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Recent Reading: The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt - Mo's Journal
February 25th, 2008
10:02 am

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Recent Reading: The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt
I finished this book last week and meant to post about it, but have been stuck on what to say. In particular, I've been having trouble thinking of a way to talk about David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk that doesn't make it sound boring. It is truly the antithesis of boring - one of those books where I felt torn between reading quickly and at every spare moment so I could find out what happened next, and reading slowly and sparingly so I could make it last. Still, when people asked me "What's that book about that you can't put down?" and I said, "It's an historical novel about mathematicians in England before and during World War I" I could see eyes glazing over.

Okay, so it is an historical novel about mathematicians in England before and during World War I. Still, you don't need to be interested in mathematics or England or World War I to enjoy it, I don't think. It's a story about complex people with interesting relationships and has illuminating things to say about class and accomplishment and love, as well as about queer life at a certain time and place.

David Leavitt was the darling of the gay literati when his first collection of short stories, Family Dancing, and his first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, were released in the 1980s. He got into considerable trouble in the 1990s for writing an historical novel that was thinly veiled biography. His While England Sleeps was based on a memoir written by Stephen Spender about his love affair with a young man of considerably lower class than him. As novelists do, he fictionalized some of Spender's life. And - as queer novelists often do when dealing with queer subjects - he put in explicit sex scenes that were never in the original and that one might predict would upset the now completely heterosexual (just like Ted Haggard!) Stephen Spender. Spender was indeed not amused and sued the pants off of Leavitt, resulting in the latter moving to Florida, where pants are not often required. Okay, I made up the last part (just like Leavitt made up those sex scenes) but it is true that: Spender sued Leavitt, they settled for an undisclosed sum and the excision of the sex scenes and recall of copies with them in it, and Leavitt moved to Florida. You be the judge.

Anyway, the Spender episode may have scared Leavitt off of novels about living historical figures, but dead men bring no law suits. This new book is once again thinly veiled biography turned into a novel. The Indian Clerk tells the story of G.H. Hardy, noted English mathematician, member of the Apostles (the famously nearly-all-gay secret society at Cambridge's Trinity College) and discoverer of the mathematical genius Ramanujan, the Indian clerk of the title. Ramanujan was a completely self-taught man, whom many believe to have been the most original and greatest number theorist in centuries. He wrote to Hardy (among others - Hardy was the only one who recognized Ramanujan's potential and responded) and after some correspondence, Hardy arranged for him to come to Trinity to collaborate. They published seminal papers on number theory during the few years they worked together, covering the time of the Great War. Ramanujan became quite ill during that time and went home to India after the war, dying shortly thereafter. That is the bare bones of the story.

The bare bones don't do the novel justice at all. Leavitt's book is peopled with complex, intimately drawn characters who illuminate concepts of self and love and ambition and class and race through their interactions. Hardy had famously said that his association with Ramanujan was the "one romantic incident" in his life and Leavitt uses that as the jumping off point to explore what romance might have meant to this reserved man of regular habits, described by one of his other associates as a "non-practicing homosexual." With an expert handling of the difficult novelistic structure where point of view changes rapidly and without warning, Leavitt takes us both inside Hardy's head and heart and gives us the impression he makes on others: his fellow Apostles, including figures of great historical import like Bertrand Russell; his late lover, Russell Gaye, who committed suicide when Hardy left him and returns to him as a ghost from time to time; his main collaborator aside from Ramanujan, John Littlewood; women he was close to (or not), including his sister (whom he had accidentally maimed as a child, forever changing their relationship), Littlewood's mistress and a colleague's wife; and D. H. Lawrence, who mistakenly taking Hardy to be one of the few heterosexual Apostles confides in him his disgust of homosexuals (apparently an actual historical incident). The Hardy who emerges in the book is a fascinating portrayal of an emotionally stunted man who nonetheless touches all of the reader's emotions.

And what of Ramanujan himself? He is more object than subject. Hardy teaches him, collaborates with him, promotes him tirelessly in a number of academic societies, overcoming strong racist sentiments to get him accepted in positions and groups that had never previously allowed people of color in. He also tries to help with his medical care, looking for a true diagnosis and cure. Some particularly cringe-worthy scenes occur where the doctors consulted speak to Hardy about Ramanujan's case, with Ramanujan right there, as if he could not hear or understand what's being said. Another doctor takes Hardy aside to ask about how his bill will be paid and when Hardy assures him that Trinity College will pay all costs, he asks, "What is he?" Hardy replies, "The greatest mathematician of the past 100 years. Perhaps 500."

We see others' views of Ramanujan as well: the wife of a colleague of Hardy's falls in love with Ramanujan, other Indians at Trinity befriend him, his wife and mother back in India vie for his attention. But Ramanujan himself remains a bit of a cipher. We never get into his head in the way we do Hardy's and Hardy ultimately never understands the Indian Clerk whose cause he so assiduously champions. Ramanujan remains for the reader a symbol of the limits of human knowledge.

The best historical fiction (like the best science fiction) makes a different time and place come alive for the reader, enveloping him or her in a world both like and unlike our own. It gives us both the similarities and the differences in a seamless way, teaching us without letting us know we're being taught. I felt immersed in the world of GH Hardy reading this book. I was sorry to see the end of it.

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From:ringthebells
Date:February 25th, 2008 05:13 pm (UTC)
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A novel about Hardy and Ramanujan? I am so sold!
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From:mofic
Date:February 25th, 2008 05:31 pm (UTC)
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LOL! But you're an easy sell. There aren't a whole lot of literary-cum-mathematical types out there.
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From:hitchhiker
Date:February 26th, 2008 05:06 am (UTC)
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that was my first thought too :) speaking of which, i just picked up a copy of this; not read it yet but from the reviews it sounds worth recommending anyway.
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From:talktooloose
Date:February 25th, 2008 05:32 pm (UTC)
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"...you don't have to interested in mathematics or England or World War I..."

That's a broad list of disinterest. Who is this shallow person?

I'd like to read this book. Leavitt's literary voice always catches me unawares, although I haven't read anything he's written in almost 20 years.
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From:mofic
Date:February 26th, 2008 11:34 am (UTC)
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The friend who passed it on to me said to just pass it on to someone else. So if we see each other soon, I could give you my copy.
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From:libgirl
Date:February 26th, 2008 04:37 am (UTC)
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This is currently #4 on my list of books. I'll post about it when I finally get to it. ;) It sounds really interesting though, so I'm looking forward to it.

(sadly it may be a while before I get to it. I have something like 26 books checked out to read before it. I have a reading problem. )
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From:mofic
Date:February 26th, 2008 11:33 am (UTC)
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So what are the next few books?
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From:libgirl
Date:February 27th, 2008 02:54 am (UTC)
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Haha. I have a LIST in my DayTimer. Every time that someone recommends something or I see a review or mention of a book that looks interesting (or a list of LGBT YA books etc.) I add it to the list in the DayTimer. I used to just write them on scraps of paper and and then request them from my nearest library, but that isn't really an option anymore. I have somewhere near 30 books checked out between work and my local library.

I have put myself on strict rations. I can not read anything new until I finish the books currently checked out. The one exception is books for listening to in the car.

Right now I'm reading The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi (this was the fandom book club book for February), The Spellbook of Listen Taylor by Jaclyn Moriarty and The New Astrology by Suzanne White. I'm also about to start Blood Sucking Fiends by Christopher Moore.

I think once I finish the current car-book (in the next day or two), I'm going to do another book post. I don't necessarily think anyone else cares what I'm reading, and I know that some people won't find any redeeming value in some of my reading choices, but I like keeping track of what I'm reading and have read--and my reactions. :D
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From:mofic
Date:February 27th, 2008 11:19 am (UTC)
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I always enjoy reading about your reading :-).

What is a fandom book club? A physical book club or an online one? I have an online book club that I've been doing for about a year now. We take turns hosting. It's been great. I've read books I never would have read otherwise but really enjoyed. And gotten great discussion, insights, and virtual snacks :-).
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From:libgirl
Date:February 28th, 2008 02:39 am (UTC)
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It's online book club here on LJ the community is fandom_reads. There's more than one, but this is the one that I'm part of it. It just started, we're getting ready to read our second book. I really liked Persepolis--it's an interesting book that I'm not sure I would have seen otherwise.

That's one thing I like about the online book club. Because we're from all over the world, people are suggesting books that I might never have heard of otherwise ;).

I'm not sure if I'll read for March--I just have so much going on right now and so many other books I'm reading, but we'll see.

I enjoy reading about your reading as well :). I get so enriched by my flist--it's as though I have an international reading advisory right here at my fingertips. If I never read anything other than what you all suggested, I'd still be reading non-stop to keep up! :D
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From:tobias_cur
Date:February 26th, 2008 08:28 am (UTC)
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Thanks for the review. David is one of my favorite authors, The Indian Clerk just jumped up my shopping list.
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From:mofic
Date:February 26th, 2008 11:33 am (UTC)
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Did you read While England Sleeps? I was kind of more interested in the controversy than the book itself, but I'd like to read it, preferably one of the early copies with the excised sections intact.
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From:tobias_cur
Date:February 27th, 2008 06:16 am (UTC)
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Yup, yup, yup, I enjoyed While England Sleeps. I need to check and see what printing I have of the book to see if all the sections are present and accounted for. I enjoy his work mostly because the characters that are gay just happen to be gay. The story may cover the theme of orientation, but it's not the narrative drive of the story. In short, it's central to the story but not what the story is "about."

He's also got a couple collections of short fiction centered in Italy; really different stuff. I also recommend Lost Language of the Cranes and The Page Turner...ok and Martin Bowman...and Family Dancing is not bad either.
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From:mofic
Date:February 27th, 2008 11:21 am (UTC)
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I loved Lost Language of Cranes and Family Dancing. I had read a few of his later short stories but not enjoyed them so much. But I enjoyed this new one enough that I want to give him another look.
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From:soundingsea
Date:February 27th, 2008 02:59 am (UTC)
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Here via ringthebells. Ooh, I've asked for Alan Turing RPS in Yuletide before, and this sounds like, as she said when pointing your post out to me, the next best thing. I'm getting this book from the library. Thanks for the review!
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From:mofic
Date:February 27th, 2008 11:22 am (UTC)
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Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy the book!
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