Eric Banks

  • An Unsentimental Education

    In his first purely autobiographical work, My Lives (2006), amid chapters titled “My Mother” and “My Friends” and “My Master,” Edmund White nestled “My Europe,” a bit overpromising in its scope since for practical purposes it was the story of the time he spent in France. White moved to Paris at age forty-three in the summer of 1983, a newly minted literary celebrity on the strength of his novel A Boy’s Own Story. By the time he returned permanently to the States fifteen years later, the sun had more or less set on Paris as the desired destination of young (or at least youthful) writers and

  • The Winner Loses

    Near the outset of The Skin, Curzio Malaparte’s novel about Naples following its occupation by Allied forces in October 1943, the author drily notes that it is harder to lose a war than to win it: “While everyone is good at winning a war, not all are capable of losing one.” Three hundred and forty-three pages later, in the last line of the book, the author’s alter ego, Colonel Curzio Malaparte, liaison officer for the Allied forces, mutters, “It is a shameful thing to win a war.” Sandwiched between these two banalities is a bleakly humorous episodic novel—one of the greatest and still-surprising

  • Passing the Torch

    Of the major German-language writers of the past century, we may have a harder time pinning down the satirist Karl Kraus, who sat in judgment over the hothouse of Vienna from its combustible fin de siècle to the run-up to the Anschluss, than any other. We shouldn’t feel bad about it. Forever associated with Die Fackel (The Torch), the periodical he launched as a weekly on April Fools’ Day in 1899 (and to which he would eventually be the sole contributor), Kraus seemed to engage every twist and counter every turn that the intellectual, artistic, and political ferment threw up. The number of

  • Lovers’ Discourse

    A colonel in Napoleon’s army is severely wounded during a daring act of valor at the Battle of Eylau, then trampled by cavalry seeking to rescue him. Given up for dead, the “old greatcoat” is tossed in a mass grave. Many years later, having clawed his way out of the earth and been nursed back to health abroad, he returns to Paris, appearing at a lawyer’s office to attempt to reclaim his name, his fortune, and his family. But there is no place for the formerly dead in the France of the Restoration. Colonel Chabert’s would-be widow has liquidated his estate and fabulously remarried to an arriviste

  • This Is Your Brain, On

    YOU DON’T HAVE TO CONDUCT A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT to see why some philosophers or scientists want to write for an audience cheerfully indifferent to the ways of the seminar room and the strictures of the refereed journal. Beyond the fame and fortune, perhaps more important is the sense that if one’s work is worth doing at all, it ought to reach the widest possible audience, particularly when it bears on issues (religion, free will) with decisive implications for how readers choose to live. Some, I imagine, also relish the bonus frisson of mixing it up in the rowdy rough-and-tumble of the public

  • Artful Dodger

    What would “late style,” that unholy, messy, and probably overutilized critical category, mean for a writer like William Gass? To turn the sentence around, if William Gass were said to possess a late style—a moment not of well-earned serenity and reconciliation but of what Edward Said characterized as “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction”—what would it look like for a writer who was notoriously intransigent and defiantly difficult even in his early work?

    In Gass’s new novel, Middle C, his first since The Tunnel (1995), there is no apparent falling away from (or in Said’s

  • Roll Over Beethoven

    In 1948, his first year of teaching at Black Mountain College, John Cage gave a lecture on Erik Satie, at the time a little-known French composer. To make his point about Satie’s significance, Cage weighed him against a composer who needed no introduction. “Beethoven was in error,” he said, “and his influence, which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music.” All that could be said of the German composer is that his legacy was to “practically shipwreck the art on an island of decadence.” In Indeterminacy, Cage recounted Satie’s remark that “what was needed

  • The Savage Detective

    Many readers will recall their first encounter with Danilo Kis; as a high spot of the long ’80s. I know I do. The slender book of seven linked stories that decisively established his reputation here, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, was passed among friends like the faux-samizdat literature it coyly conjured. First published in English translation in 1978 but repurposed in the sleek early-’80s series of Penguin paperbacks edited by Philip Roth, Writers from the Other Europe, Boris Davidovich and its factitious tales of ill-fated revolutionaries established Kis as a master fabulist, his realer-than-real

  • Daily Disaffirmation

    When Witold Gombrowicz departed Poland on the liner Chrobry in 1939, he was a minor literary figure unknown beyond his native country, the author of a collection of short stories, a play that virtually no one reviewed, and the novel Ferdydurke, his absurdist provocation that offered him a toehold among the more progressive critics and intellectuals in Warsaw. That July, Gombrowicz set sail for Argentina on the maiden voyage of the newly christened Chrobry as part of a cultural tour for the Polish government. The ship reached Buenos Aires a month later, just as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between

  • Pony Up

    “I hate to read new books.”

    —William Hazlitt, “On Reading Old Books”

    I am really not much of a rereader. I envy people who are, but it’s not in my blood. Over the past twelve months, I’ve rarely picked up a book for rereading for any reason other than professional necessity. For the most part, editions of old books matter little to me. I confess I love my Penguin edition of J. R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday—which I recently reread because I was writing about My Dog Tulip—with its cerise-striped cover, the words “Travel and Adventure” stamped along the

  • Hope Stings Eternal

    In his debut novel, Never Mind, published in 1992, the English writer Edward St. Aubyn pokes fun at one of his creations, a distinguished philosopher modeled loosely on A. J. Ayer: "Just as a novelist may sometimes wonder why he invents characters who do not exist and makes them do things which do not matter, so a philosopher may wonder why he invents cases that cannot occur in order to determine what must be the case." The slight tone of meta-ness struck here is misleading; there is virtually nothing in Never Mind—or in the four other highly entertaining and often devastatingly

  • Love Is a Battlefield

    In Alan Hollinghurst’s captivating 1988 debut, The Swimming-Pool Library, the footloose young aristocrat and would-be biographer William Beckwith is consoled by a friend after he learns of a devastating chapter in his family’s history. “Isn’t there a kind of blind spot . . . for that period just before one was born? One knows about the Second World War, one knows about Suez, I suppose, but what people were actually getting up to in those years . . . There’s an empty, motiveless space until one appears on the scene.” Blind spots—familial, sexual, national—have fascinated Hollinghurst in all his

  • A Movable Feast

    In 1924, the writer Raymond Roussel designed a dream vehicle for himself, a nearly thirty-foot-long house on wheels that permitted him to crisscross Europe in the manner he wished and that his astronomical wealth made possible. The maison roulante was a thing of wonder: It created a stir among the car buffs who saw it at the 1925 Salon de l’Auto in Paris, and Roussel was so taken by his stroke of engineering genius that he took the “land yacht” to Rome the following year to show it off to Pope Pius XI and Mussolini. Built to his specifications at an enormous sum, Roussel’s proto-RV came complete

  • Form and Discontent

    Near the beginning of Swiss writer Peter Stamm's bleak new novel, Seven Years, ten-year-old Sophie innocently asks for someone to fetch her a glass of orange juice at the gallery opening her parents, Alex and Sonia, have taken her to. Irritated, Alex snaps at his daughter and tells her to stop ordering people around. Sonia, as annoyed with her husband as he is with Sophie, mutters, "I wonder who she gets it from." The exchange sounds unremarkable, the sort of occasional bitchiness that might pass between a pair of people like Alex and Sonia, married for a decade and a half and principals in a

  • Significant Loss

    Not far into the second part of Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes offers a lexical bouquet to the photographer responsible for the sepia print of his late mother, Henriette, at age five, in which floated “something like an essence of the Photograph.” What the “unknown photographer of Chennevières-sur-Marne” left behind was “a supererogatory photograph which contained more than what the technical being of photography can reasonably offer.” Supererogatory: That strange modifier, obliquely Barthesian to the core, seems at first like little more than a flourish, a bit of writerly lagniappe, but the

  • Wings of Desire

    By the time Antinous Bellori encounters angels in what we can euphemistically call the flesh, the creatures are no longer those divine messengers familiar from the Old Testament. Nor have they yet mutated into the chubby, rosy-cheeked babies hoisting puffy clouds that Tiepolo et al. gloried in depicting. The eleven-year-old Antinous, lost in the darkening forest near his northern Italian home circa 1562, stumbles on a pair of the flickering fallen ones just as they’re sinking their bared teeth into a raw fish. The sight is horrible, more sublime than miraculous: “Their faces are white and

  • Rider on the Storm

    Waveland is not a place you would want to find yourself. According to adopted son Frederick Barthelme, even before Hurricane Katrina roared over the Mississippi Sound—“a muddy sump you could walk straight out into for a mile and the water wouldn’t rise much above your ankles”—and made a beeline for the hamlet, Waveland was no “beachfront town; it was more like ten miles of down-on-its-luck trailer park. After the storm it was ten miles of debris, snapped phone poles, shredded sheets in the trees.” There isn’t any narrative of redemption and rebuilding here, no rising from the flames: “There

  • Colin De Land, American Fine Arts

    A personal aside: When Colin De Land died in 2003 at age forty-seven, Artforum titled its tribute to him “Shaggy Dogg.” It was one of the most apt titles the magazine ever came up with. First at Vox Populi, the East Village gallery he opened in the early ’80s on East Sixth Street, then at American Fine Arts, on Wooster Street and later in Chelsea, Colin’s approach turned art dealing on its head; it seemed at times to be an inside joke (just like the show he staged of the fake artist John Dogg), but could anyone other than Colin have pulled it off? The cliché is to say Colin made the gallery

  • One More Round

    Over buttered scones and crumpets

    Weeping, weeping multitudes

    Droop in a hundred A.B.C.’s.

    —T. S. Eliot, “A Cooking Egg”

    When Patrick Hamilton wrote to his brother, Bruce, of the “magnifying influence of beer—the neurotics’ microscope,” he wasn’t blowing smoke; he was faithfully expressing what for him had assumed the knife-sharp form of dogma. For Hamilton, one of the hardest-drinking authors of the twentieth century, there was more in his topped-off flask than the boozy business, though; he deftly mastered an entire worldview of late-’30s and early-’40s London and the precincts his

  • Callas: Images of a Legend

    To jaded Us Weekly readers of the early twenty-first century, it’s still a shock to the system to look back on what a walking, talking, singing scandal Maria Callas was, and how this Greek dramatic soprano raised in Queens fed the paparazzi machine of the 1950s and ’60s. But tabloids and newsmagazines alike fawned over Callas’s mythic allure and stoked the rivalry between the diva and her lyric-soprano competitor Renata Tebaldi in a manner guaranteed to roil their vocal partisans. It is still debated whether Callas’s brief career—her voice was basically shot by the late ’50s, and her career