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.