V – Garcilaso de la Vega
7 – Madrigales I, II & Soneto I – Gutierre de Cetina
8 – Sonetos V, XX, XXIII – Francisco de la Torre
9 – Endecha II – Francisco de la Torre
10 – Soneto al rey nuestro señor – Hernando de Acuña
J – Oda I – Fray Luis de León
Q – Oda III – Fray Luis de León
K – Oda VII – Fray Luis de León

I look forward to starting this one – come Sunday! It should be a nice challenge. A thank you to Jay for hosting.