The Indian Clerk, By David Leavitt
The life of the maths prodigy Ramanujan inspires a novel which takes some liberties with the truth
Sunday 09 March 2008
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.
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits record low as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Germany sees 'visible rise' in support for far-right extremism in response to perceived 'Islamisation' of the West