THE INDIAN CLERK
By David Leavitt
Bloomsbury. 485 pp. $24.95
David Leavitt's intelligent, ambitious new novel based on historical fact begins in 1936 with an aging professor at a podium. The renowned British mathematician G.H. Hardy has come to Harvard to lecture on the life and work of his friend Srinivasa Ramanujan, considered by many to have possessed one of the most beautiful mathematical minds of the past few centuries. A decade younger than Hardy (who was born in 1877), Ramanujan grew up in poverty near Madras in south India. He was barely noticed by the colonial establishment before Hardy and others, excited by letters from this erratic genius, brought him to Cambridge University. For the English dons, the younger scholar promised a fresh way of seeing number theory. For Ramanujan, the journey was an opportunity to find legitimacy and recognition unavailable to him at home. His years in England, 1914-1919, a period covered by the bulk of this novel, were triumphant but compromised by war, bigotry and his own illness.
Some readers may find it difficult to see the attraction of a story about pioneers of pure mathematics. Known principally as a "gay writer" for his early novels and story collections, Leavitt has also been drawn to historical material such as the Spanish Civil War and World War II in While England Sleeps-- a novel that got him in hot water when Stephen Spender sued him, alleging plagiarism and forcing Leavitt to remove material from subsequent printings.
But that is a hazard of historical fiction, isn't it? Another problem is technical: Merely quoting the letters and diaries of real people is not the same as fully imagining and recreating their lives. In The Indian Clerk, Leavitt's subjects are safely dead and relatively obscure outside the rarified air of the seminar, but they are not always vivid as characters. Periodically, we see Hardy giving the lecture he wishes he could give, a confessional narrative of emotional discovery that Leavitt has largely imagined: "When a mathematician works -- when, as I think of it, he 'goes into' work -- he enters a world that, for all its abstraction, seems far more real to him than the world in which he eats and talks and sleeps. He needs no body there."
But Hardy does have a body, and, for a repressed homosexual, it creates problems he cannot solve. He converses with the ghost of a lover for whom he feels a shadowy guilt. His professional partner, J.E. Littlewood, conducts a long-term affair with a married woman. Both men are accomplished in abstraction but failures at domestic life.
Then there is Ramanujan, who finds England a cold country with unbearable vegetables and no conception of spices. Because we know up front from Hardy's lecture that Ramanujan will die young, we ought to be able to feel more urgency in his pursuits. After all, Leavitt's novel is not only about intellectual idealists enduring wartime difficulties, but also about public and private lives, sexual repression and the decline of empire. As these men investigate the identities of numbers and sequences, we begin to see the larger implications of their ideas.
To Ramanujan, a Tamil Brahmin, math equals metaphysics, and equations are expressions of God. To Hardy, "God had nothing to do with it. Proof was what connected you to the truth." Other characters in the book, such as Alice Neville, wife of a junior colleague, and Gertrude Hardy, the don's disfigured sister, are more grounded, perhaps because Leavitt felt freer from historical record and could imagine them more fully as people, the first in love with Ramanujan, the second living a life circumscribed by gender and the success of her brother. World War I shatters the Empire, but it also exposes the frail underpinnings of these relationships. Cambridge itself is absorbed into the war effort as a hospital, its intellectual freedom subverted by the propaganda machine. The philosopher Bertrand Russell goes to jail for his pacific beliefs, while Hardy finds a safer compromise and manages to preserve his professorship.
But even with such intriguing material, the novel is only intermittently gripping. Paradoxically, the high quality of Leavitt's research often holds the narrative too close to biography. Cameo appearances by Ludwig Wittgenstein and D.H. Lawrence do not pay off dramatically. Scenes in south India have no light, no texture of heat, sweat, odor of any kind, and even England is a bit hazily conceived. At some point, historical novelists need to let go of their research and make use of their senses to embody and enchant.
Several scenes do stand out -- Alice asking Gertrude to show her glass eye, for example, or passages depicting the war's impact on the university. There's a terrible gravity in seeing how slowly people apprehend the value of Ramanujan's life, but Leavitt has not found the narrative shape that would allow us to feel what Hardy eventually understands: "It is only as [Hardy] enters the porter's lodge that it hits him. Zero and infinity. The things we can never know because they are unknowable and the things we can never know because there are too many of them." If that abstraction were made to resonate through the lives of his characters, The Indian Clerk would have been more successful than it is. ?
David Mason's recent book is "Ludlow: A Verse Novel."