A Week in Culture: Eric Banks, Part 2


The Culture Diaries

This is the second installment of Banks’ culture diary. Click here to read part 1.


12:30 P.M. I put in a few bets in advance on the Saratoga card and head for the eye doctor to get new lenses for my glasses (which would have been a boon to have in place before the trip to Philadelphia and DC). I’ll be lens-less for a half hour or so but I print out anyway a Guardian article by Tom McCarthy on “technology and the novel” that I want to read after finishing C. The book had already dashed my fears that post-Remainder McCarthy had turned art-world prankster at best, experimentalist court jester at worst. The profile’s a funny and smart piece when I squint over it an hour later. C begins at a turn-of-the-century school for the deaf with the burial of the protagonist’s sister while the dead girl’s father, a wireless communications buff, wants to rig the bier with a device so that she might signal if she’s not really dead. McCarthy mentions an anecdote about Alexander Graham Bell—his father also ran a school for the deaf, he also had a brother who died, and Alexander entered into a promise with his surviving sibling (who died early as well) that should either of them succomb, the other would create a device to receive transmissions from beyond the grave. He probably would have invented the telephone anyway, of course, and “remained a skeptic and a rationalist throughout his life—but only because his brothers never called: the desire was there.” I’m not sure I buy it, but C makes me feel like I should.

3:30 P.M. Get back home after picking up the new glasses, and I’m glad I read the essay while I waited for them—the replacement lenses make me feel like I’m seeing the world through a goldfish bowl, and I get a terrible headache as a result. Plus, I lost my bets. In the mail is the new Jonathan Franzen which I put off reading with my funky vision. It’ll have to wait until next week, which means I’ll have to make up a bunch of lies if anybody asks me what I think of it. I’d rather bullshit my way through than face the guilt that I won’t actually turn to it until I’m on vacation.

8:00 P.M. Head is still throbbing so I cancel plans to go see the Tilda Swinton flick I Am Love (the only film it seems anybody’s talking about these days) and turn on The Wild One on TMC instead. I feel like I’ve seen it a million times but this seems like the first time I’ve noticed the actor who plays one of Lee Marvin’s sidekicks—who is that guy? A quick IMDB check turns up Timothy Carey—his face is familiar because he plays the racist psychopath in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing who shoots a horse, Red Lightning, during a stakes race, setting off the racetrack heist. Man, where have I been? I make a note to rent Carey’s only directorial effort, The World’s Greatest Sinner, where he plays a crazed rock n’ roller who turns into a Jimmy Swaggert–style evangelist and is struck down by God Himself in the final scene.


8:00 A.M. I search Google books to pin down the exact quote from Stendhal’s Rome, Florence et Naples about his swooning at Santa Croce and find it. While doing so, I remember that I want to have a look at Michael Wood’s book on Stendhal, written in 1969 or so. I’d recently sent a stupid letter to the TLS “correcting” a statement that Stendhal’s Les Privilèges hadn’t been translated prior to the book under review. I remembered a translation Richard Howard had done for Grand Street, and wanting to pay tribute to Grand Street’s editor Ben Sonnenberg, who died in June. So I sent off my note, which the magazine published. And of course, it turns out that Wood had translated the text in an appendix to his book, which I idiotically had never read. Should I track down his e-mail, which I once had and have now lost, and send him a note, too? I guess if I take the book out of the Columbia library and read it on vacation when I’ll also be reading the new Jonathan Franzen, it will suffice, from a distance.

9:00 P.M. I get home late after meeting a friend I haven’t seen in years who’s done his PhD in French lit and now faces the bleak reality of the nonexistent tenure-track jobs in French lit. He’s weighing the pros and cons of moving to Aberdeen, which seems his best (or virtually only) shot. Unfortunately, he did his work on Diderot, so I can’t pick his brain much about Stendhal. (I don’t even know whether he knows Michael Wood, so I don’t bother to ask whether I can get his e-mail address from him.) I feel lousy because I’d hoped to go see a film a friend is screening that evening in Brooklyn, Chitchat on the Nile, an Egyptian rarity from the ‘60s based on Mahfouz’s Adrift on the Nile, his novel about disaffected drugged-up government workers. But I blew it, staying too late at the bar. I make another mental note to take out Mahfouz’s book from the library and read it also on vacation so I can at least seem knowledgeable about the film that I missed when I run into her again.


12:00 P.M. We go to MoMA to see “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917,” the exhibition that I imagine must have been at the root of my art historian friend’s complaints the other night. It’s so crowded—the lines are longer than you see at the movies—that I almost bag it and head home. There’s a lot of technophilia on display in the final room, analyses of how Matisse worked and reworked and reworked again the composition of the “Art Institute’s Bathers by a River,” but it was less than I expected, which extends to the show as a whole. It is disappointingly less than the sum of its parts. I’m primed to witness the starts and stops as Matisse grapples first with Cézanne and then with cubism to arrive at his luxurious twenties style, but my impatience—with the crowds, with the wall labels, I guess with MoMA itself—somehow makes the entire experience fizzle.

5:15 P.M. I get back from the Columbia library after picking up Adrift on the Nile and Wood’s Stendhal (as well as Schoenberg’s collection of essays, Style and Idea, which complements the Mann readings, right?). I see on the Times home page that Frank Kermode has died. I immediately go to the LRB website archives and look at the titles of his lovely essays, so many of which I’d read before over the years and which were a kind of model of everything I’d modestly once hoped Bookforum, when I took over the editorship of the magazine almost a decade ago, could aspire to publish. It’s not hard to feel that with Kermode’s passing it’s the sad end of the line for a certain vision of literary culture—a banal thought, I know, but one that I find impossible to avoid thinking.

8:30 P.M. I put off I Am Love again in favor of watching Our Man in Havana, which I saw was airing when I was searching the TMC website to see whether The World’s Greatest Sinner might be broadcast. I’d never seen the movie before and am flabbergasted by the top-to-bottom weirdness of the casting—Burl Ives as the German doctor Hasselbacher? Maureen O’Hara as Warthold’s secretary Beatrice? Noel Coward as Hawthorne? The strangest touch is Ernie Kovacs as the sadistic Cuban cop Segura. They shot it in Cuba just after Castro took power, so the criminal excesses of Batista’s Havana are even more magnified than in Greene’s novel. But they’re undercut by the film’s inability to take itself very seriously—it’s more comic than Greene meant by grouping the book with one of his “entertainments.” When Segura’s famous lines about torture come up—“surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement”—you can’t imagine how the producers of the film thought the creator of the Nairobi Trio and Percy Dovetonsils would be just the man to utter them.


9:00 A.M. I write a note to my friend apologizing for missing the screening of Chit Chat on the Nile and she writes back saying it’s actually next Tuesday, so I’ll miss it as I’ll be on vacation. I offer to loan her my copy of Adrift on the Nile, which she’s never actually read; as it turns out, I didn’t need to borrow it from the library—last night I found a copy on my shelves that I’d completely forgotten I owned when I was looking for the paperback Our Man in Havana after watching the film. She accepts.

10:00 P.M. After getting back from supper I decide, what the hell, might as well begin the Franzen.

Eric Banks is a freelance critic and writer based in New York. He’s formerly the editor of Bookforum and senior editor of Artforum.