Story of the Month, October 2009

One of many covers for the book The Phantom of the Opera. Thanks to Wikipedia for the use of this image.

One of many covers for the book The Phantom of the Opera. Thanks to Wikipedia for the use of this image.

I decided to be a bit seasonal this month and choose a book that fits well with October festivities. It also happens to be one of my favorite novels, and it is sorely underrated. So, without further ado, allow me to announce That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for October 2009 (drumroll, please): The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux.

I’m sure that most of you are familiar with the Phantom musical, musical motion picture, or a handful of other movies with the same title. But, what many people don’t know is, they are all based off of the gothic novel of the same title by Leroux.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I saw the musical motion picture with Gerard Butler as the Phantom and Emmy Rossum as Christine. (I don’t care what anyone says, it is a beautiful adaptation of the Broadway show.) I fell in love with the story and the characters more than I had previously with any other musical, so I decided to do a bit of research on it. And that’s when I found out that the musical, and all the movie versions of the same name, were based off of a novel. Of course, my first instinct was to track down the book and read it.

As much as I enjoy reading, I can be a slow reader. I tend to read for content more so than for entertainment (I blame it on critical reading classes), which often requires me to flip backward in the book to look for something, go online and do some research, or thumb through a dictionary. As a result, I can sometimes (if I don’t like the book very much) find reading to be a chore, especially if the book has long chapters. (It takes longer for me to feel any sense of completion with them.) But when I picked up Phantom, I flew through it. To use a cliché, I ate it up like candy. It read like butter.

Phantom tells the story of a Christine Daaé, a young girl who, after she is orphaned, moves to the Paris Opera House. She gets a job there in the chorus. Erik, (aka the Phantom of the Opera, the Opera Ghost, or the Angel of Music), has loved her ever since she came to work and live at the Opera, but his is a more obsessive love, and is significantly less explored than it is in the musical. In the book, it comes off as a sort of violent, crazed obsession (not lust). Without ever showing himself to her (because he is deformed: no nose, sunken eyes, and yellow parchment skin), Erik trains Christine and helps her reach her full potential as a vocalist. Christine, mistaking his “phantom” voice as the voice of the “Angel of Music,” to which her dead father always referred to, trusts him fully.

But Erik has ulterior motives. In exchange for the vocal lessons, he expects Christine to be loyal and faithful to him, though they never enter into a real relationship. For many years there is no trouble with the arrangement, until Christine’s childhood sweetheart, Raoul, the Viscount de Chagny, comes onto the scene. As Raoul and Christine’s love is rekindled, the Phantom grows more violent in his anger. The last few chapters are real nail-biters, charging forward to, as we know through pop culture, a fatefully tragic ending. Just because you’ve seen an adaptation of Phantom before does not mean that the ending is predictable. By all means, it shocked me.

The characters are also vastly different than the ones in any adaptation I’ve seen. And their relationships are distinctly different, as well. I remember, stronger than anything else, that book-Christine was a lot less playful than in the musical or any movie. She’s cold, removed, and often times snotty to Raoul. Not like her character ever undergoes much of a dynamic change in Hollywood, but she certainly doesn’t in the book either.

It’s Erik, the Phantom, who is truly the fascinating one. We get much more of a peek into his past than adaptations usually share with us, and we see him excel in music, architecture, and the use of illusions (think magician here). We see him as more than just the creepy man who lurks around the Opera House, preying on Christine’s naïveté. And, more than anything, he has a name: Erik. He isn’t just “the Phantom” or “the Opera Ghost.” He has a name, which makes him more human-like than I assumed he could be. With that comes a certain amount of sympathy for him from the reader. He’s a tragically beautiful character.

Leroux certainly knew how to write a page turner! There’s an ideal balance between plot and characters, narration and dialogue. And there’s an urgency in his writing, at the end of the novel, that is contagious. There’s an important part of the book, toward the end, where Raoul’s caught in a scorching hot inescapable prison. Leroux makes you feel Raoul’s discomfort and growing insanity. It’s like you’re there, with Raoul, inside the “puzzle” of a room, trying to help him figure out a way to escape. There’s such an overwhelming sense of immediacy throughout the whole novel. I can describe it as nothing better than contagious and addictive.

So give this early 20th Century French novel a try. I promise, it’s sure not to disappoint. (Plus, what’s a better month than October to read a book about an opera house haunted by the ghoulish, bodiless voice of the “Angel of Music”?)

Published in: on October 11, 2009 at 1:51 am  Comments (1)  
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Top 10 Classics, According to That’s Classic!

Any Top 10 list of classics would be highly subjective, just like any list of Top 10 albums or movies would be. (Is it any wonder why the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies list changed so much in ten years’ time?) It all really comes down to personal preference and what you look for when you pick up a book. Action? Drama? Dialogue? Scene? Characters? Mind candy? Well, chances are, if you’re looking merely for mind candy, then you’ll be disappointed with this Top 10 list. Because this list is all about books that stretch your mind and your beliefs and your morals. This list has books that change you, that take you on a journey, that reveal something about life—and yourself—to you. This is my list of Top 10 Classics. These are the books that have changed my life. I hope that you’ll give them a chance to change your life, too. And, this goes without saying, they all come with my highest recommendation. (Complete analysis soon to follow.)

  1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky-I can’t help but put this epic of classic literature at the top of my list. C&P follows Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a young ex-university student who, like most of those around him, can barely get by. He convinces himself that he is a “superman,” and therefore doesn’t need to follow the same moral code as everyone else. As a result of this belief, he plans to murder a local pawnbroker, someone who he feels has wronged him and many others by paying small amounts for their prized possessions they must sell to survive. When he does finally kill the pawnbroker, her sister catches him, so Raskolnikov has no choice but to kill the sister, a murder he had not planned on. He spends the rest of the book battling his conscious and madness–which are perhaps the same thing–as he weighs his options. To confess or not to confess? To succumb to guilt or prove to himself that he is indeed a superman and without guilt? While the setting of this book is foreign to modern-day readers, Raskolnikov’s struggle with his own guilt and mortality are things that today’s readers can understand, or at least relate to. Dostoevsky writes with such honesty and really explores the human mind. He is able to sway our prior convictions about murderers and convinces us to sympathize with Raskolnikov and his moral ambiguity. For more about this masterpiece, please see the Story of the Month, December 2008 by clicking here.
  2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  3. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
  7. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  8. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  9. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
  10. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov-This book completely took me by surprise. I had heard mixed reviews of it; I think people either hate it or love it. There’s a similar reaction to the book’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert: people either hate him or love him (in a manner of speaking). There’s no real surprise there. Humbert’s a man in his thirties who seems “normal” to everyone he meets but confesses to us readers (in Nabokov’s expertly-crafted novel-as-mock-deposition) his deepest and darkest pedophilic thoughts. In this almost journal-like novel, Humbert re-tells his sexual history including how he met, seduced, and carried on a relationship with the pre-teen Lolita. As disturbing as that may sound, it is nevertheless a wonderfully written book. The reason this book surprised me so much was that I really liked Humbert. I found him unbelievably interesting and clever and oh-so-charming. Like Dostoevsky teaches us to accept and even like Raskolnikov, Nabokov teaches us to at least listen to the ever-amusing Humbert Humbert. He is truly one of the most interesting characters that I’ve ever encountered.