It's difficult to know how to write about David Leavitt’s new novel. The book is brilliant in places, and often very moving – at any rate I was involved enough to stick with it over a 10-day period when reading time was limited (and when there were slimmer, more accessible books lying about waiting for their turn). But I also think The Indian Clerk would have been more satisfying if it had been either a hundred pages shorter (with some of the loose ends/subplots pared away) or a couple of hundred pages longer (with the subplots explored more fully, making for a more indepth, sweeping historical fiction). As it stands, this is a work that throws too many balls up in the air at once and doesn't quite sustain the juggling act. I would definitely still recommend it to the patient reader though, especially one who’s interested in the period and the setting.
In essence this is a fictionalised account of the real-life collaboration between G H Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan in the years 1913-1919, a collaboration that led to some of the most important mathematical advances of the century. Their unusual relationship began with the renowned British mathematician receiving a letter from Ramanujan, a Madras-based clerk who claimed to have made breakthroughs in the field of prime numbers. Convinced that he was dealing with raw genius, Hardy overcame resistance from the Cambridge authorities and from Ramanujan’s own family in India (his religion forbade him from crossing the ocean), and arranged for Ramanujan to come to Cambridge on a scholarship to study under him. In this, he received valuable help from an acquaintance named Eric Neville and his wife Alice, who happened to be visiting Madras at the time and who hosted Ramanujan in their house for the first few months of his stay in England. But Ramanujan was never completely at ease in this new country, his health deteriorated over the years and eventually he died, aged just 32, shortly after returning to India.
Srinivasa Ramanujan is a fascinating historical figure, familiar even to Indians who don’t particularly care for math, but readers expecting him to figure prominently in this narrative will be disappointed; he makes his appearance only around halfway into the book, and even then remains a nebulous figure. What’s more important here is the effect his presence has on the other characters, notably Hardy and Alice Neville, who find themselves in a quiet, unacknowledged tussle for proprietary rights to the “Hindoo calculator”. Hardy, no doubt looking at Ramanujan through the prism of his own worldviews, believes that the Indian is a rationalist, an agnostic, at heart; that even his vegetarianism derives not from religious strictures but personal revulsion for meat. Alice, on the other hand, having spent time in India, has a better understanding of Ramanujan’s background and moral conditioning (she recognises the significance of the little Ganesha statue he has brought with him to England as “the god of success and education, of new enterprises and auspicious starts, of literature”, whereas when Hardy enters Ramanujan’s room late in the book, we immediately sense the cultural distance: “From the hearth an elephant-headed figure gazes at him. He has four arms. A rat sits at his feet”) and she is more concerned with him at a personal level. But even she tries, unsuccessfully, to use him to fill the empty spaces in her own life.
Despite its title, The Indian Clerk is really G H Hardy’s story - not a biography but an account of a crucial period in his life. The most moving sections of the book are the interludes where Leavitt lets Hardy share his innermost thoughts directly with the reader (via an “imaginary lecture” that runs alongside the real one he gave at Harvard in 1936). Here we get a sense of a conflicted man, even when he doesn’t admit it to himself. He remains confused about matters of faith, confounded by the fact that his discipline doesn’t always conform to the order expected of a science (“Once again, mathematics had tantalized us with a pattern, only to snatch it away. Really, it was rather like dealing with God”). Nor is he really comfortable about his sexuality (“a non-practising homosexual”, a colleague once called him), and as if all this weren’t enough, he is guilt-ridden about his sister (whose eye he damaged in an accident when they were children) and about a former lover who committed suicide. (The ghost of this ex-lover occasionally visits him, further undermining his sense of himself as a rationalist.)
But given that Hardy is the book’s emotional centre and its most interesting character, a problem with the narrative is that it doesn’t consistently stay with him. There are whole chapters that give us events through other characters' viewpoints (though significantly, never that of Ramanujan, whom we always see through someone else's eyes). There’s Hardy’s sister Gertrude, a poet, burdened with the responsibility of looking after their ailing mother and intermittently escaping to a rented flat in London (a room of her own, one might call it); his collaborator Littlewood, caught in a difficult affair with a married woman; Alice Neville, equally trapped by “the dull repetitiveness” of her marriage, and her feelings (first protectiveness, then love) for Ramanujan.
Seen out of context, most all these personal struggles and frustrations are well-handled, and each of them tells us something about the society these people live in; about the fading of social mores, about a country on the cusp of momentous change (this is the time of the Great War, a deeply disillusioning period for Britain, which marked the beginning of its decline as a superpower). But they also have a diluting effect. Narrative to-and-fro-ing of this sort would be better used in a much larger novel, one that clearly spelt out its intention to be a sprawling sociological work. The book also meanders because of the many asides about Hardy’s colleagues, the Cambridge secret society known as The Apostles, which included such intellectuals of the time as Lytton Strachey, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Leavitt gives too much space to Russell’s run-ins with the authorities (his pacifism landed him in a good deal of trouble at a time when the government was trying to romanticise war and sell the British people cosy fantasies about soldiers living in underground bunkers that resembled holiday camps) and while all this is undoubtedly interesting in its own right, one doesn’t get the sense that it belongs in this book.
That The Indian Clerk still works as well as it does is testament to Leavitt’s ability to bring the milieu alive and to make us feel for his principal characters. Reading this story about a very lonely man (possibly two very lonely men, though Hardy's loneliness is more fully explored) and the stifling times he lived in, it’s possible to appreciate the sentiments behind Hardy’s famous remark that his association with Ramanujan was “the one romantic incident” in his life.
[A couple of extracts in this earlier post]