David Leavitt, “The Indian Clerk” (Bloomsbury 2007)

08 Jul

star30 star30star30star30star30 No problem with thinking of a rating. This novel is superb.

In the world of mathematics, Srinvasa Ramanujan had a beautiful mind.

The 23-year-old was an uneducated bank clerk in the Indian city of Madras when, in 1913, he wrote a nine-page letter to Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy filled with prime-number theorems. Soon after, Hardy recruited Ramanujan to work at Cambridge.

In his new novel, The Indian Clerk, author David Leavitt re-creates the lives of these historical figures, delving deep into their intellectual and personal worlds. Though Ramanujan died just six years after arriving in Cambridge, he had a lasting impact on his colleagues and on the world of mathematics.

That summary is from NPR, which also includes an extract from Chapter 1.

The man sitting next to the podium appeared to be very old, at least in the eyes of the members of his audience, most of whom were very young. In fact he was not yet sixty. The curse of men who look younger than they are, Hardy often thought, is that at some moment in their lives they cross a line and start to look older than they are. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, he had regularly been mistaken for a schoolboy up for a visit. As a don, he had regularly been mistaken for an undergraduate. Now age had caught up with him and then outrun him, and he seemed the very embodiment of the elderly mathematician whom progress has left behind. "Mathematics is a young man’s game" — he himself would write these words in a few years time-and he had had a better run of it than most. Ramanujan had died at thirty-three. These days admirers smitten with Ramanujan’s legend speculated as to what he might have achieved had he lived longer, but it was Hardy’s private opinion that he wouldn’t have achieved much. He had died with his best work behind him.

This was at Harvard, in New Lecture Hall, on the last day of August, 1936. Hardy was one of a mass of scholars reeled in from around the world to receive honorary degrees on the occasion of the university’s tercentenary. Unlike most of the visitors, however, he was not here — nor, he sensed, had he been invited-to speak about his own work or his own life. That would have disappointed his listeners. They wanted to hear about Ramanujan.

While the smell of the room was in some ways familiar to Hardy — a smell of chalk and wood and stale cigarette smoke — its sounds struck him as peculiarly American. How much more noise these young men made than their British counterparts! As they rummaged in their briefcases, their chairs squeaked. They murmured and laughed with one another. They did not wear gowns but rather jackets and ties-some of them bow ties. Then the professor who had been given the task of introducing him-a youth himself, whom Hardy had never heard of and to whom he had been introduced just minutes before-stood at the dais and cleared his throat, at which signal the audience quieted. Hardy made certain to show no reaction as he listened to his own history, the awards and honorary degrees that authorized his renown. It was a litany he had become used to, and which sparked in him neither pride nor vanity, only weariness: to hear listed all he had achieved meant nothing to him, because these achievements belonged to the past, and therefore, in some sense, no longer belonged to him. All that had ever belonged to him was what he was doing. And now he was doing very little…

leav190 I am a mathematical retard, but I could still enjoy this wonderful imaginative recreation of a fascinating place and time. The tone is astonishingly good, rarely faltering – quite a tribute to an American author venturing into the Cambridge world of Bertrand Russell and many another known figure from that time. I found the book to be about G H Hardy as much as about Ramanujan, and also about the gay world c.1900 – c. 1936 – very well captured. This is gay fiction come of age in that it does not depend on gayness but rather explores wider human issues.

For more see The New York Times and  The Elegant Variation at THE INDIAN CLERK WEEK CONTINUES: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID LEAVITT:

TEV: How did you first become aware of the story of the relationship between G.H. Hardy and Ramanujan, and what made it seem like there was a novel in that story?

DL:  A few years ago Jim Atlas, publisher of Atlas Books, asked me to write a non-fiction book of Alan Turing and the invention of the computer for his series "Great Discoveries." In the course of researching Turing’s life, I bumped up against the Riemann hypothesis, which is widely considered to be the most important unsolved problem in mathematics. Like many mathematicians, Turing was fascinated by the Riemann hypothesis, and, at one point, even designed a machine intended to test the zeros on the critical line. To understand what I mean when I say "test the zeros on the critical line," you need to know a little about the Riemann hypothesis, which, at the time, I didn’t. Luckily four books explaining the hypothesis to lay readers happened to have been published the year that I was working on Turing. The first of these that I read was Marcus du Sautoy’s superb The Music of the Primes, which included a chapter on Ramanujan and an account of his collaboration with G. H. Hardy, part of which touched on the Riemann hypothesis.

I admit that what first fascinated me about the story of Ramanujan’s relationship with Hardy was the language that Hardy himself, years later, used to describe it. He called his "association" with Ramanujan "the one romantic incident in my life." Knowing already that Hardy was perceived—at least by his other principal collaborator, J. E. Littlewood—as a "non-practicing homosexual," I decided to investigate the history of this odd "association" between a devout but poor Hindu Brahmin from rural Tamil Nadu and a fixture of Trinity College in the years just before and during the First World War. In sharp contrast to Turing, who was socially awkward and a bit of a loner, Hardy—and this was unusual for a mathematician—traveled in sophisticated circles. He was one of the only scientists to be inducted into the Apostles, the elite and secret Cambridge society the other members of which, at the time, included Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. He also had close ties to Bloomsbury and literary London.

Rich fare indeed.


3 responses to “David Leavitt, “The Indian Clerk” (Bloomsbury 2007)

  1. Mnajil P. Saikia

    July 8, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    I too liked this gem of a book. I think Leavitt did his work quite beautifully.

  2. Neil

    July 8, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Great to have your view of it, Mnajil, you being a mathematician and an Indian. 🙂

  3. Mnajil P. Saikia

    July 11, 2009 at 12:25 am

    Yes Neil, however this book is quite unknown apart from mathematical circles in India, maybe because Leavitt used his writer’s prerogative to differ from history. 🙂 But this book is a masterpiece !


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