Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt

David Leavitt’s historical novel is about Srinivasa Ramanujan, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, and his sojourn in England from 1914 to 1919. He had written from India to the Trinity mathematician G.H. Hardy concerning his work, and eventually Hardy and his fellow researcher, J. E. Littlewood, arranged for Trinity to bring Ramanujan from India to England and give him a scholarship to live on.

What Leavitt has done with the existing record of these years of collaboration is to take liberties and imagine the characters’ thoughts and actions. The only character whose thoughts are not shown is Ramanujan himself. Hardy was supposed to be a shy and introverted person, and his colleague Littlewood once called him “a non-practicing homosexual.” Leavitt is not satisfied to leave Hardy in this state, however, and in the book you are treated to quite explicit sexual scenes. In my view, Leavitt extrapolates too much twentieth-century awareness of sexuality to all the characters (except Ramanujan), and the book suffers as a result.

For all the intellectual heights that Hardy and his colleagues inhabit, Leavitt portrays their emotional expressiveness as stumbling and half hearted. While we understand that the Victorian era was repressive in its attitude toward impulse and spontaneity, Leavitt would have you believe that they made up for that behind closed doors. But the mathematical dialogues and explanations are fascinating, and more than make up for the more tedious parts of the book.

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