Bloomsbury £16.99

The Indian Clerk, By David Leavitt

The life of the maths prodigy Ramanujan inspires a novel which takes some liberties with the truth

Mathematicians and novelists inhabit their imaginations to different ends. Mathematicians shape the abstract world of numbers into proofs; what is proved is true, and what is true might be real. Novelists plunder the material world for facts to create an illusion which might be truer than appearances.

Proof, truth and honesty are at issue in David Leavitt's re-imagining of the life of the mathematician GH Hardy. The motor of the novel is Leavitt's scepticism over the claim that Hardy was a "non-practicing homosexual". Leavitt refuses to believe there can be any such disposition and has great fun making hay of the two-faced attitudes to sexuality enjoyed by England's privileged between the Wilde trial and the First World War.

The University of Cambridge of the period supplies a list of stellar personalities to criss-cross Leavitt's loose and episodic narrative: John Maynard Keynes, DH Lawrence, Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. The novel pivots around Ramanujan, the "Indian clerk" of its title, a self-taught genius whom Hardy lifted from the obscurity of the Madras post office to the courts of Trinity College.

In factual accounts, such as Robert Kanigel's The Man Who Knew Infinity, Hardy is cast as the cold fish to Ramanujan's fish out of water. In inventing a furtive love life for Hardy, Leavitt makes both men a little rounder. Parts of the novel move in a crisp historic present tense, and parts are presented as an inner monologue from Hardy – the thoughts he feels he cannot express as he presents a lecture on Ramanujan at Harvard in 1936. The Ramanujan Hardy recalls is bumptious and petulant as well as a genius.

Leavitt is perhaps too harsh on his reimagined Hardy, impatient with him for not coming to terms with the subterreanean sex life that is entirely Leavitt's own invention. The novel is as well researched as any biography (with as many petty errors as one would expect to find in the work of a professional historian) but Leavitt allows his imagination to colour his judgement. Because the imaginary Hardy distances himself from his more flamboyant contemporaries such as Lytton Strachey, Leavitt infers that Hardy's pacificism during the First World War was timorous and half-hearted. This has more to do with the radical politics of the 1980s, when gesture was all and the outrageous berated the conventional for their supposed inauthenticity, than the early 20th century.

The almost wholly imagined Alice Neville also represents a contemporary ideal of what a Cambridge don's wife of the time should have thought, felt and done. Gertrude, Hardy's sister, is splendidly imagined, and the relationship between a brother and sister who maintain a warm affection through a limited emotional vocabulary is well mapped out.

Leavitt has a deep affection for all his characters and if his imagination runs to wish- fulfilment on their behalf, when it finds a soldier lover for Hardy, for example, the history may suffer but the novel does not. Leavitt's enjoyment is infectious and he makes us understand that although Hardy and Ramanujan found it easier to love numbers more than people, they loved numbers very much indeed.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn