Kirkus Reviews QR Code
PENCHANTS AND PLACES by Brad Leithauser

PENCHANTS AND PLACES

Essays and Criticism

By Brad Leithauser

Pub Date: Feb. 22nd, 1995
ISBN: 0-679-42998-0
Publisher: Knopf

 The subjects in this collection of scrupulous, varied, but sometimes ephemeral essays from poet and novelist Leithauser (Seaward, 1993, etc.) range from mathematical to literary creativity, from Japan to Iceland. Whether writing about his intellectual leanings or new locations, Leithauser has a bifurcated, paradoxical attraction to the rational and the irrational, but he can cleverly isolate the rarefied points of their intersection: computerized chess, the literature of science biographies, the freewheeling quantum prose of Italo Calvino, the ratiocinated ghost stories of Henry James, the enigmatic novels of Kobe Abe. The collection's best is a lengthy piece of New Yorker reportage on a computer chess tournament, which is replete with astute, poetic reflections on mathematics, artificial intelligence, and human creativity. In lesser pieces, apart from functional but disposable book reviews, Leithauser courts the supererogatory (detailed but unexceptional essays on H.G. Wells, Thomas Pynchon, and, his personal favorite, Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness) as well as the merely idiosyncratic (reviews of Colin Martindale's statistics-based aesthetics in The Clockwork Muse or Austin Wright's cult-novel utopia, Islandia). In ``Places,'' Leithauser tellingly opens with the multiple expatriate Lafcadio Hearn, who popularized Japan at the turn of the century but, he notes, could not truly penetrate the Meiji zeitgeist. Leithauser's own, literate forays into Japan popularize its more important, relatively unexported pre- and postwar authors, such as recent Nobel Prize winner Abe (now slightly less obscure in America). Though under-represented by comparison, Iceland benefits more than Japan from Leithauser's literary approach to its history and carefully preserved language. As Leithauser remarks about his attraction to Iceland (and by extension, all the topics here), he needs subjects remote from his experience and literary tradition, a guiding principle that leads both to exotic insights and, occasionally, to the abstruse.