Sunday 9 January 2011

The French Literature Project LIVES!!!

I've recently finished Gaston Leroux's uber-famous novel The Phantom of the Opera, and I was pleased as punch to realize that in spite of its pervasiveness in the general cultural consciousness (thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical of the same name), I actually knew nothing about the plot. I honestly don't know how this is possible, but having a sententious singing voice repeatedly reminding me that "THE PHAAANTOM OF THE OPERA [WAS] THEEEERE.....INSIDE [MY] MIND" was bad enough. I persevered, however, and the biggest surprise of all: I really enjoyed this book!

It's a very strange novel, indeed. It reads like both a ghost story and a detective story, and because I didn't know the plot at all, it was never clear to me how it was going to turn out. And to complicate things, Leroux threw in some liberal handfuls of the slapstick just to keep me on my toes. E.g., The Opera Ghost warns Carlotta, the principal singer in Carmen, that if she doesn't call in sick one particular night, she'll suffer a fate worse than death. She defies this threat and sings and her to find herself croaking like a toad instead of singing at a key moment. I believe the quotation is "co-ack!", which is repeated often until the end of the book.

So: detective, ghost, and comedic fiction all rolled into one. And then some difficult to ignore dropped threads that are never picked up again. And Orientalism (with the heroic and mysterious Persian, un-named of course) to boot - you'd think I'd be annoyed by this mess. But no, somehow I found it all very charming. And then - THEN! - I read the author bio at the front of my copy (the Penguin Popular Classics edition), and may have fallen in love with Gaston Leroux (and maybe also the nerd who wrote this blurb, which is probably the best author blurb I've come across). Check it:
GASTON LEROUX (1868-1927): French playboy, globe-trotter and prolific writer in a number of genres, Leroux wrote many popular detective stories....His chequered career, spanning nearly sixty years, was filled to the brim and his writing was intensely varied, reflecting his exciting and sensational lifestyle....He was also a great traveller and loved to explore remote parts of Scandinavia and North Africa, where he often had to disguise himself as an Arab in order to avoid danger. In around 1917 he went to Russia to cover the beginnings of the Revolution for the French newspapers and was continually getting himself into tricky situations, although his sharp and daring nature got him out again tout de suite....He was notorious for his sensational works of fiction, combining high adventure and a vivid imagination. This sensationalism went beyond the written word, and every time Leroux had completed a novel he shocked his family and neighbours by firing a pistol into the air.
THIS I PROMISE TO YOU: In the unlikely event that I ever write novels, I will fire a gun into the air after finishing each one. I can't promise the gun won't be a Super-Soaker, however.

As for the writing, it was good. Often clever and charming - like when the Persian describes how "ripple" is a word you hear with your tongue (he was tortured with water deprivation) - but maybe not genius. Clever and charming are more than good enough for me in a book like this though - a book that's meant to be a rollicking good time, which it is.

(This is my THIRD book for the Awesome Author Challenge. If I keep this up, I'm going to triple my original goal of reading at least ten books by new-to-me authors this year.)


Bellezza said...

Well, you're not alone in not having read this novel (or knowing what will happen next); I haven't even seen the opera yet! Your review was great, makes me want to pick it up this year as I love the French. And the Russians. And the Japanese. ;)

Unknown said...

I love it when authors turn out to be slightly mad in real life. I'm currently reading Trollope's autobiography, and the part where he thunders at a meeting, "You're wrong! I couldn't be more in disagreement! Now what was it you were saying?" has increased my respect for him tenfold :)

Heidenkind said...

HOORAY!!!! What took you so long?!? This is one of my favorite novels. I did know a little about the plot from the musical, but the two are really nothing alike. Love, love Eric.

LisaPerry said...

It's sad that I can't see that book without thinking of that boil on the butt of Musical Theatre.
I might have to read it. And shoot off my SuperSoaker when I'm done. But not at the cat, which is its usual target (gotta keep it indoors somehow).

Anonymous said...

I read the book a long time before I seen the musical. (Although in this case it will be the 2004 film...) But I love Leroux's novel, just love it! Even though I already owned a small paperback when I found a spiffy illustrated hardcover at my favorite used bookshop? Oh yes it was coming home with me! I should dress up for Halloween in red with a skull mask and wear that sign!

Bookphilia said...

Bellezza: I know! So much to read.

Tony: Haha, I love it! I want to read Trollope's autobiography now.

heidenkind: What took me so long? I don't know, it was never on my radar. I grabbed it from the store before we closed it just for the French lit project.

LisaPerry: Poor catty! But that sounds like fun, too.

Stefanie said...

I've never considered reading this book but your description of it has me thinking that maybe...

And I love the author blurb. It sounds part bio part personals ad.