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Artful novel about mathematicians and WWI Britain

  • May 11, 2008
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Pros: Style, a sense of authenticity, easy to read but still challenging

Cons: Over doing some religious and homosexual themes

The Bottom Line: I recommend it for anyone, but if homosexual themes bother or if even a little math puts you off, then the novel will disappoint.

It has been a while since I’ve reviewed a book—this is mostly due to the fact that I haven’t felt compelled to finish a book recently.

I picked a good book to break out of this hiatus. David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk was terrific, but I fear that its audience will be limited.

The book is a bio-book covering the lives of both G.H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan. The structure of the novel is a framing narration. Ostensibly, Hardy is giving a lecture in Harvard—rather than tell anything of his own work, he knows the audience wants to hear about his relationship with the Indian clerk from Madras.

At the turn of the 20th century, the redoubtable mathematician G.H. Hardy received a letter from a man in India that showed enormous genius. Upon investigation, Mr. Hardy discovered that the man, Ramanujan, was essentially a self-taught savant who had memorized a math book that had long been supplanted. Mr. Ramanujan’s abilities came in teasing letters showing a new way of looking at prime numbers, numbers that have had pure mathematicians in a tizzy for a couple of hundred years at least. Hardy, and others of his profession, sought to solve what is referred to as the Riemann Hypothesis (basically a way of predicting primes in an exact way rather than via approximation); Hardy thinks that Ramanujan is the man to solve this intractable problem. The first third of the book covers the difficulties and final success of getting Ramanujan to Cambridge.

The lecture is in 1936, the rest of the novel is set in Britain from about 1912 to 1918.

In addition to Ramanujan, The Indian Clerk covers the lives of many members of the Cambridge Apostles and the Bloomsbury group (Bertrand Russell, John Keynes, Lytton and Leonard Strachey and others). Hardy is gay as are many members of his groups. There is a surfeit of information about this as a concept and as practice.

There is a bit of mystery that is hinted at throughout the novel so I will end here before I spoil anything.

Within the framing narrative are two other narratives. About half of the remainder of the novel, is split between third person and a first person that is tied loosely to the framework of the lecture (the lecture itself is also split in two pieces: the actual lecture and “the lecture he never gave”).

The Indian Clerk has a fantastic style that makes reading it fluid and challenging but not to the point of frustration (or even close). Much of the novel is wrapped in a sense of anomie (a word used a few times), so it is perfect novel to read when the weather is not quite right for outside things or your mood hovers just above boredom. In this way, it is like a cooling cup of good coffee, the heat is disappearing but the taste is still all there.

I want to cover one annoying thing before I explain why the book will probably have an unfortunately small audience. The annoying thing is the amount of words given to Hardy’s atheism. This is at odds with the ghost of his one true love. The atheism doesn’t bother me, but Mr. Leavitt covers this subject time and time again. This is at odds with intermittent conversations with his dead love. There is no indication that Hardy is imagining these encounters, so this supernatural phenomenon doesn’t jibe with the way Mr. Leavitt overdoes the atheism.

Mr. Leavitt’s readers know that all, or almost all, of his works will cover or use homosexual themes. It is a hallmark, but he is such a strong and artful writer, that this should just be a minor concern for broader audiences. However, The Indian Clerk has more than any of Mr. Leavitt’s other works that I can remember; his coverage is also graphic. I’m not a prude at all, but I can see how this can be off-putting. Most of the graphicness is in the middle of the novel, so you will have gotten curious enough about the main plot that stopping there would probably leave you wanting to continue but to, perhaps, skip the obviously homosexual material.

This fact would be enough to limit it unnecessarily. But the second is likely to put more potential readers off. The armature for the story is pure mathematics. Applied mathematics is hard enough, but when the focus is on the numbers and their theoretical functions goes well beyond what many would be willing to consider. The math covered is done at a level that is easy to digest, but if you were to flip through and see any of the equations I could see why a mathematical layman would just put the book back on the shelf.

I want to end with a couple of personal notes. First, the novel is so well constructed that it leaves teasers to the point where I intend to read biographies of several of the people who populate the novel.

The second note is that I bought the novel in an Indian mall and I finished it (and am writing this review) in India. I don’t know if Mr. Leavitt has been to India, but he captures some of the endemic behaviors and beliefs in a way that I can verify are correct. This bit of reality makes me appreciate the novel that much more (if he can cover these behaviors so accurately, then the rest of the non-fiction is likely to be accurate too).


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review by . September 04, 2007
Leavitt, David. "The Indian Clerk", Bloomsbury, 2007.        David Leavitt, Once More and Better        Amos Lassen        David Leavitt has worked hard to earn his reputation as "one of our most respected writers" and he wears that title proudly with the publication of his brilliant new novel, "The Indian Clerk". He is the author of eleven works of fiction (including "The Lost …
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Ambitious, erudite and well-sourced, Leavitt's 12th work of fiction centers on the relationship between mathematicians G.H. Hardy (1877–1947) and Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920). In January of 1913, Cambridge-based Hardy receives a nine-page letter filled with prime number theorems from S. Ramanujan, a young accounts clerk in Madras. Intrigued, Hardy consults his colleague and collaborator, J.E. Littlewood; the two soon decide Ramanujan is a mathematical genius and that he should emigrate to Cambridge to work with them. Hardy recruits the young, eager don, Eric Neville, and his wife, Alice, to travel to India and expedite Ramanujan's arrival; Alice's changing affections, WWI and Ramanujan's enigmatic ailments add obstacles. Meanwhile, Hardy, a reclusive scholar and closeted homosexual, narrates a second story line cast as a series of 1936 Harvard lectures, some of them imagined. Ramanujan comes to renown as the the Hindu calculator discussions of mathematics and bits of Cambridge's often risqué academic culture (including D.H. Lawrence's 1915 visit) add authenticity. Hardy is hardly likable, however, and Leavitt (While England Sleeps, etc.) packs too much into the epic-length proceedings, at the expense of pace.(Sept.)
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ISBN-10: 1596910402
ISBN-13: 978-1596910409
Author: David Leavitt
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA

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