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Phantom of the Opera (book review)

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I’ve never seen a movie version of Phantom (not the classic, silent Lon Chaney version, and certainly not the new Joel “I should repent of my cinematic sins” Schumacker version). Nor have I seen any stage version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, or listened to music from that particular show. What I knew about the material is what everyone knows, what pop culture understands from the spoofs and the chattering fans in the back. I’ve never really been that interested either. What made me pick up the book then? I’m not really sure. Maybe it was the heavy amount of publicity it was getting after the new movie came out. Maybe it was my wife’s love of the musical, and a faint remembrance of her sending me a homemade card with a lyric from it. Or maybe it was the only half-way interesting book in English the library had.

Either way, I’m glad I picked it up. In a peculiar way it is a continuation of my fascination with detective fiction. No, this is not Phillip Marlowe or Hercule Poirot chasing down some notorious killer. Gaston Leroux has created mystery involving a ghost and murderer without the help of private detectives or Scottland Yard. Much of the words included in the book are determined to unmask this phantom, through a series of clues and hints. It is here we find kinship with the likes of Agatha Christie.

I’ll not explain much of the plot, for everyone knows it for the most part (and if you don’t just who are you?) It is a story set in the Paris Opera, a gigantic, intricate building with layer upon layer of subterranean levels masked in noirish, dark shadows. It involves a ghost, or phantom if you will, that lives in the bowels of the opera and makes frequent, and peculiar requests (such as a monthly salary and nightly tickets to the Opera in one of the best seats)to the new management. The old management, it seems, was all too happy to give into the requests, but the new management is not so sure. Thus begins a series of punishments. There is also a love triangle involving the ghost, an accomplished singer of the opera, Christine Daae, and her childhood friend, Raoul.

Though, I am learning the French language, my skill level is nowhere near where I have tried to tackle reading a novel in that language. I read an English translation found at the library. What I am learning in my French courses, though, is that translation is often a very difficult thing to do. Though many words literally translate well, often subtler meanings behind the words do not come through in a translation. Also, often words have no exact translation so approximations must be made. The story may come out the same, but the poetry is left behind. Maybe someday I’ll be able to read The Phantom of the Opera in its original language, but for now I must be satisfied with this translation.

The first half of the novel acts exclusively like a mystery. There are rumors floating around the Opera of a ghost that haunts the lower levels of the building. Random notes appear to the new managers, threatening horror if the ghosts demands are not met. There are ones who claim to have seen the ghost, other who claim to know him well, or as well as one can know a ghost. It is written from an outsiders perspective. Our point of view is that of an investigator, someone interesting in finding the truth of the ghost and events that happened during this time period. Leroux does a marvelous job making this piece of fiction look like history. After reading I even spent some time researching the events described to see if there was any truth to the story.

It is in the second half of the story that things change. We are introduced properly to the ghost and his madness. From this point the story shifts from a mystery to thriller. We know who the phantom is, but we are unsure of what he is going to do. Raoul and Christine are mad to leave the opera and be wed, but the ghost intercedes to create a great deal of suspense. As separate halves I found them both to be exhilarating, and a great read. But considered as a whole they leave a lot of questions. As with any good mystery, Phantom begins with a lot of questions. The narrative spends a great deal of time trying to determine what the ghost is, whether it is flesh and blood or a spirit. Whether the events happening are caused by the supernatural, or are just tricks and games. As mentioned, the ghost makes many requests for service, it acts in peculiar ways to add to the mystery. Yet, when the nature of the ghost is revealed, these things go unanswered. The great mystery is revealed, but much of what was mysterious is never explained. This is a small quibble because the story moves along with such gusto it leaves little time to be perplexed.

Overall, Phantom of the Opera is a fast, entertaining read. There is much to enjoy, and think over. It is well written, well plotted and well done piece of fiction. It is not a great piece of literature, but this should not keep any fan of the written word from picking up and enjoying this novel.

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About Mat Brewster

  • G.W.

    Nice review. I agree with dr. Pat that it’s nice to see this classic viewed from a ‘fresh’ perspective.
    For me, ‘The Phantom’ was an evolving, developing story, which appeared shallow but nice at first, and then slowly gained more and more depth and personal significance for me. It might sound weird, and I don’t understand it either, as I’ve read many novels that would probably be considered to have far more ‘literary relevance’, but Phantom of the Opera changed my life in ways that I could never even imagine. It made me look at the world, at myself (and my view on myself), and gave me the power to change that negative spiral of self-defeat and self-pity I was in into something positive. I was literally becoming like Erik (apart from the murder tendencies, hehe), and reading this novel made me realize that, which gave me the power and courage to change. To start believing in myself, pursue my dreams and stay true to myself.
    I could never have imagined this seemingly simple book to change my life so drastically, but it did, and I don’t even want to think about it when I wouldn’t have read it.

    Cheers, or as Erik would say; Your Obedient Servant,

  • Phantom reader

    well, i think what phantom phan said was completely irrelevent and rude …..anyways great review

  • emine

    çok boktan bi book

  • PhantomPhan

    Nice, but if you want people to take you seriously, you might want to spell “Schumacher” correctly.

  • It’s always great to read when someone views an old favorite with “fresh eyes.” Thanks, Mat!