04 May 2009

Literature & Education: Gaston Leroux, Man Behind The Mask

By Jennifer Linforth

The ear splitting crack of gunfire shattered the morning fog like a rock to a mirror. Those within earshot stopped in their tracks, their hearts pounding against their ribcages. What pitiful soul was on the wrong end of the lead? Worthy question, but those in the house knew the only scent that would waft down from the floors above would be of spent powder and not pooling blood.

To most a gun shot was an ominous sound, but to the family of Gaston Leroux it was reason for celebration. Gunfire meant a novel was completed and a new legacy born. Every novel he wrote ended with a single shot fired out the bedroom window. It was classic Gaston Leroux: flamboyant, creative, quizzical and a bit...morose.

Gaston Leroux came into the world like any other boy on May 6, 1868. He was born out of wedlock at number 66 on the Rue Faubourg Saint Martin in Paris. His parents married a month later in Rouen and Gaston was eventually joined by his brothers, Joseph and Henri and their youngest sibling, Helene. His father, Dominique Alfred Leroux, was a contractor and his mother was Marie Bidault.

Gaston was schooled in Eu before heading off to study law in Caen. (Ironically meeting a young man there by the name of Philippe--a highly influential French noble whom would later bear the name of a character in one of his most famous novels.) There he graduated with honors at the age of eighteen. Following the death of his mother, Gaston was called upon to aide his father in the rearing of the younger siblings and hence became head of the Leroux family--much to his chagrin. He studied law to appease his family, but loathed every moment of it. Thankfully fate stepped in the way. When asked to be legal correspondent for the paper Paris, Leroux jumped at the chance. After covering a very high profile case he was approached by the editor of Le Matin and invited to be a regular reporter.

For thirteen years Leroux used cunning, wit and his highly tuned skills as an observer to secure one fantastic story after another. He traveled at a frenzied pace living off the excitement of chasing a story. Gaston Leroux had a knack for journalistic coups, securing one coveted interview after another. While enjoying the high and exciting life, Leroux met and married Marie LeFranc. But he did not find the same comfort in marriage that he did in journalism. The union did not last long, and the parting was less than ideal. Marie LeFranc refused a divorce.

Undeterred, he continued in his travels meeting the love of his life, Jeanne Cayatte, in 1902. Despite Leroux's reputation for being a notorious gambler and playboy, Jeanne Cayette was smitten. Gaston found a partner matching him in cunning and wit. It would not be until 1917 that he and Jeanne married, thanks in part to Marie's death.

Leroux turned away from journalism in 1907, perhaps bored with it or just ticked off at the constant demands placed on him. Having returned to France after dodging lava during the eruption of Vesuvius, his much needed vacation was cut short with orders from his editor. Annoyed, Leroux greeted the bearer of these orders with some of his most famous words in reference to his current employer: "Shit. Go tell Bunau-Varilla, shit!"

Thus ended his journalism career and began his life writing popular fiction.

Thirty-three novels, screenplays and short-stories galore, not to mention countless rounds of ammunition, Leroux devoted his life to writing. When funds for his family ran short (due to a rather fine taste for the fast life and drink) he was known to shrug off the debt.

"I will just write another novel!" he would declare.

And so he would.

While The Phantom of the Opera is probably one of his most famous works, it is more popular with western culture. In France, it was the adventures of detective Joseph Rouletibille that were the most important of his writings. These works launched Leroux as a master of crime fiction. The Mystery of the Yellow Room has been acclaimed as the standard all locked room mysteries try to achieve. The Rouletibille novels were steeped in logic and twists and turns. It was not until the very end that the criminal was reveled and it always stunned the reader to discover it was the one person they least expected--classic Gaston Leroux.

None of these detective novels held his more famous signature--the love of the macabre. That would season his later works in particular, The Phantom of the Opera, notorious for its murderously vengeful and hideously deformed anti-hero, Erik. But Erik was not the only criminally insane and repulsive character Leroux cooked up. Balaoo was an oddly formed cross between man and ape, while Cheri Bibi was master criminal, not terribly attractive, but with a large heart nonetheless. And finally, one would be remiss not to mention Benedict Masson, a bookbinder in love with a beautiful woman. This woman, because of Masson's visage cannot or will not, return his love. In the course of this novel Masson does suddenly find himself a handsome man, but at the price of lacking the ability to make love and give love. Oh, the irony!

Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera is a masterful piece of fiction, fitting in with the genre of gothic horror while at the same time to today's reader, historical romance. It has all the elements of a monster novel with the tragic and bittersweet under tones of unrequited love. Leroux pulled together his love of symbolism and used all his tricks of misleading the reader to create this timeless tale.

He died of uriemic poisoning on April 27, 1927 and was laid to rest in Nice. When he died he took the secrets of his Phantom tale to the grave. Written in his classic journalistic style, Leroux opens the book by saying: "The Opera Ghost really existed." Shortly before his death he was quoted as saying during a speech in Nice: "However fantastical my imagination it as always been anchored in something real. Perhaps that is why so much indulgence has been shown to my work, a work which has no pretences except to distract the reader without overstepping the boundaries of propriety."

Does that mean Erik was real? Does that indicate that all Leroux's fiction was based on fact? The reader is challenge to be the judge. What it does mean is that what you read is not always what you should believe.

And that is classic Gaston Leroux.

2 comments:

Jose Ignacio said...

Thank you so much! It's an excellent article plenty of significative information about the author and his life.

Adia Standard said...

Thank you so much for this essay! I have been having so much trouble looking for info of Gaston Leroux, and this is perfect!