Penchants and Places: Essays and Criticism. By Brad Leithauser. Knopf, 291pp., $25.
February 21, 1995        

In the introduction to this, his first essay collection, Brad Leithauser muses about his penchant for novelists with a penchant for science.

“Statistically, in a world of some five billion inhabitants, even the most far-fetched, outlandish quirks and coincidences must be commonplaces — though the vast preponderance will go unnoticed. They will be lost. It’s this image of a world in which, for all its pullulating multitudes, most of what is striking and funny and irregular and bizarre goes unremarked…that seems unsupportably wasteful. It induces a sort of madness — though one suggesting we may be less in need of the analyst than the annalist.”

More annalist than analyst - this is a satisfyingly neat description of what Leithauser himself is up to in these essays. They’re thoughtful, informative and wide-ranging, but largely free of the urge to theorize, the ambition to explain rigorously, exhaustively, systematically. And none the worse for it, really.

Leithauser is the accomplished and much-anointed (with a MacArthur fellowship, among other awards) author of three novels and three volumes of verse. One of the novels, the entertaining though not altogether successful “Hence” (1989), is set in Boston and features a chess-playing computer. So do a couple of essays in “Penchants and Places,” including the first and longest one, which reports on the fifth World Computer Chess Championship and, between innings, reflects on the history and implications of this peculiar phenomenon. Being both chess-phobic and computer- phobic, I approached this piece warily, but was won over. Leithauser nicely sustains a suspenseful interest in the tournament even while lucidly and economically pondering the psychology of chess and the possibilities of artificial intelligence. (He does, however, evade what is, to my mind, the really vital question: Will computers ever write book reviews?)

The rest of “Penchants and Places” is about books and writers, but it has a similarly empirical flavor. There’s a surprisingly affectionate reappraisal of H. G. Wells—you wouldn’t expect a contemporary poet to have this much sympathy for this militant rationalist and self-confessedly “haggard,” “hurried” and “slovenly” writer. Even more surprising, perhaps, is a long review of several scientific biographies, which contains some unpretentiously original observations about the oddity and beauty of mathematics and the “full unslakable outflung reach of human exploration and mastery” it reveals.

More oddity and beauty: Leithauser is an aficionado of ghost stories. Two essays with appropriately spooky titles, “Dead Forms” and “Cold Laughter,” survey the genre and inventory its techniques. “Gays and Ghost-Writers” speculates tactfully about homosexual desire in the work of two of the form’s greatest practitioners, M.R. James and (surprise!) Henry James. Once again, though initially skeptical, I eventually yielded to Leithauser’s enthusiasm. I am laying by several choice stories on his recommendation and look forward to many a goosefleshly evening.

There are also supernatural (or surrealistic or otherwise exotic) goings-on in most of the other fiction Leithauser discusses: Italo Calvino’s “Mr Palomar,” Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses,” Thomas Pynchon’s “Vineland,” Flannery O’Connor’s Library of America anthology and—a real discovery—“Islandia” by Austin Tappan Wright, a thousand-page utopian fantasy set in the far South Atlantic that creates, Leithauser marvels, “the realest imaginary place I know.”

Leithauser’s own poetry and fiction is sometimes criticized for being bloodless or fussy. If that’s true, then his criticism has the virtues of those defects: It’s judicious, discriminating, good at balancing structure and admiration. Of Flannery O’Connor he observes: “Perhaps in the end one praises her work most powerfully by acknowledging that it leaves one, if only temporarily, sharing her sense of the inanition around her.” Of Salman Rushdie: “One sometimes longs, amid the impressive clangor of Rushdie’s prose, for the hushed, suspended movement that comes when loveliness is wed to concision.” Of Thomas Pynchon: “What one longs to meet in Vineland, and never does meet, is some moment when Zoyd or one of his buddies would find the stars overhead cutting so deeply into his psyche, or the wave before him breaking with so plaintive a collapse of voices, or the ground underfoot releasing so tangy a mixture of surge and decay that all wisecracks die aborning in the throat. Just judgment judgments, mot juste.

The “places” referred to in the title are Japan and Iceland, in each of which Leithauser lived for a couple of years. His half-dozen reviews of leading Japanese novelists leave one feeling tolerably well acquainted with contemporary Japanese fiction. And probably few other books will put you, after only a dozen pages, on such intimate terms with Icelandic history and culture. The last, possibly oddest, and most rewarding piece in the collection in a fervent appreciation of Iceland’s greatest novel, “Independent People” by Haldor Laxness. It sounds like the strangest great novel of the 20th century; but Leithauser’s homage is persuasive, even moving.

Poet, novelist, New Yorker critic; fluent, equable, undogmatic; actively curious about science and mathematics; an adept introducer of foreign or forgotten authors: There’s another American writer besides Leithauser who fits this description. John Updike’s essays and criticism have been a constant pleasure through several decades. The appearance of this first collection by a younger writer with many similar gifts and dispositions is a promise of future pleasures.