Welcome to The Indian Clerk week here at TEV, the first time we've devoted an entire week's worth of coverage to a single title. You can find the schedule of events here. First off, we begin with our overall impressions of this remarkable novel. We hope you'll join us all week long, especially on Wednesday when David Leavitt stops by to guest blog.
In January of 1913, a letter arrived at the Trinity College residence of the mathematician G.H. Hardy. The letter, at first blush, was like many that Hardy received from amateur mathematicians around the world, seeking guidance or claiming to have discovered some elusive proof. But on closer examination, the letter proved to be unlike any Hardy had ever received.
Its author was a mathematical autodidact, an Indian prodigy named Srinivasa Ramanujan, who had been working as a clerk in Madras, and who would turn out to be one of the great mathematical minds of the century. After some convincing, Ramanujan joined Hardy in England, a move that would ultimately prove to his detriment, and the men set to work on proving the Riemann Hypothesis, one of mathematics' great unsolved problems.
It is this unlikely friendship that forms the core of David Leavitt's dazzling new novel The Indian Clerk, an epic and elegant work which spans continents and decades, encompasses a World War, and boasts a cast of characters that includes Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Lytton Strachey.
As befits a novel of epic scope, Leavitt employs multiple points of view to exhilarating effect, ranging from third-person present to first-person past employed by Hardy as he reflects, during a 1936 lecture series, of the lecture he might have given, full of the things "He would have liked to say:"
So little seems certain anymore. Words that I wrote in the immediate aftermath of his death, when I read them today, strike me as rank with sentimentality. They emanate a desperation of a man trying to escape guilt and blame. I tried to make a virtue of his ignorance, to persuade myself and others that he profited from the years he spent in isolation, when in fact they were an insurmountable handicap.
And yet, though never stereotyped, Ramanujan remains an enigmatic presence throughout the novel, employed to various ends by those who seem to need him so desperately, while complementing a Hardy who is beautifully realized, a man struggling with his own disconnection and his obsessions, to the curiosity and sometimes outright dismay of those around him. A closeted homosexual, Hardy wrestles with the frustration and guilt his desires evoke, and above all, the guilt he feels over the suicide of his beloved Russell Kerr Gaye.
On one of those occasions, while we were drinking our coffee, he noticed the bust of Gaye. "Who is that man?" he asked. And I explained that he was a dear friend, possibly the best friend that I had ever had, and that he had died, at which Ramanujan looked soberly at his lap. He, too, he said, had had friends who had died. Fortunately he had the good graces not to ask how Gaye had died.
Leavitt inhabits this voice beautifully, utterly convincingly throughout and one of the great pleasures of The Indian Clerk are the pages and pages of this controlled, elegant yet conflicted voice. Here he is, in one of my favorite passages in the novel, on Riemann's "legendary housekeeper, who, upon learning of his death (if the story is to be believed), threw all of his papers – including a reputed proof of the hypothesis – into the fire."
I can't stop thinking about this woman. What I find most monstrous about her is her efficiency. It has a bloodthirsty edge. In my mind I try to place myself at the scene in Gottingen I try to explain to her, after the fact, the importance of the documents she has destroyed. In response, she simply gazes at me, as if I'm a perfectly benign idiot. Her belief in her rectitude is impregnable. This is the side of the German character that I preferred, before the war, not to contemplate, because I could not reconcile it with my dream image of the German university town down the cobbled streets of which Gauss and Hilbert strolled arm-in-arm, in defiance of fact, in defiance even of time. Ideas and ideals have a homey smell, rather like coffee. And yet in the background there always lurks this housekeeper with her ammonia an her matches.
In his 2005 biography of Alan Turing, The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer, Leavitt first displayed his skill at taking complex mathematical concepts and making them accessible to lay readers. Here he goes a step beyond, making them not merely accessible but integrating them into his novel so that they not only do not hinder the narrative, they resonate emotionally as well as intellectually. Readers of The Indian Clerk will learn a good deal about prime number theory but the book never feels like a math class and, in fact, the metaphor of the prime – a number divisible only by one and itself – is beautifully apt for this tale of these two isolated geniuses.
From the damp residences of Cambridge to the busy streets of London to the humid swelter of Madras, Leavitt has expertly weaved real events and real places with his formidable cast of real and imagined characters. His control of this dense, sprawling material is impressive – astonishing, at times – and yet despite its scope, Leavitt keeps us focused on his great themes of unknowability and identity. The Indian Clerk might be set in the past but it doesn't resemble most so-called "historical fiction." Rather, it's an ageless meditation on the quests for knowledge and for the self – and how frequently the two are intertwined – that is, finally, as timeless as the music of the primes.