Get ready for some serious spoilers! One note before we begin: I'm discussing the novel, source of all things canon, so apart from a few passing remarks here and there, there will be absolutely no mention of any subsequent adaptations whatsoever. Pure Leroux, baby!
The Phantom of the Opera was first published as a serialisation in Le Gaulois from September 23, 1909 to January 8, 1910.
Phantom of the Opera lives under a famous opera house. A mere chorus
girl, Christine Daae, becomes, under his guidance, a well known singer
with a beautiful voice. But her old child hood sweetheart, the Viscount
Raoul de Changy, has also entered the picture. The past comes back to
haunt her, the future ahead is uncertain, and the present is undecided.
Who will win the heart of Christine; the handsome, rich Raoul or the
masked Angel of Music? A story of romance, murder, sacrifice and
sadness, this riveting, seductive tale will keep your emotions high
until the very last page of the shocking conclusion.
MY RATING: 5 STARS
Here it is, the little serial that started it all...*salutes Gaston Leroux*
Please, let's not deceive ourselves, high literature this is not. It's not a romance. It's not a tragedy. It's not a horror story. What it is, is an inventive combination of the three presented as factual by a man who was first published as a journalist. And you've got some mystery thrown in for good measure! The only proper introduction to Phantom is through this book (which, I maintain, is still the best money I ever spent, beginning a love affair and obsession that hasn't let up to this day).
M. Leroux begins with his assertion that "the Phantom of the Opera really existed." He describes his research into the abduction of singer Christine Daae, the disappearance of Raoul de Chagny, and the death of his older brother Philippe. He says it's all the work of one man, known only as a ghost and believed to be just a myth. He has all sorts of evidence to prove his story, given by policemen who worked the cases, staff at the Opera, and the tale of the mysterious man known as the Persian. It all unfolds like a detective novel, and even being so familiar with it, the style still intrigues me.
To be perfectly honest, I didn't even know this was a book until I found it at the store one day, and having only heard of the musical I didn't know what to expect from it. The "nonfiction novel" concept took me by surprise at first, but it didn't stop me: I finished the book in one day. I couldn't stop thinking about the themes and the characters, and they filled my head so much I re-read the book several more times that week and kept puzzling them all out. It's filled with symbolism as well, but I never really got into that, apart from what each character represented to the others.
Erik, also known as the Phantom and first known to Christine as the Angel of Music. Disfigured since birth and the most extraordinary genius who ever lived. I was drawn to him from the beginning, and I have to confess that my first feelings towards him were of fear. He was a cold-blooded killer, a manipulative sociopath, and hardly more than a child in an adult's body with no conscience and no respect for humanity. But then I read on...despised by his mother, made an outcast because of the way he looked, his many talents turned towards evil, eventually driven to hide underground in the cellars of the Opera...he's a case to be pitied. Compassion came after fear and some pretty convoluted emotions, considering what more he was compelled to do by his dangerous obsession with Christine. I could understand, and yet I couldn't condone. Despite all of that, killing and kidnapping and blackmailing and terrorizing and Lord knows what else, he still had that moment of redemption where all the wrong he had done didn't matter anymore. An act of compassion on Christine's part touched him, and touched him so deeply he was moved to do the right thing for the first time in his life and "tasted all the happiness the world can offer." He finally learned what it meant to truly love someone else, and to know kindness. The end of his story hit me like a freight train the first time, and if anything the impact of it has only grown as my understanding of everything behind the novel grows.
It's a shame that Christine's character is butchered so often as it is. Sure, she's a little on the gullible side, but rarely is she portrayed like she has a brain in her skull (Webber, I'm looking at you...). She's a born singer that loses her genius with the death of her father, only to be coached into divinity by the so-called Angel of Music. Erik, prompted by his obsession, appears to her as the angel her father promised to send her, and she is taken in by the lie until she finds herself in Erik's home--which is closer to Hell than Heaven, in a little twist of symbolism--and strips away both mask and fantasy. From that moment on, she has to keep her wits about her, going along with Erik's demands and doing what she can to keep her sweetheart safe. She fears Erik and she pities him, pities him so much she can't bring herself to hate him. Isn't that something? You would think she had plenty enough reason to, after all, but it's hard to say which she was more reluctant to do: return to him when she must, or break his heart. Stockholm Syndrome, anyone?
That's right, I said it! Stockholm Syndrome! No great romance, no true feelings of love and devotion! As M. Leroux wrote it, Christine's feelings were that of a bonded captive, bordering on an Electra complex. He took the place of her absent father when she believed he was an angel, and when she learned the truth, their relationship turned into that of jailer and prisoner. Sorry, E/Cers, but I gotta call it like I see it. While we're on the subject, Erik wasn't really in love with Christine, either. He was fixated on what she represented: beauty, purity, the chance to be accepted. He's also got a few mommy issues thrown in there; I mean, who in the world thinks about their mother when kissing someone else? They were each without a parent, and each filled in the role for the other.
Now, onto Raoul! First time I read it, I liked him. No, really! I blame Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gerard Butler for making me think Raoul sucked giant jawbreakers! Once I saw the 2004 movie I was convinced that Raoul stood in the way of true love (and ironically, it was also the movie that eventually made me respect Raoul as a character), but when I first read the book, I liked him. Don't get me wrong, he was a very young, very emotional young man, but he was brave, devoted, and he genuinely loved Christine! Enough to risk his life to save her! Doesn't that count for something? Raoul generally gets a bad reputation for simply not being Erik, and he does have his flaws. He's too impetuous for his own good, candid to the point of being tactless, a tad nosy, pretty darn bossy, and did I mention he's very emotional? BUT he is also sweet and lovable, truly in love with Christine, honestly concerned about her welfare, and ready to die to rescue her. He curses her and renounces her when it looks like she's playing him, but I only attribute that to a broken heart, and seeing just how he's hurting to think she doesn't love him, I'd say that says quite a bit about how he loved her.
One question: WHY IS THE PERSIAN SO NEGLECTED IN OTHER VERSIONS?!?! You want the hero of the story? Here he is! A former acquaintance and the closest thing to a friend Erik ever had, he watches over the Opera House once he learns who it is living in the cellars and playing tricks on everyone inside. And when all hell breaks loose, he's right there in the middle of the action, trying to do right by everyone. He's like Christine in that he pities him too much to hate him. In fact, he saved his life once upon a time! He tries to serve as Erik's nonexistent moral code, his very own Jiminy Cricket, as it were. He leads Raoul through the Opera to come to Christine's aid and is the reason the dear viscount didn't get himself killed in the attempt. He's such an interesting character, and my favorite apart from Erik himself.
All right, I'm trying to wrap this up...Leroux toys with his readers, if you ask me, to give them what is in parts a vivid narrative and in others a sketchy outline. Erik's masterpiece, Don Juan Triumphant, has always fascinated me, for all that it's only mentioned a few times. Sorelli, a principal dancer in the Opera ballet, is only a major player in the first chapter, but there are intriguing little hints about her character that always make me wonder about her. Count Philippe is one of my favorite mysteries: his relationship with Raoul, his reputation among society (he seems to be something of a ladies' man and yet nobody seems to dislike him), his death...if only I knew more!
Important note on translations--do not, I repeat, do NOT get stuck with the translation by Alexander de Mattos! Why, you ask? It's incomplete! Where the French didn't quite work over into the English, he just left it out, and consequently I've been getting short-changed all these years. This is still the most common translation available, but it's what you might call abridged. I've heard good things about the Lowell Bair and the Leonard Wolf translations, so I'll have to see if I can't get my hands on them someday...
Your humble book nerd,