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

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.

 

Friday poem 13: Emily Dickinson

1406 010 

There’s a certain slant of light

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything,
‘Tis the seal, despair, —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ’tis like the distance
On the look of death.

I found this on The Englewood Review of Books. Now there is an interesting site. I commend it to anyone who thinks they know what US Christianity is all about. Go there and have your stereotypes challenged.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2009 in America, poets and poetry, religion, USA, writers

 

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A Partisan’s Daughter

star30 star30star30star30star30  Louis de Bernières, A Partisan’s Daughter, Harvill Secker 2008

9781846551413 I thought this was just brilliant. I am quite amazed that some critics saw it as rather lightweight; I found it just right, and very insightful on human fallibilities and the nature of relationships. I see one complaining the Serbian history is tiring; I found it fascinating. The narrative voices are beautifully realised, the construction superb. What’s to complain about?

In The Guardian Joanna Briscoe writes:

Because Chris is narrating retrospectively, with the viewpoint shifting fairly seamlessly between him and Roza, an awareness of later events in Yugoslavia is enhanced by Roza’s descriptions of different factions and nationalities as she grows up. The Russians, she claims, "say we’re all just bandits and we’ve only got loyalty to our relatives, and we make pacts with our enemies just to take advantage of our neighbours". As a writer, de Bernières is truly international in his scope, inhabiting one country after another with convincing detail and authority.

The novel’s charm works by stealth. It reads like a memoir; it offers subtle comment on the art of storytelling; it rarely strikes a false note, and it contains lessons about love and regret and seizing the moment. Like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, A Partisan’s Daughter is a novel about missed opportunities and wrong paths taken, tracing the way in which one false move can alter the history of a life. "I have never lost the pain in the chest and the ache in my throat that Roza left behind," says Chris.

This is a work whose soul is too quiet to make a big impact, but whose artistic integrity should be applauded. It’s a wise and moving novel, perfectly accomplished. It shows that no life is ordinary. It shines fresh light on the nature of love.

Well, it made an impact on me; all to the good that it isn’t a blockbuster.

See also Sarah Vine in The Times.

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Fiction, reading, writers

 

Classics all, each in its own way

According to the Encarta Dictionary, a classic is:

1. work of highest quality: something created or made, especially a work of art, music, or literature, that is generally considered to be of the highest quality and of enduring value
The novel has become a 20th-century classic.
a design classic

So I begin by noting I have been reading Jane Eyre again lately. Most would call that a classic.

Stretching the term to blogs, I would regard Stuff White People Like as a classic of its kind on the grounds of quality of writing, intelligence and satirical edge – the latter because of rather than despite its surgical skill on quite a few attitudes I myself uphold. It seems the author not only holds up a mirror in which I sometimes see myself; he is skewered too, and knows it. But mirrors can be good. There is nothing mean about this satirical blog, however; it is genuinely amusing. I have been following it for some time and it is in my Google Reader collection. That items now appear less frequently is a mark of the author’s success. Not bad for a WordPress.com blog, eh!

The author, Christian Lander, is in Sydney at the moment. See There’s a lot to like if you’re a middle-class leftie.

CHRISTIAN Lander is living an internet-age fairytale. In January last year, the 30-year-old PhD dropout was working as an advertising copywriter in Los Angeles. He started a blog, Stuffwhitepeoplelike.com, to amuse a couple of friends. In March, with up to 1 million people a day visiting the site, he scored a book deal and by July Stuff White People Like was on The New York Times best-sellers list. He’s in Sydney on his third book tour, while a sitcom based on the idea is in development.

"Six months from idea to best-seller," he says. "2008 was a pretty awesome year."

Lander’s blog skewers the sacred cows of white, leftist, middle-class culture. Lander’s own culture, that is.

"Truth is such a huge part of good comedy," he says. "I write from this Lonely Planet type distance, but realistically I’m just trashing myself over and over again. I wrote an entry which was Knowing What’s Best For Poor People. It was the worst indictment of me because I really believed it."…

Have fun going through his back entries.

Also here in Sydney, Rugby League generally and the Cronulla Sharks in particular have been a PR nightmare. My grand-nephew, a Sharks supporter, has even invited me on Facebook to join a group called “Save the Sharks!” Well, they do need saving, as even more strange revelations, not all of them about group sex – though not as far as I know with each other, continue to surface. Mind you, these days, despite spending my first 26 years in The Shire, I rather support South Sydney at the moment. Of late they have been doing rather well, and are jealous of their image too.

All this brings me to my third classic. If ever someone produces a slim volume of the Classic Columns of Miranda Devine today’s effort would merit inclusion: Natural men scolded into timidity. I think Miranda would well understand Jane Eyre’s adherence to Mr Rochester, though there have been columns that might lead one to think she may have preferred St John Rivers – but then he is, after all, a Calvinist. Today she tackles the real men of Rugby League in a manner more than defensive of the sweaty jockstrap.

As the mother of two junior rugby forwards, the wife of a former prop and daughter of a one-time flanker, it is time for me to come to the defence of violent sports and the men who play them.

The attacks on former Footy Show star Matthew Johns, rugby league and men in general – branding them as dangerous predatory brutes who need to be chained, scolded and nagged into submission – have gone too far.

The initial criticism of Johns was warranted, after revelations last week that he and his Cronulla Sharks teammates, during a 2002 tour of New Zealand, engaged in a gang bang with a naive 19-year-old woman, who in the ensuing years became so distressed about her degradation she tried to kill herself.

But since then, Johns has been crucified, with demands he name his teammates, sponsors threatening to pull out of rugby league, a school principal banning NRL players from visiting classes and mothers stopping their sons playing the game.

You always know when zealotry creeps into a story there is another agenda at work – and that is that the Johns case is a beachhead in the war against masculinity, waged by those who think the only difference between men and women is cultural.

This notion of a socially constructed "gender" has been the central idea of the women’s studies movement since it began in the 1960s, with its aim to produce an androgynous utopia. But the culture has changed and there are still men who refuse to act like women – damn them – even if they do have smooth, hairless chests…

Well, I agree that Matthew Johns has been crucified, but you can see where Miranda starts on another agenda of her own. That’s “objectivity” in the Devine world, no doubt, but the column is truly a classic in its own way. Unlike “Stuff White People Like” it isn’t satire, though it unintentionally comes close.

 

Depression and creativity

I read about this first on Matilda, Perry Middlemiss’s OzLit blog.

A couple of weeks back James Bradley, on his "City of Tongues" weblog, reprinted an essay he had written and had published in "The Griffith Review". The title of that essay was "On Depression and Creativity", which was reprinted, in an edited version in "The Age" Review section over the weekend [not currently on the paper’s website].

And for the past couple of weeks I’ve wanted to link to this piece and bring it to your attention. The trouble was that every introduction I thought of came across as insignificant and trite. So I’ve decided not to bother with one…

In the same spirit I refer you to Never real and always true: on depression and creativity. I found it personally interesting too of course.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2009 in health, humanity, OzLit, personal, writers

 

Four from Surry Hills Library 4 – nasty doings in Iraq and the USA

star30 star30star30 Scott Frost, Point of No Return, Headline 2008.

It starts with a chilling phone call to Pasadena homicide detective Alex Delillo from a former Los Angeles cop, Jack Salem, who tells her: "I saw a boy on a bicycle vanish in a flash of light" before hanging up. The call becomes more ominous when it turns out that Salem was working for a private security firm in Iraq and has since disappeared. The more Alex looks into the case, the more she puts herself in danger; she is treading on the very sensitive toes of people involved in atrocities in Iraq, including the use of children as weapons. Other words of Salem’s ring in her ears: "Everyone dies. The children. You. Me. Every bastard son of a bitch, and all the grey men in suits." What emerges is an unnerving conspiracy that is another indictment of the war in Iraq and the incompetence and corruption of the so-called "nation building" going on there. Exhilarating stuff.

Clearly no fan of the Republicans or George W, Scott Frost extrapolates from the undoubted darkest side of the shadowy world of what we used to call mercenaries a thriller which does strain credibility rather. It’s quite good in its way, but I don’t think I would say “exhilarating”. For more see Point Of No Return by Scott Frost.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2009 in America, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, reading, Thriller, USA, writers

 

Four from Surry Hills Library 3 – strange but good

star30 star30star30star30 we-disappear_sm Scott Heim, We Disappear, Harper Perennial 2008.

The body of a teenage boy is discovered in a Kansas field. The murder haunts Donna—a recent widow battling cancer—calling forth troubling details from long-suppressed memories of her past. Hoping to discover more about "disappeared" people, she turns to her son, Scott, who is fighting demons of his own. Addicted to methamphetamines and sleeping pills, Scott is barely holding on—though the chance to help his mother in her strange and desperate search holds out a slim promise of some small salvation.

But what he finds is a boy named Otis handcuffed in a secret basement room, and the questions that arise seem too disturbing even to contemplate. With his mother’s health rapidly deteriorating, he must surrender to his own obsession, and unravel Otis’s unsettling connections to other missing teens . . . and, ultimately, to Scott himself.

The Backroad Librarian sums up a very insightful review thus: “with We Disappear he has created a work of subtle, eerie potency.” I agree. The novel successfully combines American Gothic with documentary realism – not only about rural Kansas but also about gay life and drug life in the cities.

The edition I read features a “P.S.” of considerable interest.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2009 in America, Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, reading, writers