The Indian Clerk

Just like his earlier novel While England Sleeps (1993), which is set against the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930’s, David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk takes actual people and makes them into characters in a narrative that blends history and fiction.

The author uses a set of twelve lectures delivered by G. H. Hardy at Harvard University in 1936 as a framing device for a series of flashbacks to the years just prior to and during World War I when the British academician cultivated the native genius of a now-legendary figure in the history of pure mathematics, Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Most readers may not immediately embrace the dramatic possibilities of mathematical discovery, and some reviewers have suggested that the pages that Leavitt devotes to such esoteric topics as number theory might well be skipped or skimmed. Nevertheless, the heart of this historical novel is not the often graceful evolution of a classic mathematical proof but the intriguing complexities of human relationships, particularly if those connections are recreated in a blend of fact and fancy, if the gaps in a person’s verifiable biography are filled in with details supplied by the writer’s imagination.

In this case, it is well documented that in January of 1913, Hardy received from an obscure office clerk in Madras, India, a letter claiming that he had discovered a possible solution to a long unsolved mathematical problem. Hardy’s decision to investigate the truth of the claims made by Ramanujan and his eventual decision to bring the Indian prodigy to England set into motion a chain of discoveries that altered the course of modern mathematics.

However, beyond the well-documented public achievements of the principal players in this odd partnership, there is plenty of room for conjecture regarding the private lives of these two fascinating historical figures. Interestingly enough, in this regard, Leavitt made the early decision to let Ramanujan remain a cipher or code that the other characters try to break. To Hardy, he is essentially a rationalist, a fellow resident of the world of mathematics “remote from religion, war, literature, sex, even philosophy.” To Alice Neville, he represents the lure of the glamorous unknown, an “atmosphere very different from that of her living room.” On one level, both Hardy and Neville become rivals for Ramanujan’s attention. Hardy begrudges the time that both men are not devoting to their work; Neville, on the other hand, accuses Hardy of using Ramanujan as a “mathematics machine,” ignoring his creature comforts.

Here the subject of sex looms large, and this is the one topic in which Leavitt, as a historical novelist, takes the most license. A series of lectures that Eric Neville delivers in India offers Hardy and his fellow researcher Jack Littlewood the opportunity to have someone of their acquaintance meet Ramanujan on his home turf and examine whether his epistolary claims have merit; because Alice accompanies her husband on this trip, her introduction to the exotic East, eventually embodied in the person of Ramanujan himself, becomes the occasion for a psychological and sexual awakening. Although her one and only attempt to seduce Ramanujan ends in embarrassment for them both, Alice Neville’s fixation on her heavy-lidded, black-haired guest offers Leavitt an opportunity to explore the behavioral restrictions imposed on women prior to the Great War and the enlarged range of possibilities that the decade of the twenties would make possible.

Far more significant than the occasional chapter devoted to narrative filtered through the consciousness of Alice Neville, however, is the main plot trajectory impelled by the reminiscences of Hardy, whose point of view offers the primary perspective, albeit third-person, in the novel. Although most of his biographers paint him as a closeted, presumably nonpracticing homosexual, Leavitt takes the imaginative leap of giving Hardy a sex life, partially in an effort to flesh out his relationship with...

(The entire section is 1655 words.)