Nov 17, 2009

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Most of you know the story, right? Published in 1911 (but set in the late nineteenth-century), The Phantom of the Opera is the story of, well—should I worry about spoiling it? Just to be on the safe side, I'll be vague: it’s the story of the Paris Opera, let’s say, and of a series of strange events that take place there. These include the disappearance, mid-performance, of Christine Daaé, a young star on the rise, as well as the existence of a mysterious opera box that is never meant to be sold. And behind all of this, there's a sinister being that calls himself the Phantom of the Opera.

It seems to me that Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera has become somewhat obscure when compared to the musical or the many movie adaptations. And you know, there just might be a reason for this. The book surprised me, I’ll give it that. The tone is quite different from what I expected—much lighter, much more humorous. The problem is that while much of the humour was intentional, there were bits that I’m not so sure I was meant to be laughing at. At least not quite as hard. Though this was written much later, the level of over-the-top ridiculousness to be found here matches that of The Castle of Otranto. Examples:
Christine carried her hand to her heart, a prey to indescribable emotion. Her eyes stared before her like a madwoman's. Raoul was terror-stricken. But suddenly Christine's eyes moistened and two great tears trickled, like two pearls, down her ivory cheeks.
"Christine!"
"Raoul!"
The young man tried to take her in his arms, but she escaped and fled in great disorder.
Or:
"Who?" he repeated angrily. "Why, he, the man who hides behind that hideous mask of death! ... The evil genius of the churchyard at Perros! ... Red Death! ... In a word, madam, your friend ... your Angel of Music! ... But I shall snatch off his mask, as I shall snatch off my own; and, this time, we shall look each other in the face, he and I, with no veil and no lies between us; and I shall know whom you love and who loves you!"
He burst into a mad laugh, while Christine gave a disconsolate moan behind her velvet mask. With a tragic gesture, she flung out her two arms, which fixed a barrier of white flesh against the door.
"In the name of our love, Raoul, you shall not pass! ..."
OR:
The shadow had followed behind them clinging to their steps; and the two children little suspected its presence when they at last sat down, trustingly, under the mighty protection of Apollo, who, with a great bronze gesture, lifted his huge lyre to the heart of a crimson sky.
It was a gorgeous spring evening. Clouds, which had just received their gossamer robe of gold and purple from the setting sun, drifted slowly by; and Christine said to Raoul:
"Soon we shall go farther and faster than the clouds, to the end of the world, and then you will leave me, Raoul. But, if, when the moment comes for you to take me away, I refuse to go with you—well you must carry me off by force!"
Okay, okay, I'll stop. In all seriousness now, The Phantom of the Opera is not without its charm. The fact that the tone is so often humorous makes the exaggerated scenes seem less aggravating that they’d be otherwise. And, up to a point at least, the plot is quite exciting.

I also liked the way the story is framed: the narrator introduces himself as a historian, a reporter with an interest in documenting what he guarantees is real case—much like what happens in The Moonstone or The Woman in White. So whenever someone else takes over the storytelling, they are first introduced, and their presence is explained. Likewise, the narrator accounts for every bit of information he has access to.

I also liked all the details about the Paris Opera House and its construction—it sounds like an absolutely fascinating building, and one perfect for the setting of a story like this. But having said this, I have to admit that The Phantom of the Opera wasn’t quite as mysterious or atmospheric as I was expecting it to be. Perhaps it’s the fact that the plot has become so well-known that it’s nearly impossible for readers today to be left in suspense, wondering just who or what the Phantom is.

There were quite a few other redeeming features: the fact that Christine Daaé, while in many ways a typical classic Gothic heroine, is far from silent and has a mind of her own, the sympathy with which the Phantom is treated, the many instances of intentional humour, or the fact that seemingly supernatural events are eventually explained.

It’s funny: even though the story becomes more convoluted and absurd as it progresses, the book grew on me as I read on. Even its exaggerations became somewhat endearing. While The Phantom of the Opera will not join my list of favourite classics, I did have quite a bit of fun with it, and I’m glad to have read it at last.

Other opinions:
Once Upon a Bookshelf
The Zen Leaf

(Did I miss yours?)

55 comments:

  1. I HAVE heard that the book is pretty awful compared to the musical, etc. But you've convinced me I should give it a try anyway!

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  2. I read it long time back but I enjoyed it even though I was cautioned against reading it :)Not a favotite but definitely readable.

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  3. For some reason, this book is a favourite of that guy I was so angry with yesterday (today I'm too tired of wasting energies being angry at people). More than anything, because he's fascinated with masks (?).

    His comment was that yes, the first part of this book is very good, but then the author seems to get lost in it.

    I was planning to read this, but all things considered I don't think I will, not in the very next future.

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  4. I read it in high school, having never seen it on stage (so I guess that didn't spoil it for me). I don't really recall it being so humorous, but maybe that was just me.

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  5. See, I really liked this book, even the melodrama for the first half to two-thirds. Then, after Raoul meets the Daroga and the two start looking for Christine, the book becomes bogged down in unimportant details that ruins the atmosphere and plot. I felt like Leroux took the story and smashed it into pieces by the end. It was poised to become one of my favorites, and now it's like this 2 star book that I keep rereading because I WANT it to end differently. Sigh.

    (And this is coming from someone who has never seen the opera, and who only saw the old B&W movie after reading the book. I honestly thought there was a real ghost in this book before reading.)

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  6. Oh: here's the link to my review: http://zenleaf.blogspot.com/2008/05/phantom-of-opera-by-gaston-leroux.html

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  7. Funny, because the musical is all about mysterious and atmospheric, with only just a wee bit of humor. I'm such a fan of the musical, that I'm afraid I'd get irritated with the book. I should probably try it, just for grins, but not in the short-term future I don't think.

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  8. I remember the movie as being quite melodramatic as well. But the formula seems perfect for Broadway!

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  9. I wonder to what extent the ridiculous prose could be a function of the translation? Whenever I read books that weren't originally written in English, I always wonder about how well the translation I'm reading captured the original.

    I remember reading parts of this when I was MUCH younger, when Phantom was one of my favorite musicals. It might be corny and over-the-top, but I wouldn't rule out trying this one in the future. At the very least, it sounds like fun!

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  10. I read this in high school because I loved the show. I don't remember how I felt about it at all, but the passages you chose definitely made me laugh.

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  11. I'm glad that you're glad you read it! :) I was not a fan of the book, but I also was happy to read the book so I had some context for all the Broadway musical madness.

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  12. Actually, I think I like the book better than the play. Yes, it contains all sorts of silliness, but the ending is much more ... grim than Andrew Lloyd Webber's and felt truer to me for it.

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  13. I did NOT know it was that funny a book, too! I agree that sometimes, it's impossible not to giggle at the Gothic drama present in some books :-) Glad this one was enjoyable, even if not in the way you expected.

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  14. I never really liked the book as much as I liked the movies/musical. I think that there is something so greatly haunting about the Paris Opera House (you should go if you ever get the chance, believe me - its incredible!) that doesn't carry on the page nearly as well as it does on film. However, I will say that I found Christine FAR less annoying in the book than I did in any of the movie. Something about that whole waif-ish gothic heroine thing always made me cringe a little inside in the movies. But I'm glad you read the book, I think most people should either way. Mostly because then you can appreciate how good the movies are! :D

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  15. I wonder if some of the problem is in the translation?

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  16. I'm glad that this one grew on you :) I just love Phantom of the Opera, maybe it helped that I read Discworld's Maskerade first ;)

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  17. I am gobsmacked! In two ways - one, I did not realise that this was actually a book, always presuming that old Lloyd Webber had written it himself and two, that it was funny! I want to read it now. You know you only have to mention the word 'Gothic' and I am there.

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  18. I read this book in high school and I remember being sorely disappointed. It wasn't at all what I thought it would be. I think if I read it now, I might be more generous towards it than I was then, but if I do it'll be a long while from now. "The Phantom of the Opera" is definitely one of those cases where I'd much rather see the musical than read the book. I'm glad to hear you found it fairly entertaining, at least. :)

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  19. I do really want to read this, but now that you've said it is like THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO in parts (which I have read) I'll be better prepared for what to expect. :)

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  20. I've never actually considered reading this. I'm not sure why, really. Of course, I've never seen the musical, either.

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  21. What a gorgeous cover! I've never read this and I've never seen it in any form. I did read his "The Mystery of the Yellow Room" long long ago. I remember liking it at the time. It is the classic "locked room" mystery.

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  22. I just watched a movie version of this earlier this year and loved it. But I know that I would never read this!!

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  23. I really need to read this. I love the movie and the plays... :)

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  24. I must confess my ignorance...I had no idea that the play was based on a novel? I loved the musical so unless the book is GREAT and it sounds like it wasn't, I will probably skip it for the near future.

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  25. I'm not sure if I'd read this, but given a chance I'll definitely go for the musical. ;)

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  26. I've never read the book (and I'm not likely to), but I do hope to see the musical when I'm in NY next year.

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  27. I've always wondered about this book as I love the music from the opera. I've actually seen two different versions of the musical. I probably will read this one day. Thank you for your great review.

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  28. I thought the movie version of this--which can't hold a candle (pun intended) to the stage version--really captured some of the 19th century excess of Leroux's prose in the scene in which Emmy Rossum (Christine) is in the graveyard in the snow with her voluminous bosom heaving, her entire decolletage bare except for a wool scarf wrapped around her throat way up there by her face...

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  29. This post cracked me up! It's been a while since I read this book and I forgot how funny it is. Oh mercy.

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  30. I read this because I love the story and the musical (not the Andrew Lloyd Weber one, but the other one--well i love ALW's, too) but I agree...all the later variations are much more interesting. ;)

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  31. I read this several years ago and really enjoyed it. I don't remember reading the melodrama into it, but my opinion is skewed because I love gothic literature so much. I don't always see the silliness of it all because I find it so enjoyable. I'm a big fan of the musical and when I read the book I felt like it filled in some gaps and fleshed out the story. Not sure what I would have thought of it without seeing it through the lens of my enjoyment of the musical.

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  32. I really, really liked this book. Raoul is ridiculous (couldn't help but notice that all of those passages had Raoul in them), and when Christine was around him, I kind of wanted to strangle her. But Eric is an awesome character. The entire plot is just an excuse to let us get to know Eric and his crazy awesomeness.

    Also, for me there's a total disconnect between Eric and the Phantom from the musical. The musical Phantom is a kinder, gentler version--the one from the book has an entire history and a personality. He seems like a much more complete character to me.

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  33. Loved the excerpts you quoted - so melodramatic! I've never felt any desire to read this book, but I really enjoyed your review.

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  34. I like the musical one... I'm not sure I'd read the book, though...

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  35. I've got this book on my shelf for a really long time. I read the sequel Forsyth wrote and I didn't really like it; I hope I won't be disappointed by this one.

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  36. Without a doubt, one of the worst classics I have ever read. I wonder if the movies and stage adapations are what is keeping this book in print.

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  38. This was a fun post. I enjoyed this book when I read it, and what I remember the most, like you described, were his descriptions of the Paris Opera House.

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  39. I loved the book! Leroux was definitely very tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top dramatic, and both things worked perfectly hand in hand for me... Even Raoul being such an unlikeable character was great to set off the Phantom's crazy grandeur. And the wicked writing, the way Leroux pokes fun at every single character!
    I have never seen the musical though, so I wouldn't want to compare, but definitely NOT a romantic book for me!

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  40. Great review. I had also heard that the book was not exactly what the musical would lead you to believe it should be. But, it's cool that you were able to find some redeeming qualities about it. =)

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  41. I read this book when I was 15, so maybe that accounts for my irrational love for it at that time. I *loved* it so very much. I actually haven't seen any productions of it so maybe that accounts for my untainted and adolescent adoration for the melodramatic written version. :) Glad you enjoyed it, however!

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  42. I always forget that TPofO was a book before it was a, well, opera. I just always assume that broadway made it up ;p

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  43. Wow, I just found your blog and am so excited that someone other than myself has read The Castle of Otranto! I loved that book! But mainly for the "fun" factor and the unintentional funny parts.

    I remember having a very similar reaction to Phantom the first time I read this book. It was good, albeit cheesy, but not on my list of favorites.

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  44. Some friends of mine were absolutely OBSESSED with this book when we were in junior high. They read a few of the sequels, too. I've seen the movie version of the musical, but I've never read the book. Melodramatic or no, it sounds like something I'd quite enjoy.

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  45. I am totally not familiar with the book version of this story, but I have heard a lot about it's other incarnations. I was giggling a bit at some of your choice of quotes as well. It seems like the drama may have been trying a little too hard. I'm glad that you finally got a chance to read the book, but I am not sure I will be reading this one. Very cool review!

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  46. Should I admit that your first paragraph told me waaaaaay more than I previously knew about this book? Probably not, huh? But too late, admit it I did. I've never read it, seen the play, seen any movie adaptations, nada. I am the queen of uncultured. ;)

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  47. As I enjoy reading the classics, this book has been on my TBR for some time. You have written a fun review of it and now I know it is at least good for a few laughs.

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  48. Rebecca: I wouldn't go as far as awful...I guess you just have to get into the spirit of the thing :P

    Shona: I did have fun with it despite everything :)

    Alessandra: The masks thing does make sense, but I can't explain without spoilers! But yeah, I've been known to avoid a book/movie/song in the past because it's so closely associated with someone I'd rather not remember.

    Jeane: I suspect that it was *me* :P I don't think I was meant to be laughing at some of those scenes, lol.

    Amanda: I can't even imagine how frustrating that must have been! I think one of the reasons why I ended up enjoying it more than I expected to was because you and Jason warned me on Twitter. And thank you for the link!

    Sandy: It might happen, but then again you might also be able to think of them as different things!

    Jill: Yep! No wonder it was so successful.

    Steph: Good point - it could be. It might also be that he's trying to emulate that overblown, 18th century Gothic style on purpose. And yes, it was a fun read!

    Meghan: It's hard not to, isn't it? :P

    Becky: Yeah, it's good to at least know where it all come from!

    Loren Eaton: I haven't actually seen the stage version - just one of the movie adaptations. I did like the ending, though, especially the detail of the skeleton.

    Aarti: I do love me some Gothic drama, though, laughs and all :D

    Wereadtoknow: It's definitely on my list of places to visit when I finally make it to Paris! Christine surprised me - she's definitely more strong-willed than I was expecting her to be based on what's usual for classic Gothic heroines.

    J.T. Oldfield: Like I was telling Steph, good point - it might be. I wish my French was good enough for me to read the original.

    Bella: I need to read Maskerade again now that I know the original :D

    Vivienne: It seems that the book is much less well-known than the musical, so you're not alone!

    J.S. Peyton: I think it helped that it tweeted I was disappointed when I was about 30 pages into it, and what people told me helped me adjust my expectations. Hooray for Twitter!

    Heather: I guess The Castle of Otranto is even MORE dramatic, but this is close ;)

    Carol: Me neither, but I did see a movie and wanted to know how the story began!

    Terri B: I know!! I just adore these Wordsworth editions. And I'll have to look for The Mystery of the Yellow Room!

    Staci: Well, it WAS fun :P

    Kailana: Just keep in mind it's quite a bit different :P

    Kathleen: You're not alone in not knowing! The book seems to have become a bit obscure.

    Melody: I'd love to see the musical too :)

    Jill: Oooh, enjoy!

    Wendy, I hope you enjoy it! It IS entertaining at least :P

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  49. Oh I loved this book. Ok maybe not "loved" but really liked it. I own it too. It's just a fun, little cheesy read. Glad you enjoyed it too!

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  50. I've seen a few movies, parodies, and retellings of this story but I have never actually read the book itself.

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  51. I havent read the book, but the musical is among my favorites.
    The scenes you quotes are a bit exaggerated...especially that second one...lol.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  52. Jeanne: lol! I can picture that scene perfectly.

    Jenny: :D I had fun writing it.

    Amy: Hopefully one day I'll get to see the musical myself!

    Carl: Oh, I love Gothic literature too! The silliness didn't detract from the fun :)

    heidenkind: It's true, Eric was MUCH cooler than Raul, murderous impulses and all.

    Belle: I definitely still think it's worth reading!

    Alice: One day I'll get to watch it!

    Hazra: I hope you won't be either!

    Karen: I think it's because drama aside, the concept truly is a good one. I think it's great that somebody saw that and adapted it into something else!

    Robin: I'll definitely have to visit the Opera someday.

    Charlotte: Yes, definitely not Romantic! But I see what you mean about how he poked fun at the characters - I loved that too.

    Cam: There was still lots to enjoy :)

    Daphne: I bet my teen self would have enjoyed the drama a lot more too :P

    She: lol, you're not alone :P

    Maire: The Castle of Otranto was TONS of fun :D

    Memory, I think you would!

    zibilee: I wonder if it was on purpose (because there WERE some clearly ironic bits) or just a sign of a different epoch and all that :P

    Debi: No you aren't >:(

    Teddy Rose: It's a fun book! One you laugh with at least as much as you laugh at :P

    Amanda: Cheesiness aside, it WAS fun!

    Ladytink: Yep, I was the same - which is why I thought I'd read it at last :P

    Naida: I'd love to see the musical at some point.

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  53. When reading this, I had been surprised by how much different it was from the musical and some of the movies I had seen - the introduction of new characters, especially. But yes, the details about the Paris Opera House and its construction were some of the best parts!

    Happy you ended up enjoying this. :)

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  54. Wow, I would not have expected funny! I've been wanting to read this one for awhile.

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  55. Did you know that we are now entering the 100th anniversary of the PHANTOM story? The first installment of Gaston Leroux’s novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra appeared in Le Gaulois, the French paper in which the novel was initially serialized, from September 1909 to January 1910 prior to publication in book format in 1910.

    To celebrate this achievement, a brand new Phantom Twitter stream has been launched to spread the word of the centenary and the latest news and developments concerning the Opera Ghost. Eventually it is hoped the stream will be used to release exciting new ongoing research currently being undertaken into the novel and all its subsequent adaptations (including, of course, the Lloyd Webber musical) in areas never previously explored. The feed is also being watched by Gaston Leroux's estate.

    Please follow by going to http://twitter.com/fantomedelopera, logging in/signing up and clicking ‘Follow’. Followers will be rewarded by some exclusive news and updates!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.