The Phantom of the Opera
by Gaston Leroux
translated from French by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos
Palais Garnier - a truly fabulous structure that was built during the author's lifetime - is only described as The Opera. With a similarly light touch that belies the gruesome, sensational subject matter, author Leroux (or, at least, his translator) refers to his title character, within the book, not as the Phantom of the Opera, but as the Opera Ghost - sometimes O. Ghost, or even O.G. In early chapters, a thread of whimsical humor runs through the Ghost's eerie manifestations. For example, I laughed aloud at the Ghost's letter to a certain diva, warning her not to sing that night - particularly its opening sentence, "You have a bad cold." Only after the narrative destroys the illusion that O.G. is a supernatural entity does he become truly terrifying. A phantom he may not be, but a monster he most certainly is. And yet the narrator and the reader together cannot view that deeply flawed, twisted character with complete loathing. Even after seeing him at his worst, one pities him. I think this is why, of all the writings of a prolific and popular novelist, this one book has left an enduring mark on world culture.
The Opera Ghost has a real name - at least, a first name - which, to today's ears, seems bracingly un-melodramatic for the antihero of a horror tale on the level of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Of course, its setting is closer to us in time, so the light of modern technology shines on it to such an extent that, in spite of the opera house still being lit by gas lamps, the Ghost's torture chamber can make use of electric lights and heating elements. The phantom's history is the stuff of a potboiler all its own, but we learn it only at the end, when he has done his best to seduce a sweet young diva named Christine, who is already in love with a pretty-boy viscount named Raoul. Luckily for the young couple, they have an ally in a mysterious opera-goer known as the Persian, who has known the Ghost (whom he is unembarrassed to address as "Erik") since a chilling period of his career described as "the rosy hours of Mazenderan." (Somebody actually has written a book about this.) Nevertheless, their only path to happily-ever-after leads through a series of secret passages, deadly traps, torture, murder, kidnapping, imprisonment, sexual obsession ("I want to be loved for myself!"), and an attempt to coerce a promise of marriage with a credible terrorist threat that, today, would turn a GIGN leader's hair white.
So, in brief, I laughed. I shuddered. My flesh crawled. My guts knotted with suspense. I entered willingly into the romance of the young couple, the intrigues of the opera house, the stimulating mysteries of how the Ghost pulled all his pranks, and some uneasy encounters with uncanny beings in the bowels of the Opera who, after all the Ghost's ghostliness has dissipated, remain tantalizingly unexplained. The Ghost himself may not be supernatural, but what about the Siren? Who is the man in the black felt hat? And what, in Gounod's name, is the deal with the rat catcher? We may never know. And that's just part of what makes the Opera itself perhaps the most fascinating character in this book.
The Puffin Classics edition of this 1909-10 Gothic horror/mystery classic says "complete and unabridged" on the front cover. However, when I did some online research into who translated it (because the translator is not named in the book), I found out that the original English translation by Teixeira, the only one published before 1990 and (thanks to the copyright laws of the time) the only one likely to be published without a translator's name on it, was a rushed, "slash and burn" job that "removed nearly 100 pages of content from Leroux’s novel" and "introduced numerous mistranslations." The only thing good about it, my informant says, was the "authentic 'vintage' sound" of Teixeira's writing style. So, sad to say, my "complete and unabridged" experience of Leroux's best-known novel is neither quite complete nor even particularly faithful to the original text. But it still, for my money, beats the hell out of listening to Gerard Butler try to sing the part of the Phantom in the film version of Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical adaptation. (True story: My stepmom rented this movie and tried showing it to my dad and me. We didn't even get through the first musical number before she turned it off, offended at my tsking and groans of disgust.)
I am really intrigued by Leroux's biography (1868-1927). I get the impression he was something like a turn-of-the-20th-century French mash-up of Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle - audacious journalist (one of his stories was titled "How I failed to interview Joseph Chamberlain"), heir whose wild living burned through a huge fortune, theater critic, eyewitness to a political revolution, author of a series of early detective novels featuring an amateur sleuth named Rouletabille, and prolific novelist across a number of sensational genres, with such titles as Nomads of the Night, The Haunted Chair, The Bride of The Sun, The Man who Came Back from the Dead, The Veiled Prisoner, The Burgled Heart, The Kiss that Killed, The Man of a Hundred Faces, and The Perfume of the Lady in Black. If I ever make it all the way through the Sherlock Holmes canon, perhaps I will take up a bit of Rouletabille.