What Cyrano de Bergerac Has Taught Me About Love!


A captivating classic which has withstood the test of time, Cyrano de Bergerac is manna for my romantic soul. The play set in Paris in 1640 during the reigns of Louis the 13th and Louis the 14th, but written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand is loosely based on a real person named Cyrano de Bergerac embellished freely in fiction. It has resulted in various adaptations on screen and on stage and it has never failed to tug at my heartstrings in any of its avatars. I recently saw the filmed version of the Comédie Française production which was aired in theaters across the US for just one show on the same day and at the same hour. I also read the original play in French and its translation in English last month and thought that a Valentine’s Day post on this story would be a fitting tribute to its creator for if there’s anything that can warm the most cynical of hearts, it’s this beautiful but heartrending love story.

Gérard Depardieu and Anne Brochet in Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s 1990 film, “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

Cyrano de Bergerac was written in alexandrine verses. The French language lends itself beautifully to the poetic form and it’s difficult to capture the cadence and rhythm in English. If you must read a translation, stay away from the online public domain one which is quite awful. Also, do yourself a favor and watch the opulent 1990 production of Cyrano with Gérard Depardieu who gives a magnificent performance. He was born to play the part. To me Gérard Depardieu IS Cyrano.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a flamboyant, funny, witty, proud, short-tempered, courageous, brash and sentimental cadet of Gascony well versed in music, science, philosophy, literature and warfare. He has a penchant for poetry.  He is a larger than life character- a tad over the top and theatrical with a touch of Romeo and a shade of Don Quixote-the epitome of chivalry vanquishing enemies with ease- in short, a force to be reckoned with. This acclaimed swordsman and ingenious wordsmith sounds perfect, doesn’t he? Not quite for he has an enormous nose which makes him the butt of ridicule and is the bane of his existence. This phenomenally prominent proboscis also prevents him from declaring his love for his cousin Roxanne as he fears her rejection.

The fair Roxanne is in love with the handsome Christian de Neuvillette, a cadet in Cyrano’s own regiment who reciprocates her feelings but lacks the eloquence to woo her. So Cyrano becomes Christian’s voice and expresses his ardent love for Roxanne through the letters he pens under his name. The two team up together with their respective qualities of beauty and wit to seduce Roxanne. The balcony scene where Christian serenades Roxanne with Cyrano’s words displays Cyrano’s poetic prowess. Here’s an exquisite description of a kiss:

A kiss, when all said and done, what is it? An oath taken at close quarters, a more precise  promise, a confession that wishes to be confirmed, A rosy circle around the ‘o’ of the verb ‘to love’; It’s a secret which takes the lips for the ear, A moment of infinity buzzing like a bee, A communion with a flowery taste, A way of breathing in a little of the heart and tasting a little of the soul along the edges of the lips.

Un baiser, mais à tout prendre, qu’est-ce?
Un serment fait d’un peu plus près, une promesse
Plus précise, un aveu qui veut se confirmer,
Un point rose qu’on met sur l’i du verbe aimer;
C’est un secret qui prend la bouche pour oreille,
Un instant d’infini qui fait un bruit d’abeille,
Une communion ayant un goût de fleur,
Une façon d’un peu se respirer le coeur,
Et d’un peu se goûter, au bord des lèvres, l’âme!

There is a third character, Comte de Guiche who is also in love with Roxanne and who tries to thwarts their attempts. In the end, the resourceful Roxanne outwits the Comte and succeeds in marrying Christian. Right after the wedding, Christian has to leave for the front even before their marriage has been consummated. Cyrano promises Roxane that Christian will write to her and he risks his life everyday by crossing enemy lines to deliver the letters he has penned himself under Christian’s name. Roxanne falls in love with the soul of the poet and declares to the troubled Christian that even if he were to turn ugly she would love him for his poetic ingenuity. Christian is willing to give up Roxanne on this discovery but fate has other plans for this love triangle.

What Cyrano de Bergerac has taught me about love:

Love is courage. If you love someone, say it. What is the worst that can happen? You’ll be rejected and it won’t be the end of the world. Besides, there is a possibility that the person may reciprocate your feelings. Give love a chance in spite of your feelings of inadequacy and in spite of your flaws, real or perceived. A love that expresses itself so eloquently is also a love that is tongue-tied! Poor Cyrano! When he finally summons the courage to reveal his feelings, fate denies him the opportunity when Christian is killed during the siege of Arras. Why did he remain silent for fourteen years after Christian’s death? Perhaps sometimes the courageous thing to do is to be quiet and love from the shadows. And if Cyrano had confessed his love for Roxanne, then we wouldn’t have had such a tragically beautiful love story and imbibed the other important lessons about love.

Love goes beyond appearances. While Cyrano exemplifies inner beauty, Christian with his dashing looks represents outer beauty. But isn’t Cyrano’s ability to craft words as superficial as Christian’s good looks? It seems that physical attractiveness and intellectual abilities are the traits cherished by the protagonists at the beginning of the play. Roxanne falls initially for Christian purely for his looks. And both men seek her out for her external beauty. Ironically, Cyrano himself who is so self-conscious about his deformity can’t help falling for a charming woman. Roxanne is not only a very beautiful woman but is also a ‘precieuse’ – an intellectual  woman with a refined literary taste. Roxanne falls in love with Christian’s looks and Cyrano’s wit but it’s only towards the end that she has a glimpse into the beautiful soul of the man and realizes that his integrity, honor and adherence to moral standards are what constitute his inner beauty. In fact the story is a reworking of The Beauty and the Beast and Cyrano himself refers to the fairy tale but he points out the painful fact that unlike the tale where the prince’s ugliness evaporates, his remains the same.

Love is loyal. Roxanne’s plight is as pitiable as Cyrano’s. In spite of being one of the most beautiful and sophisticated women in Paris, she loves no other and lives a life of a recluse in a convent, faithful to the memory of her deceased love. As darkness envelops the evening while Cyrano, in the throes of death, reads Christian’s letters out aloud, Roxanne realizes that he is reading from memory and the truth dawns on her. Her true love has always been right under her nose. ( I just couldn’t resist the pun! ) The realization that the mind and soul she was in love with belonged to Cyrano, leads her to this heartrending lament that always makes me dissolve into tears: I have loved but one man in my life and I’ve lost him twice.(“Je n’aimais qu’un seul être et je le perds deux fois!” ) Alas! Love is lost and love is found only to be lost again.

Another scene that never fails to bring a lump in my throat is when Cyrano describes his loneliness at never knowing a woman’s love :

I had never known a woman’s love.
Even my mother did not find me handsome:
I had no sister; and, later as a man,
I feared the mistress who would mock at me.
But at least I have had your friendship–thanks to you
A woman’s charm has crossed my path.

J’ignorais la douceur féminine. Ma mère
Ne m’a pas trouvé beau. Je n’ai pas eu de soeur.
Plus tard, j’ai redouté l’amante à l’oeil moqueur.
Je vous dois d’avoir eu, tout au moins, une amie.
Grâce à vous une robe a passé dans ma vie. 

Love is selfless. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from the play is that true love has no expectations and places no demands. Cyrano’s love for Roxanne is so deep that he is willing to encourage her romance with another man for her happiness. It’s also admirable that he was a good friend to Christian and helped him even after the latter mocked him for his grotesque deformity. His love is so pure and noble that even after Christian dies, he wants to preserve the image Roxanne has of him in her mind, albeit a false one. The closest we come to this ideal is the unconditional love a parent has for a child. It’s far more difficult to be self-sacrificing in a romantic relationship. And that’s definitely something we can learn from Cyrano. If you love someone truly you’ll care more about their happiness than your own. Cyrano has given up a lot but not his integrity. In the end, the swashbuckling poet leaves the world with what has always stayed with him-his panache. (Panache, incidentally, was a word introduced in the English language with the popularity of the play.)

In this modern age of casual encounters and fleeting relationships, one would think that this epic tale would be outdated but it has endured through the ages for Cyrano’s story is one we have all lived. We all hope that someone would love us like Cyrano and there’s also a little bit of Cyrano in all of us, n’est-ce pas, pining from afar for an unattainable love?

* The translations are all mine.







Becoming: A Memoir by Michelle Obama


Becoming, a memoir by Michelle Obama has become one of the bestselling books not just of the past year but possibly of the decade. Before reading the book, I looked up the reviews online and I mostly saw extreme reactions- either the book got five stars or just one star. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the reviews were partisan reflecting the deep divide within our country right now. It’s unfortunate that we can’t read a book objectively without thinking about political allegiance. It’s hard to keep politics completely out of the equation when analyzing a book by a First lady but it’s still disheartening to see the unhinged hatred in the reviews.

I enjoyed reading this riveting memoir about the respective trajectories of the careers of the former President and the First Lady, how they came together as a couple and lived a remarkable life in the White House in spite of the haters and the naysayers. The book is divided into three sections reflecting the three important phases in Michelle Obama’s life.

Becoming Me–  This section describes how Michelle Obama worked her way up from the humble beginnings of her childhood to a stellar education that paved her way to a successful career as a lawyer. She was from a working class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago but from a stable and loving family. The public school she attended deteriorated over time and eventually white people started fleeing the neighborhood. Luckily for her she was put in a class for overachievers and went to a magnet high school where she excelled.

I was struck by her drive and ambition to succeed even before starting elementary school. When she was in kindergarten, she got one word wrong on a quiz and the next day she insisted on a do-over in order to get a gold star along with the two other top students in the class. From childhood days itself she comes across as an assertive and confident person determined to succeed. And succeed she did! She got into Princeton despite the school guidance counselor discouraging her from applying as according to her she wasn’t Princeton material.

At Princeton racism reared its ugly head in both covert and overt ways. She met with the scorn of those who thought she was there only through affirmative action. She was put in a room with two other white girls one of whom left their suite midway through the semester. It was only years later that she found out that the mother of the roommate didn’t want her daughter rooming with a black girl and had requested the university authorities for a room change. From Princeton she went to Harvard and eventually became a lawyer working in a prestigious law firm in a skyscraper- the same building she used to pass on her ride to school in a school bus, a world so removed from her own at the time but which she eventually made hers through sheer grit, hard work and perseverance.

She is very frank and reveals that she got accepted from the waitlist at Harvard and that she even failed the bar exam on her first attempt. In spite of her academic accomplishments, there was always this question niggling in the back of her mind: “ Am I good enough? ” There is something charming about her candor which we see more of in the next two parts of the memoir. It was while she was living her dream in this law office that she met Barack Obama who worked there as an intern for the summer.

Becoming Us-  Barack Obama made a dazzling entrance into her office and her life. He was a charismatic, cerebal and calm individual with an exotic background who charmed everyone around him. They were friends for a while before they became romantically involved.  She did marry the love of her life but marriage was far from a bed of roses. Two people fiercely devoted to their respective careers would inevitably meet with challenges. A few weeks into the marriage, Barack Obama left for Indonesia to write a book in solitude. On his return, they grapple with miscarriage and infertility and eventually start IVF treatments before giving birth to their beautiful daughters, Malia and Sasha.

Barack Obama had a lot of commitments which kept him away from the family Monday through Thursday prompting them to seek marriage counseling. She had a full time demanding job herself but the onus fell on her to take care of the kids. She doesn’t gloss over any of the unpleasant moments in their relationship. They are like any other regular couple who juggle bills, debts, careers and parenting responsibilities. As his political ambitions become grander- from a community organizer to being involved with politics along with practicing law, teaching and writing books, she even speaks of a dent in her soul and a dent in her marriage. I was struck by a passage where she describes her frustration with her husband’s unpunctuality and how she and the girls would wait past their bedtime for him to join them for dinner until one day she decides that enough is enough and that they wouldn’t mess with their ironclad routine:

For me, this made so much more sense than holding off dinner or having the girls wait up sleepily for a hug. It went back to my wishes for them to grow up strong and centered and also unaccommodating to any form of old-school patriarchy: I didn’t want them to ever believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn’t wait for dad. It was his job now to catch up with us.”

But the Obamas survive the stresses as they love and respect each other a lot. She realizes that her own career would be swallowed up whole by his and she is an extremely intelligent, accomplished and ambitious woman in her own right. By then she has realized that she is not cut out for law and pursues a career in public service instead. Eventually as Barack Obama’s political ambitions grow and as he meets with success and popularity and announces his presidential bid, she has no choice but to scale back on her work and ambitions and starts campaigning for him and puts her heart and soul into it. She understands that it is his calling and that he has a vision to fight inequities and bring about change and she doesn’t want to hold him back although she was initially reluctant about his entry into politics.

Like countless other people, I looked up to the Obamas as a model couple I wished to emulate. Yes, they have a wonderful and strong marriage but they have to work on it. Michelle Obama’s candor in this regard is refreshing especially since every word she utters is dissected to the core. To make herself so vulnerable to the public reveals a lot of courage on her part. It also gives permission to other couples to acknowledge that there is no shame in experiencing infertility or marital problems and to seek help when needed. This section of the memoir also captures the excitement of the days leading to the election, the victory and the inauguration day. It was a pivotal moment in American history representing hope, optimism and change when a country with a brutal history of slavery elected its first black President. And there definitely was a supportive wife who was instrumental in making this happen.

Becoming More: Politics is a dirty business and your life is like an xray where every action is transparent and scrutinized endlessly. Not only do you have to adjust to the fame and the admiration but also the criticism that comes along in its wake. It didn’t take long for the image of Michelle Obama as an angry woman to take root when a speech she made was taken out of context. And of course this vitriol made her angry but she would have to curb her anger for if she didn’t, wouldn’t she be fulfilling the prophecy of her haters?

When she declared that her main role was to be mom-in -chief in the White House, she was castigated for not being a strident feminist. You can’t please everyone and you are constantly in the spotlight being analyzed to pieces even for superficial details like the size of your arms or the length of your dress. The White house is a gilded cage as privacy becomes a thing of the past.  The Obamas venture out for a dinner date one evening and that outing becomes a big production as they have to be accompanied by motorcades and secret service agents disrupting traffic and inconveniencing the public. It’s the same for attending school events of the girls. There is a protocol to be followed for every move and the Secret Service has to be even alerted for them to step out on the Truman Balcony.

Among Michelle Obama’s accomplishments as a First lady was the cultivation of a patch of vegetables which grew in size and symbolically to become a cause dear to her- combating childhood obesity and encouraging good nutrition. She worked for the empowerment of girls and implemented programs around the world to help them have access to education and she championed to persuade businesses to hire or train military veterans and their spouses.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the Presidency was the sheer bigotry and repugnant vitriol targeted against them which had nothing to do with policies. Obama’s opponents blocked bills only because they wanted him to fail. It all started with Trump’s hateful birther campaign and revealed a side of the country that most people thought was outmoded as they had visions of a post racial America. Yet the President got elected for a second term and was able to implement a few of the policies important to him some of which are being revoked by the current administration. It’s a testament to the fine character of the Obamas that they comported themselves with utmost grace and dignity for two terms in office without a major scandal and in spite of the vicious mud-slinging, lies and hatred waged against them. As Michelle Obama wisely said : “ When they go low, we go high.”

Michelle Obama believes that she is “ …an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey.” The word ‘becoming’ means developing or blossoming into the best version of something and that’s what she intended the title of the memoir to mean. But ‘becoming’ can also mean suitable, appropriate or something that gives a pleasing effect. And all those meanings too apply to this compelling memoir of brave revelations.  It is a book inspiring women and especially women of color to pursue their dreams in spite of weaknesses, doubts and struggles and especially in spite of the question, “Am I good enough?”