Sunday, February 11, 2007

Some Kind of Love Story

The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux, Read by Ralph Cosham, Blackstone Audiobooks, Inc., 2004

It is as common a piece of advice as you can imagine: avoid seeing the film version prior to reading the book. Here is one better: you should never, ever, ever see a film version of a Broadway musical adaptation of a novel prior to reading it. Damn you, Andrew Lloyd Webber! A perfectly interesting and delightful little “ghost” story and it is pissed on forever in my mind. No matter how I tried to get into the story as it unfolded, and it’s a good story, the shuddersome organ-based pop-rock score of The Phantom lurked ever ready to crush my happiness.

The wife and I rented (from the library — whew!) the recent film version of this musical and we laughed and laughed the whole way through. It’s about as terrible as you can possibly imagine and if it is remotely close to the Broadway version, I will never ever understand humanity. Soul deadening doesn’t begin to encompass the sheer misery induced by a mere half hour of this show.

Which is a shame as that might scare off potential readers of a decent book, lovers of quality as such. Of course, one can only wonder what Phantom fans (who I class along with people really, really into Grease or people who say — ick Lay Miz) would make of Leroux’s somewhat highly strung little absurd romance.

Generally, I don’t much care for the kind of books where the exclamation mark gets a lot of narrative action. Dialogue I can forgive, but when omniscient tellers of tales go in big for hyperbolic punctuation I tend to snicker. The older the book, the more I can overlook it, and Leroux’s work just manages to grandfather itself in being nearly one hundred years old. It’s by no means a great book, but it’s short and enjoyable enough as it stands.

The plot of the story is familiar enough nowadays that it barely requires retelling. A disfigured genius teaches a young ingenue to sing beautifully, falls in love with her, and kills whenever his romance is thwarted. She unmasks the monster and he ultimately dies. That’s the bulk of what remains in most adaptations, although Leroux’s novel includes a phantasmagoric final quarter in which the heroes of the novel, the rescuer of the young ingenue and his ally, are trapped among the several layers of the Opera’s basements and sub-basements. There the Phantom has his lair and his traps which inspire hallucinations and delusions, there he keeps his barreled tons of gunpowder ready to blow everything sky high

The greatest flaw in the novel isn’t the plot though, as fanciful as it is, which is entirely enjoyable and thus excusable; it isn’t the pacing, which moves like a cat with its tail on fire; it is the prose style. A journalist turned novelist, Leroux writes as many (if not most) journalists turned novelists write, which is to say uncomfortably close to journalese, A then B then C then D.

Which isn’t to say that the book is without amusements in its telling. After the first tragedy at the opera, whereupon the diva Carlotta croaks like a frog and then a chandelier crashes upon the audience, the book describes this unfortunate soul:
The papers of the day state that there were numbers wounded and one killed. The chandelier had crashed down upon the head of the wretched woman who had come to the Opera for the first time in her life, the one whom M. Richard had appointed to succeed Mme. Giry, the ghost’s box-keeper, in her functions! She died on the spot and, the next morning, a newspaper appeared with this heading: TWO HUNDRED KILOS ON THE HEAD OF A CONCIERGE That was her sole epitaph!

This particular passage reminded me of a Bukowski story “The Way the Dead Love” in which the suicidal narrator is saved by the absurd newspaper headline, “MILTON BERLE’S COUSIN HIT ON HEAD BY FALLING ROCK.” It was too priceless a moment, and I nearly roared with laughter.

(For what it’s worth, it seemed the only person in the entire cinematic production of Webber’s work who realized Leroux had a sense of humor seemed to be the luscious Minnie Driver as Carlotta. This realization allowed her to turn the monstrous prima donna character into the only bit of entertainment going.)

Later there was a lovely little exchange that likewise nearly made me keel over during a police interview with a Vicomte:

Q. “Are you at all superstitious?”
R. “No, monsieur, I am a practising Catholic.”

What can you add to that?

All in all, The Phantom of the Opera is played at times as a romance, which is justifiable, though it is at the same time played straight which is most likely a mistake of epic proportions. It is some kind of love story, although none of the principals really appear to be in love with each other precisely; they all seem to have created characters they wish the other to inhabit, even Raoul, our hero. Perhaps that, too, is one of the book’s points.

Nevertheless, The Phantom of the Opera practically reads itself, the hidden strength behind the sometimes tedious journalese style. You merely need keep your eyes open for the story to float past you like water flowing downhill. Ralph Cosham, who seems to get all the macabre jobs, doesn’t get in the way of this flow, and why should he?

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