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A Complex Equation


By Margaret Black

The Indian Clerk: A Novel

By David Leavitt

Bloomsbury, 485 pages, $24.95

David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk does far more than fictionalize the story of real-life Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan—poor, ill-educated, unconnected—who was brought to England in 1914 and who published, with the help of one of the country’s preeminent mathematicians, G. H. Hardy, extraordinary advances in number theory and mathematical analysis. The novel also provides a penetrating account of social class, of how Cambridge University operated at that time, of homosexuality in the intellectual classes, and of how the Great War profoundly changed life in England. Even more impressively, it maps great gulfs of cultural and emotional ignorance, all the while dramatizing the disasters such ignorance generates.

Leavitt opens the novel with a speech that Hardy gives at Harvard University in 1936. Despite his own achievements, Hardy “senses” that he’s really been invited to speak about Ramanujan, long since dead in India at age 33. “Ramanujan,” he says, “was my discovery. I did not invent him—like other great men, he invented himself—but I was the first really competent person who had the chance to see some of his work, and I can still remember with satisfaction that I could recognize at once what a treasure I had found.”

And, indeed, that is so. From India, Ramanujan has written desperately to a number of English mathematicians seeking help in getting his mathematical work published. Most have simply tossed out his work or sent him condescending little notes, but Hardy, a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, is instantly impressed by the pages of equations that Ramanujan has enclosed. Checking first with his principal collaborator, Littlewood, to see whether his judgments seem valid, Hardy becomes involved in what proves to be the complicated business of getting Ramanujan to England. Hardy doesn’t just want Ramanujan’s work published, he wants Ramanujan actually working with him because he finds Ramanujan’s work lacks precisely what he thinks most mathematical work in England lacks—rigorous proof.

However, Ramanujan, a devout Brahmin, apparently should not cross the ocean. Who can persuade him otherwise? And who will provide financial support? Unlike most of his colleagues at Cambridge, Hardy comes from a very modest background, so institutional support is essential. Ultimately, lesser Cambridge mathematician Eric Neville and his wife, Alice, are enlisted, as they are going to India anyway. The couple succeed in persuasion, the money problem is overcome, and Ramanujan arrives in England in January 1914.

By this point the novel has set up a number of polarities, most especially between the empathetic Alice, who develops a bond of feeling with the Indian and attempts (rather ludicrously) to meet his cultural needs, and Hardy, a largely non-practicing homosexual, who wants Ramanujan entirely to himself, mostly for his mind to be sure, but with a possessiveness that verges on the sexual. The fictional Hardy’s ignorance of the concerns of others and his lack of interest in their feelings are truly breathtaking. Inhabiting an emotional middle ground is the benignly good-natured Littlewood, a bachelor carrying on a long-term, long-distance affair with the wife of a London physician. Eventually Ramanujan finds Indian companionship (and perhaps more important, Indian food), but severe illness overtakes him, compounded by problems at home in India about which Hardy is magnificently unwitting or baffled.

When war breaks out in August 1914, the widespread pacifism among the academics becomes a cause for dismissal and imprisonment, the bloodthirsty trenches begin to produce the severely wounded, and these appear in makeshift hospitals on the lawns of Cambridge. Ramanujan’s horrific treatment at the hands of the medical establishment (and Hardy) parallels in miniature the hideously wounded soldiers nursed back to a semblance of health and returned to the trenches. Only the dead escape.

All the while, however, Ramanujan works and works, seeking not only to fulfill his own significant ambitions, but also to please and satisfy Hardy, to whom he is profoundly grateful. His mind is as extraordinary as Hardy has surmised, and their collaboration proves extremely productive.

Of all the fine qualities in this complex novel, one of the most salient is the author’s ability to convey in a meaningful fashion some aspects of Ramanujan’s work. While the book frightens a mathematical dunce like myself with occasional equations complex enough to satisfy mathematician readers, the author also explains some efforts, like those on an infinity of primes, in a fashion any reader can understand. The scene where Ramanujan is working out partition numbers with the lentils he’s about to cook gloriously combines explanation, humor, and a sense of how engrossed the man becomes with his material. Author Leavitt even has some humor on his subject: “But now Littlewood has shown that, though Riemann’s version may be more accurate for the first million primes, after that Gauss’s version is sometimes more accurate. But only sometimes. This discovery is of vast importance to about twenty people. Unfortunately, half of those people are in Germany.”

Because the author takes up such a rich variety of subjects, The Indian Clerk is a book best enjoyed in a leisurely reading. Most readers will find some parts more interesting than others, and some parts overly drawn out or tangential. And if some characters are not as convincing as others, even those stand in for something important about the world of that time. This is a happy addition to the genre of fictionalized biography.

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