MT VOID 08/22/14 -- Vol. 33, No. 8, Whole Number 1820

MT VOID 08/22/14 -- Vol. 33, No. 8, Whole Number 1820

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/22/14 -- Vol. 33, No. 8, Whole Number 1820

Table of Contents

      Co-Editor: Mark Leeper, Co-Editor: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material is copyrighted by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent or posted will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Phantoms of the Opera: A Survey of Adaptations (Part 4) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

1998 Julian Sands

I consider myself a fan of horror films and I know that Dario Argento is a cult horror director, but I have to admit that he is a taste in horror that I have somehow failed to acquire. His classic is considered SUSPIRIA, and while it has a few good scenes, overall it does little for me. His other films do less. He in a big way goes in for sadistic stalker films. There had already been one bizarre adaptation of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA that played up the slasher aspect. It was the 1989 version starring Robert Englund, best known as Freddy Kruger. The Gaston Leroux novel probably was in public domain in 1998, so legally Argento could make a film of same story the then (and as of this writing) popular stage play was based on. The fact he could did not mean he should have, obviously. And it becomes more obvious when one sees the film. He was clearly not into adapting the novel, and though he uses much of the plot of the novel, his heart and his creativity is clearly more in the aspects that diverge from the original. Frequently the divergences are homages (spelled t-h-e-f-t-s) from better films.

The film starts with a sequence borrowed probably from BATMAN RETURNS. In Paris an unwanted baby is abandoned and cast adrift in an underground sewer. He is rescued and his floating basket is pulled to safety by hospitable rats who adopt and raise the boy. In 1877 the baby has grown to manhood under the Paris Opera House. Played now by Julian Sands, he is something more than a human man because he has mental powers to talk telepathically to others and even to possess a victim's arm here and there. Yet he still thinks of himself as a large rat. The phantom is not deformed and not so much repulsive as unkempt with stringy blond hair down to his breast. Sand possibly did not want to wear horror make-up.

The rat-man Phantom hears aspiring opera singer Christine (played by Argento's daughter Asia Argento) and begins to dominate her telepathically. Christine's main obstacle to stardom is Carlotta (Nadia Rinaldi) who is ugly, stupid, rude, bloated, selfish, gross, and untalented, but who is nonetheless the prima donna of the Paris Opera House. One wonders how they chose her. From there the story half-heartedly follows the story of the book with side trips involving child molesters, gratuitous nudity, hallucinogenic dreams, a visit to a fabulous bordello, a treasure hunt, and an overzealous rat catcher who collects rat tails jars and who is building a motorized, riding rat vacuum based on a riding snowplow. (This is 1877 remember.) It all sounds like more fun than it actually is.

The screenplay is by Gerard Brach and Dario Argento. It borrows not just from BATMAN RETURNS but also one sequence is taken, quite illogically, from X THE UNKNOWN. While the scene effectively creates tension and a curiosity as to what is going on, the scene is a cheat and never makes sense in the context of the film. Classic sequences from the novel are forced into the storyline as a matter of form. We have the unmasking scene with Christine sneaking up on the Phantom, though here there is no mask to remove. We have a chandelier scene. But this is much more the story of a mad killer, avenger of rats, who likes to bite body parts off his victims like rats do. The character of the never-named Phantom never makes sense either. Raised by rats he somehow learned not just to talk but to speak in poetry, he seems to know about the ocean's rolling, and know some of the terminology of physics.

An Italian opera house no doubt stands in for the Paris Opera House in this production. Argento, filming in Budapest, probably had no trouble finding one he could rent inexpensively. This opera house does not have the huge catacombs of the novel, but it does seem to be built over caverns that become a frequent setting. There are occasionally effective visuals, though looking down Carlotta's throat is not one of them. The musical score by Ennio Morricone, though non-memorable, is a definite plus. And Argento knows, perhaps because he is Italian, a few very beguiling pieces of opera to leaven the film.

This is one of the poorest adaptations of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, though it is much preferable to the 1989 version. Argento could have diverged from the classic story if he had good ideas, but a riding rat vacuum is clearly not one of them.

2004 Gerard Butler

Most people I know of who like the story of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA were introduced to it by Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical version. I was not. I read the novel as a young teen because of its connection to horror film. It is a rare popular horror story that is not based on science fiction or the supernatural but on events that could happen. In fact, in the novel LE FANTOME DE L'OPERA Gaston Leroux purportedly wove together events that really did occur at the Paris Opera House. It is claimed that there was a vagrant dubbed "the opera ghost" living in the huge underground of the Paris Opera House, down where there was a near-lake that was used as part of the structure to support the stage. There supposedly was an incident where a chandelier improperly fastened came lose and fell on the audience. And the great diva of the opera house really was named La Carlotta.

Leroux wove from these incidents LE FANTOME DE L'OPERA, the story of Erik, a man who had a great genius, but whose face was nightmarishly disfigured from birth. (The 1943 version ignored the text and suggested the Phantom was scarred by acid, and most versions have taken to borrowing the idea that the disfigurement occurred later in a dramatic accident.) In the original text, after a distinguished but macabre career in Europe (where he was shown in a cage as a carnival freak) and Asia Minor (where he designed royal palaces with a multitude of secret passages) the mysterious Erik helped engineer the Paris Opera House. Then he secretly retreated from the ugliness of the world to live in the Opera House's lower levels so he could delight in the beauty of the music that filtered down from above. He is drawn to a chorus girl by the purity of her voice, which he thinks with his tutelage he can perfect. That is the backstory and that is where the narrative of novel begins. Leroux, incidentally, never tells us Erik is physically attracted to Christine, though of course the dramatic versions play up that possible interpretation just like they play up the possible the sexual frustration of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll. Sex sells tickets and may make the characters' motives simpler and more comprehensible to the audience. Erik seems instead to want to possess her only to perfect her voice.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage play, essentially an operetta, is actually the most accurate to the novel of any of the familiar dramatic versions. It is more so than even the Lon Chaney version which made Erik a mad escapee from Devil's Island. Leroux's Erik is not mad and not an escapee. He is, however, wholly unscrupulous and his knowledge of the baroque building of the Opera House makes him almost a super-villain. Lloyd Webber's telling of the story is good, but the success of the musical is probably more attributable to the splendor of the production and the approachability of the music. Lloyd Webber is no genius when it comes to writing a musical. He is just popular. His themes are pleasant and neither inventive nor demanding. He may be to musicals what McDonalds is to hamburgers. I never thought he was particularly consistent in where he reuses themes so they cannot be considered leitmotifs. Yet his music for a scene always comes out at least appropriate and usually effective. Here he adapted his stage script with director Joel Schumacher.

While the play did not go into Erik's background, the film does and gets it wrong. Apparently they wanted Erik (unnamed in the film and played by Gerard Butler) to be a romantic attraction so they have toned down his deformity. They have done what they could to make him handsome when the upper right of his face is covered. His face looks more like a man with scars from a fire than like Leroux's Erik. Lloyd Webber also takes about twenty years off his age. To do this they had to claim that after he was displayed in a carnival, a la the Elephant Man, he immediately fled to the cellars of the opera house. Without his experience of travel, his genius seems inexplicable. The script has the character Joseph Buquet give an eyewitness account of what the Phantom looks like and what he describes is the Lon Chaney phantom, not the Gerard Butler phantom. Butler's singing voice is not perfect, but it probably fits his character and the experiences the character has been through.

Further, for some reason, the events have been moved from the Paris Opera House to a fictional opera house, the "Theatre Opera Populaire." This makes little sense since the catacombs beneath, the incident of the chandelier falling, and the presence of La Carlotta all fit the real Paris Opera House. And Paris of the 1870s probably would not have two such luxurious opera houses. These changes and moving the chandelier incident were probably done to give the film more of a punch ending. Also the chandelier incident was filmed in a way to explain why in the staging of the play the chandelier seems to glide diagonally rather than simply fall.

Also playing in the film are Emmy Rossom (who played the dead daughter in MYSTIC RIVER) as Christine Daae in a performance that hits all the notes, but does not do anything special. Patrick Wilson plays a particularly bland Raoul who may be remembered only because he dresses like Lord Byron and has shoulder-length hair. Frequently he looks like something off the cover of a bodice- ripper paperback. Miranda Richardson and Simon Callow are underused while Minnie Driver does a surprisingly good turn as a vain and thoroughly unpleasant La Carlotta.

With production design by Anthony Pratt, art direction by John Fenner, and set decoration by Celia Bobak the film has almost too much to see. The garish sets have almost too much visual detail to take in and frequently are expressionistic. Perhaps taking an idea from THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, the graveyard scene is commanded by two stone colossi. Taking another idea from Jean Cocteau, wall candelabra seem to be held in place by live arms in a scene that is almost a dream sequence. Minutes later we see candelabra emerge from under water already lit.

As he did with EVITA, Lloyd Webber wrote a new song for film version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. But at least this time it is under the end credits so it is not too jarring for an audience who knows the music of the stage play by heart. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is a film with some glaring faults, but it still is a magnificent production visually.

Comparing the Versions

Now that I have had my say about each of the versions individually, it would be a good idea to ladder them from my favorite to my least favorite. It should be fairly obvious from what I said above, but just to make it a matter of record.

The 1987 Michael Crawford (Theatrical) version: Amazingly well-staged and well-written. While being surprisingly accurate to the book it is also the most compelling rendition. Best point: Erik really is the tragic genius that Leroux wrote about. Worst point: Erik's makeup is not at all accurate to the book and not really believable.

The 2004 Gerard Butler version: A bit of a revision of the play and lacks the immediacy of a stage play. the story has been somewhat "younged down" and some nonsense added. The production design is a little over-florid. It is not ideal, but it still is arguably the best dramatic adaptation of Gaston Leroux's novel. Best point: It is a lavish production that should please fans of the play. Worst point: The duel in the graveyard scene seems to be taken from the cover of a "bodice-ripper" romance novel.

The 1925 Lon Chaney version: This remains the classic version and the most impressive makeup job of any version. I put it just a tad beneath the first remake because of script problems not giving enough plot and having too much comic relief. Best point: Some of the visuals are stunning and even haunting. This is a simply beautiful rendition. Worst point: There is not very much of the novel in this adaptation. The pacing of silent film is just not time-efficient enough to tell much of the story.

The 1943 Claude Rains version: A more engaging story than even the Chaney version. We never really sympathize with Chaney's Phantom and with Rains we do. This version probably had more influence than Chaney's version. The story is just a little over-sweet. Best point: For the first time you really sympathized with the Phantom and to some extent found him dashing, even with Claude Rains in the part. Worst point: What happened to the original story?

The 1987 Animated version: An animated comic book version, but it is an adaptation of the original novel; it is not based on any film version. Best point: generally the most faithful version to the novel. Worst point: dull acting that tells the story but is not at all involving.

The 1982 Maximilian Schell version: Unexpectedly watchable television version based on the 1943 version, but still Schell makes an impressive phantom. Best point: Dramatic climax with Schell riding the chandelier into the audience. Worst point: The opera is not very convincing. Schell's wife would never have sung on the stage.

The 1990 Charles Dance version: Not based on any other version or on the book. It does not always make sense. This version could have told the story in the novel but wasted it on an entirely different story. Lancaster forgot how to act years ago and in some scenes is really bad. Best point: This Erik, while not Leroux's, is somewhat interesting on occasion. Sometimes whiny, sometime almost Byronic. Worst point: Totally absurd treatment of opera. There is no respect for opera as an art form. And operatic excellence, in part, is what the story should be all about. The book's Erik is willing to murder for the perfection of the art form.

The 1962 Herbert Lom version: Hammer's version does not work, is not Leroux, and at times is overripe. It is hard to generate any sympathy for the Phantom and the musical chords intending to generate it only make the effort seem the more pitiful. The villain is never punished more through oversight than plan, I think. Best point: The story does generate some suspense in spite of itself. Worst point: The malignant hunchback who does all the dirty work.

The 1998 Julian Sands version: Dario Argento's take on the Phantom of the Opera is bizarre without being rewarding. Argento rejects the Phantom's deformity that is so central to Gaston Leroux's character and re-envisions the phantom as a sort of handsome Tarzan of the Rats. This film diverges from the original story whenever possible going into silly subplots. The Phantom himself is not deformed in this version and here he is the Phantom only because he is loyal to the rats who adopted and raised him. Best point: The operatic setting and the music give it some nice texture. Worst point: it tells an almost completely different story from the novel.

The 1989 Richard Englund version: Oh. geez, where should I start? It mixes the Faust legend, and time travel and mostly is just an excuse to make an unkillable-killer film. It clearly had two different directors with different styles. Best point: It's short. Worst point: It's not nearly short enough.

(It would not be fair to include the 1937 Jin Shan version of the film. Without a subtitled version it is impossible for me to understand most of the film. It clearly takes very large liberties with the Leroux novel, but I am really not in a position to fairly judge the merits of a film in a language I do not speak or understand.)

There will almost certainly be more versions in the future. One never knows just where and when a phantom will appear. [-mrl]

Hugo Award Winners and General Hugo Comments:

And here are the Hugo winners for works from from 2013; the numbers in parentheses are the number of nominating ballots and final ballots in each category. Because 3,587 total final ballots were received, a category needed 897 final ballots to be awarded.

My fears that the "Wheel of Time" voters would 1) overwhelm the balloting, and 2) raise the total ballot count while skipping some categories such that those categories did not meet the 25% rule, were apparently unfounded. Even the least popular categories, Best Fancast and Best Fanzine, had 33% and 38% respectively. Sarah Webb won Best Fan Artist on the first round, but there were no categories as sparsely voted (i.e., only one item marked) as in the Retro Hugos.

And "The Wheel of Time" placed only fourth, indicating that while people may have bought memberships to get an electronic copy, they were not voting in a bloc in large numbers.

The "Sad Puppy" slate may have made the ballot but it fared very poorly in the voting. All but one candidate from the slate finished at the bottom of the balloting, with one finishing below even "No Award".

What makes "xkcd: Time" a graphic story and not a dramatic presentation?

My fears that they would have the same technical problems as the Retro Hugos were also unfounded. There was a problem with delay--and unfortunately, they caught up at the end by have the stream jump forward over the reading of all the Best Novel finalists to announcing the winner.

In order to avoid any risk of Ustream bots blocking the feed because of copyright issues, the Dramatic Presentation Short Form clips had only the audio sent over the stream (and that probably only because it was picked up by the microphones), and the Dramatic Presentation Long Form did not have clips at all.

Regarding thank-you speeches, Mark suggests there should be a rule against reading a list of people with more than eight names on it. My suggestion is that while finalists and presenters do not have to wear formal attire, something better than grubby jeans and shirts with the shirttails out is probably called for.

And the presenters need to read the names of the works as well as the writers, editors, or whoever. (The presenter for Best Related Book did not seem to think the titles were important.) [-ecl]

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: A family of Indian refugees in France establishes an Indian restaurant right across the street from a renowned French restaurant. This starts a conflict between the two owners, played by Helen Mirren and Om Puri. The story is at times effective and affecting. But the plot is too straightforward and has no surprises. Lasse Hallstrom directs a screenplay by Steven Wright. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

There is a small genre of movies that attempt to seduce the viewer with their sensuality. The goal is to get the viewer drooling while watching the screen. These films set off some of our most primitive instincts, appealing physically not below the belt, but not far above it either. These are films that seduce with beautiful gourmet food. They are films that intend to leave you hungry, but not for food from the Golden Arches. Films like BABBETTE'S FEAST, LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, BIG NIGHT, TAMPOPO, and EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN. There is even a sub-genre devoted only to chocolate. THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY is Lasse Hallstrom's film of the clash of two food cultures illustrated with "food porn."

The Kadam family has a long tradition of fine Indian cooking in their Mumbai restaurant, but it does not save them from becoming political refugees when their party is on the losing side of an election. [I was not clear on what was happening with the riot. The timing and location was about right for it being the Bombay Riots, but that does not fit the description.] Wandering from country to country they are passing through France when the character only known as "Papa" (Om Puri) sees for sale the building of a defunct restaurant. In spite of being warned that the French do not seem to like Indian food, he wants to open a restaurant at the edge of town with the kind of cooking he did in Mumbai. And thus Maison Mumbai is born.

One snag is that Maison Mumbai is just across the road from a Michelin-one-star restaurant owned and ruled over by the formidable Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Mallory has devoted her life to earning a second Michelin star and offering the absolute perfect dining experience--one in which the food is perfect, the serving is perfect, and there is not Indian music and spice smells wafting in from across the road. She determines to do all that she can to scuttle the efforts of the Indian restaurant across the street. Papa's biggest asset is his son Hassan (Manish Dayal), who has instincts in cooking so perfect they could make him a nationally known treasure. And Hassan is particularly interested in Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), Mallory's sou-chef who is becoming a formidable gourmet chef herself.

What eventually happens is probably just what you expect to happen. This is not a complex story and it does not have a lot of twist. The screenplay based on a novel by Richard C. Morais, adapted by Steven Wright (who wrote and directed the very fine films EASTERN PROMISES and LOCKE). THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY is in part about transforming standard recipes with the addition of tiny subtle changes. Good food should have something to pleasurably surprise the palate of the person eating it. But ironically the film does not surprise the viewer much at all. It does exactly what the viewer expects it to do. A few unexpected plot twists and surprises would have been welcome for this consumer. Instead the film always is just exactly what the audience is expecting, like cinematic comfort food. The plot of this film follows a standard recipe with a garnish of food porn photography.

American and British film fans will probably know Helen Mirren as a terrific actress. But Om Puri, who plays Papa, should be seen more in US films. In spite of what is not conventionally considered good looks--he has a large nose cratered like a moonscape. But he has a deep sonorous voice that commands attention. His films include GANDHI, HEY RAM, CITY OF JOY, and THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS. Linus Sandgren's cinematography somehow was ambitious but not always effective. Some scenes seemed washed out. One scene show a sunset that seems to turn an entire valley orange. It grabs attention but does not seem a particularly beautiful effect. On the other hand the food photography takes no chances in presenting seductive food images. The producers of this film include Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg.

The film is strong if unsurprising and does exactly what the filmmakers and the audience wanted it to do. I rate it a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. One curiosity point: Hassan inherited a case of spices that he uses on special occasions. I think of Indian cuisine as requiring spices to be fresh which these certainly were not. Hassan seems to use spices that are not well sealed and which are several years old. Does this make sense?

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


Counting Countries (letter of comment by Jim Susky:

In response to Evelyn's update on Leeper excursions in the 03/21/14 issue of the MT VOID, Jim Susky writes:

Interesting to consider Alaska as a nominal country because of geographical distance.

Unlike the 1970s when you and Evelyn visited The Last Frontier, Alaska is now far from homogenous. The Anchorage School District reports that itsstudents natively and collectively speak more than one-hundred languages (city and school populations are, respectively, 300k and 50k).

'Old Timers' sometimes use the term Outside, as in: "I travelled Outside last week" and the bumper sticker saying: "We don't give a damn how theydo it "Outside".

I tell folks from Outside that Alaskans divide the World thus: Alaska and Outside. [-js]

Evelyn adds:

Note that the counting of Alaska as a nominal country in its own right is the policy of the "Travelers Century Club", not of me. [-ecl]

Life After People (letter of comment by Jim Susky):

In response to Evelyn's comments on "Life After People" in the 03/28/14 issue of the MT VOID, Jim Susky writes:

At the bottom of MT VOID (03/28/14) notice was given to "... the series "Life After People" looks at what would (happen) to the fauna (and flora) of North America if people just disappeared tomorrow."

I've often thought that the divide between Humanity and "Nature" was essentially arbitrary leavened by more than a little guilt-by-association-with-homo-sapiens (or more personally--guilty-because-I-metabolize-and-respirate). Comments at Amazon show an ideological divide between those who love (or at least tolerate) their fellows and those who regret Man's distantly-ignited and lately-realized emergence.

So it occurs to me that this may presage a new (sub)genre to go with the Uptopia and the Dystopia--the "Atopia"--no humans and no society at all!

This might have to include a prohibition on all sentient beings--perhaps a consultation with the guilty would be in order.

Seems that without moral agents the genre would be quite dry--even boring. [-js]

Tsundoku, Phantoms of the Opera, and A WORLD LIT ONLY BY FIRE? (letter of comment by Tim Bateman):

In response to Evelyn's note of "tsundoku" in the 08/15/14 issue of the MT VOID, Tim Bateman writes:

[Re] "Tsundoku": Japanese word for the books we have bought but not yet read which are piling up on our shelves.

I wonder whether this is a telescoping, as Lewis Carroll would have it, of "tsunami" and "sudoku"? [-tb]

In response to Mark's comments on the Phantoms of the Opera in 08/01/14, 08/08/14, and 08/15/14 issues of the MT VOID, Tim writes:

This series has been fascinating, I must say, and spurred me to pop into to see if I could procure a copy of the LeRoux. Does anyone have a view on the best edition(s) currently available? [-tb]

In response to Greg Frederick's review of A WORLD LIT ONLY BY FIRE? in the 08/15/14 issue of the MT VOID, Tim writes:

If Greg Frederick is summarising this accurately, this is a more outdated view of the Dark or Middle Ages than one would expect from a book published in 1992.

Or had the rehabilitation not begun by then? [-tb]

Woody Allen Documentary, His Scandal, Statutory Rape, Child Porn, and Professor Moynihan (letter of comment by Jim Susky):

In response to Mark's comments on boycotts in the 06/06/14 issue of the MT VOID, Jim Susky writes:

A heads up for you--Netflix Streaming has a two-part Woody Allen documentary that you may like. They did not shy away from the Soon Yi scandal but stopped short of the accusations to which you alluded in your Boycott-or-Not commentary.

I was extremely impressed with LOVE AND DEATH on first-release as a young teen. My money is also bundled with the box-office figures for MANHATTAN (my cannabis-enhanced reaction was that it was brilliant).

I consider CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS to be Allen's Magnum Opus.

Alaska in the early 90s was more isolated than it is now--I was dimly aware of Soon Yi, Allen's breakup with Mia, and subsequent related court machinations. We have had cable TV since the mid-80s, so I could haveindulged that part of public-voyeurism but selfishly stayed way. I remain serene about the seamy particulars of life if not innocent of the generalities. This is because, with rare exception, "low-life-news" does not interest me. Allen's "attentions" with the young Soon Yi are a fact (I suppose) but are mitigated by the fact of their subsequent marriage.

I had just turned 18 when I first became aware of "statutory" rape while in school in Indiana. "17 will get you 20" was the pithy condensation of that law. It struck me as inherently unjust that a 18-year-less-one-day boy could physically love his younger girlfriend on Friday at 2359 and be "raping" her (as a "man") two minutes later at 0001 on Saturday during the self-same act.

Put me on that jury and I'll hang it until they let us out.

Central to the issue in my eyes is consent. I understand that power relationship is often unequal but the notion that the younger has no power is blind to reality. A prosecutor would have to demonstrate that consent was not part of the deal.

(The 15-to-17-year-old Traci Lords had plenty of power--power to fake her ID, power to deceive, power to take the money, power to walk away--she even had the power to kick the drugs that she indulged in. "Child Porn", due only to the fact that a DA's judgement is limited to counting years, is merely Porn.)

(and that DA is a de-facto criminal if not de-jure)

I'll add one more anecdote before I sign off:

In the 90s Harvard revised its policy regaring sexual relations on campus. Among the revisions was an injunction against Professor-Student relations. Patrick Moynihan, a famous Harvard Professor commented (something to the effect of): "Hhmmm, perhaps I should aplogize to my wife!"


Evelyn notes:

Regarding the seventeen-year-old, 39 states take into account the age differential in one form or another. For details, see [-ecl]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

(This is August, so it is time for my annual Borges column.)

EL SEÑOR BORGES by Epifania Uveda de Robledo as told to Alejandro Vaccaro (ISBN 978-950-9009-09-7) proves that I am a true Borges junkie: it consists of the recollections of Borges's housekeeper. In Spanish. And reading Vaccaro's introduction, I am struck by how Borges could elaborate complex puzzles and paradoxes with very simple language. I rarely need to consult a dictionary when reading him. Vaccaro, on the other hand, will give me a nine-word clause with four words requiring me to look them up (and the only other substantive word was the word "invisible").

Of course, one reason for needing the dictionary is that Vaccaro uses words that are uniquely Spanish. For example, he refers to "tres lustros"--three "lustros"--but what is a "lustro"? It turns out that a "lustro" is a period of five years. (I needed the Academia Real Spanish dictionary for this.) Later the word "quincena" appears ("la segunda quicena"). One of my dictionaries translates this as "fortnight", but a more accurate translation is "fifteen days", or in this context, "the second half of the month". There are parallels in other languages, especially for such things as units of measure; for example, in Hindi we have the lakh (100,000) and the crore (10,000,000) instead of the thousand and the million.

Borges, on the other hand, always looks for the simplest words, both in Spanish and in the English translations. As Borman Thomas di Giovanni writes, "We agree that words having Anglo-Saxon roots are preferable to words of Latin origin--or, to put it another way, that the first English word suggested by the Spanish should usually be avoided (for instance, for 'solitario,' not 'solitary' but 'lonely'; for 'rigido,' not "rigid" but "stiff"; or, taking an illustration Borges likes to use, not 'obscure habitation" but 'dark room')." ["At Work with Borges" in THE CARDINAL POINTS OF BORGES]

Borges himself once said, "I do not believe that the entire dictionary is fit for literary treatment. We can take (for example) three words: 'azulado', 'azulino' and 'azuloso', [all meaning 'bluish']. I believe that 'azulado' can be used in writing because it is in our oral usage. 'Azulino' and 'azuloso'. on the other hand, are words that are in the dictionary, but not in our mouths. Thus it is better not to use 'azulino' or 'azuloso', stumbling blocks to the reader and small surprises that the writer gives.") [pages 155-156, BORGES ANTE EL ESPEJO] In "The Aleph" he writes, "[Danieri] had revised them following his pet principle of verbal ostentation: where at first 'blue' had been good enough, he now wallowed in 'azures', 'ceruleans', and 'ultramarines'. The word 'milky' was too easy for him; in the course of an impassioned description of a shed where wool was washed, he chose such words as 'lacteal', 'lactescent'' and even made one up--'lactinacious'."

Now it's true that English has many words for "bluish"--azure, cerulean, aquamarine, periwinkle, navy, and so on. But they are not as similar as 'azulado', 'azulino' and 'azuloso'. Those do seem redundant, as if Spanish had decided it needed more words and so made minor modifications to the ones it already had.

However, ultimately this book is for the true Borges junkie, since most of what we learn from it is on the level of the fact that he used to sleep in a nightshirt until he married Elsa Astete Millan in 1967. She insisted he switch to pajamas, and even after they divorced he continued to sleep in pajamas instead of a nightshirt. And while he had been a sharp dresser before his marriage (according to Epifania), after the marriage Else bought him pre- tied ties and used suits! Now to mention that he had a falling-out with a nephew over a post-dated check the nephew wrote on a joint account--not exactly the most exciting revelations.

[And Eduardo Rey, who designed the cover and apparently was the one who decided that white letters on an orange background was a good combination for the back cover and French flaps should be forced to read all his documents that way for a week!]

I decided that THE DROWNED WORLD by J. G. Ballard (ISBN 978-0-871-40362-9) might be a good book to read to prepare for the coming global climate change. However, I'm not sure that Ballard description of a sunken London turned to jungle matches the current predictions; for one thing, it assumes that Europe and Britain will heat up but if, as has been suggested, the warming Gulf Stream stalls, they could actually get colder. (Consider that Edinburgh and Moscow are the same latitude, as are London and Irkutsk, and Seville and Seoul.)

Ballard has also assured his acceptance into "Thog's Masterclass" with the following two entries:

"Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp." [Chapter 1]

"Kerans gripped the balcony rail, watching the disturbed restless water of the lagoon trying to re-settle itself, the giant cryptograms and scale trees along the shore tossed and flurried by the still surging air." [Chapter 7]

I recently read the sixth book in "Tuesday Next" series, THE WOMAN WHO DIED A LOT, by Jasper Fforde (ISBN 978-0-147-50976-5). This seems to add a couple of new major premises to the series. One, there are "Day Players" who can be substituted for various characters and even they do not know they are not the real thing. (Think David Brin's KILN PEOPLE.) Two, there is an All-Powerful Deity and He has decided to start smiting cities for no discernable reason. Oh, and there is DRM--not Digital Rights Management, but Dark Reading Matter, but at least that is in keeping with the already existing premises. It is okay, but I was bothered by the drifting away from the literary basis of the series.

However, it is still better than THE HEROINES by Eileen Favorite (narrated by Charlotte Parry) (ISBN 978-1-436-10247-6; book 978-1-416-54811-9). This I listened to on a "Playaway", which is an MP3 player pre-loaded with a single audiobook. It is smaller than a pack of cigarettes (and isn't it odd that even if you do not smoke, you know what I mean when I say that?), but this means that the controls are minimal and take some getting used to. (Pressing Fast Forward once skips to the next chapter, while holding it down advances within the current chapter, which I find completely backward.)

Anyway, the premise of THE HEROINES is that the protagonist's mother runs a bed-and-breakfast for heroines who want a vacation from their books. This could have been the "chick lit" book it was marketed as, but instead it turns into a sort of "snake pit" novel with the protagonist being committed to a mental institution because she sees fictional characters, etc. It may be more realistic, but it was not what I was looking for.

(I will admit that I did not finish this book. I read a couple of reviews and decided that it was not worth the time to listen to it. Were I able to skim-read it, I might have kept with it, but listening to it, even speeded up, required more commitment than I was willing to give.)


                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

          Is life worth living?  This is a question for 
          an embryo not for a man.
                                          --Samuel Butler

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