Book Review: Cyrano de Bergerac - #9 In My Modern Library Classics Challenge


Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, Translated by Brian Hooker

“It was to the soul of CYRANO that I intended to dedicate this poem. But since that soul has been reborn in you, COQUELIN, it is to you that I dedicate it.” - Dedication by Edmond Rostand

Book Review

There was a real Cyrano de Bergerac, and Edmond Rostand is said to have based his eponymous play on de Bergerac’s life. But of course the plotline of the play is entirely too good to be true.

I’ve not read Cyrano de Bergerac before this, nor did I realize that the play (and subsequent movie) The Fantasticks was loosely based on another of Rostand’s original works, Les Romanesques. That play, first staged in 1894, was a great success. His Cyrano de Bergerac came later, in 1897 and was an immediate and outstanding success. 

The New York drama critic Clayton Hamilton pens the introduction to this volume. He first encountered Rostand’s Cyrano by reputation, as news of its triumph in Paris spread to the US. He was only 16 at the time and so impressed that a young playwright was being so widely heralded that he “put in an order at Brentano’s for the text, and bothered the bookstore for days and days, and weeks and weeks until the first copies came to us over the ocean.”

Flash forward some twenty years and Hamilton laments that the younger generation has not had a chance to experience the play as he had in 1900, with Constant Coquelin in the role of Cyrano and Sarah Bernhardt as Roxane in the French language production in New York. So, he persuaded his friend William Hampden to stage a revival. Hampden agreed, but only if Hamilton could come up with a good English translation. Hamilton then reached out to another friend, the poet Brian Hooker to translate it. And that is the text in this book.

Rostand, and Hooker, start off a bit slowly and confusingly, as several characters are introduced at once, milling about as they wait for a play to start. But then Cyrano enters the scene and suddenly things start to make sense and the action takes off. 

As to the rest of the story, well, everyone knows the plot. Cyrano, the man with the big nose, is secretly in love with Roxane, but convinced that she would never love someone as ugly as he. To compensate for his outward ugliness he has learned to be one of the best swordsmen of his time. He also has developed a gift with words, displaying wit and style to parry any verbal joust. 

Christian also loves Roxane, and confides in Cyrano, who agrees to lend his words to Christian in wooing Roxane, by letter and soliloquy. 

What I wasn’t prepared for was just how excellent the language of the play was, and how captivating it would be. I’m sorry I’ve waited this long to read it.

Classics Challenge

This is the ninth book in my 2022 Modern Library Classics Challenge. I’m challenging myself to read at least one of my Modern Library classics each month this year, and as you can see I’m a month behind - but I WILL catch up! This goal is part of my overall goal to read 100 books for the year. 

I own over 40 Modern Library editions that I collected in my first years out of college. At the time I was buying them, I admired them more as “art” than as books. I just liked the idea of pocket sized hardcovers, which is interesting since at the time most of the books I was buying to read were trade-sized paperbacks. Treated as art on my shelf, I haven’t ever read my Modern Library editions. So, it’s about time to do so now that I’m retired.

Book 1: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Book 2: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce

Book 3: The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells

Book 4: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Book 5: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze by William Saroyan

Book 6: The African Queen by C.S. Forester

Book 7: Disraeli: A Picture of the Victorian Age by André Maurois

Book 8: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Borrow or Purchase Cyrano de Bergerac here:

📙  Normally in this section I post links for you to buy my reviewed book at various booksellers. However, this translation of Cyrano appears to be out of print. It does appear to be in the public domain, and I found it available as a free PDF through Google Books and Wikimedia

While I’m not an expert myself, I’ve seen several reviews that say this is the best English translation, so I think it’s worth seeking out.

Title: Cyrano de Bergerac (Brian Hooker translation)

Author: Edmond Rostand

Original Publisher: Henry Holt

Original Publication Date: October, 1923

My Modern Library edition was printed in 1929. This is based on the fact that the first Modern Library edition is noted at the front of the book as being printed in 1929, and also on the original owner’s signature on the inside cover:


The early Modern Library editions like this one do not have rigid hard covers. They look like hard cover editions but the covers themselves are thin, and they flex. They are also small enough to fit in a man's suit coat pocket, where that flexible cover would make it easier to carry around.

Modern Library is now an imprint of Penguin Random House (PRH). Random House doesn’t list an edition of Cyrano de Bergerac on their website. (As of April 2020, PRH is a subsidiary of the privately held German conglomerate Bertelsmann.)